But long before May, many agencies were scrambling to provide essential services to keep the jobless afloat, not the least of which are the public libraries, the role of which has been transforming in the last year as a provider and connection to vital information.
Larra Clark, project manager at the Chicago-based American Libraries Association’s Office for Research and Statistics, also has been eyeing the trends.
“One of the things that’s most emerging clearly in (the most current data on library technology) is that libraries are playing a critical role in supporting job seekers and workforce development,” Clark said.
Among the flurry of activities at this weekend’s National Association of Counties (NACo) conference in Reno, Clark is making an appearance in a workshop today to present her talk, “Working Smarter: Libraries Partner to Support Workforce Development.” Clark will give a talk about a study that documents the use of library technology, including the Internet and online databases, to provide help to patrons in need of work. The discussion will also touch on using public computers for tasks related to government services, such as filing taxes, and how to overcome the hindrances that many people face.
“For people who didn’t grow up with technology, particularly as it comes to building their resumes, managers – who have been laid off may have had a secretary or someone to help manage their work – are being forced to apply online and they’re needing to learn other skills even if they weren’t in those professions,” Clark said.
Clark helped to conduct a study that evaluated the availability of computers, the Internet and related services in U.S. public libraries and impact of library funding.
The ALA Office for Research and Statistics reports that nationally there are more than 16,600 libraries, which have reported an increase of visits totaling about 1.4 billion every year. More than two-thirds said they were the only provider of free public access and the Internet in their community. Patrons have used the branches’ public computers more than 357 million times every year in the past decade.
Eighty-eight percent of all libraries in the United States, the study reports, give users access to job databases and resources.
Recently, libraries have learned how to respond to that particular need, Clark said.
“The skills library staff have to have are becoming complicated,” she said. “They’re in teaching roles, they’re assisting in addition to putting books away. … It’s reached a tipping point when what we’ve seen with the recession is that the role of libraries and staff as assistants and teachers has grown by leaps and bounds.”
Locally, the Washoe County Library System has seen a similar trend, according to marketing coordinator Bonnie Saviers.
“We know just anecdotally that people are definitely coming in and using our library services to look for jobs and work on their resumes,” Saviers said.
The county’s main location for such activities has been its Community Resource Center (CRC) at the Sierra View branch in Reno’s Old Town Mall. The center was established in 2006 but in the past year alone Saviers said the staff have reported about 2,700 users who take advantage of its resources for job-seeking skills or other things, like improving their English-speaking skills or preparing for their GED. All this is done with the help of one full-time staff person and a couple of part-timers.
“I wouldn’t say we have formal training (for staff to help jobseekers) but our staff are pretty savvy to keep up with the current information,” Saviers said of the Washoe branches. “Other things are available to people for free. Our technology classes are completely full. … So much is online that if you don’t know how to use a computer to fill out a job application, you’re really at a disadvantage. The staff in general tries to help.”
The CRC long preceded a recent call from the Department of Labor Employment and Training Administration (ETA) to state and local workforce investment boards, state workforce agencies and other employment services to tap into the resources of public libraries and assist the unemployed. One result of the announcement was encouragement for these partnerships with “One-Stop Career Centers,” or access to job resources found within a public library, such as the CRC.
While the libraries are seeing an uptick in visits pertaining to workforce development, they’re also doing it on stretched budgets and fewer operating hours, a trend flying in the face of what library employees are hoping for to keep providing free access to information.
According to the ALA study, library hours in the United States collectively have declined by 14.5 percent; Nevada libraries have reduced their hours by 27 percent.
“ ‘Tragedy’ may be too strong of a word, but a real challenge libraries face is this inverse between the fact that most libraries report an increased demand for services while at the same time facing challenges for funding,” Clark said. “There’s no right or wrong way (of saving money), whether it’s cutting hours or closing a branch. … It’s a real challenge because the libraries have worked to be creative.”
Libraries also have pursued some of the federal stimulus funds to bring in new equipment to keep its technology up to date. Recently, Nevada libraries received $1.1 million from the Nevada One-Click Away project, which provides federal dollars for SmartBoards, laptops and audiovisual equipment. Clark said 15 of Nevada’s 17 counties received a portion of this money. She added that with the new technology, there will still be a need for an appropriate amount of staff to keep the libraries running as demand for learning how to use that technology grows.
“One fallacy we have heard is this idea that if you provide the technology, there will be less of a need for libraries,” Clark said. “We’ve seen a reversal. People are just getting started or maybe need a more savvy background. They’re learning additional skills and making career changes.”
Clark said the need for libraries will still remain in the future as investment into the technology that helps the jobless grows.
“Libraries are playing a larger role in job seeking and government needs,” she said. “We’re going to continue to see investment and engagement in technology at all levels and I don’t think the book is going anywhere soon. Library circulation has continued to increase over the last decade. The numbers of computers and computer users have increased. … There are lots of reasons to be optimistic about libraries.”