I appreciate the attention to Hennepin County Library’s efforts to engage our community in “Warning lights for libraries: New buildings delight, but core mission shows signs of decline:” (Jan. 15). However, I feel compelled to point out that this sensational headline represents a misunderstanding of libraries’ roles in the 21st century.
The article juxtaposes innovative features of the new Brooklyn Park Library with statistics that show library visits and loans have dropped slightly in recent years across Minnesota. However, Minnesota’s 10-year trend line is positive, and the numbers reflect the increasing popularity of online resources.
The article also fails to provide important context on Hennepin County’s performance in Library Journal’s “Star Rankings.” Because the rankings rely on limited statistics, their authors explicitly state that they do not measure “the quality, excellence, effectiveness, value, or appropriateness of library services.”
Nationally, only 3 percent of libraries qualified for one star or more, and only three of Minnesota’s 141 public libraries qualified for a star. Our “core mission” is not to achieve national rankings, but to nourish minds, transform lives and build community together. Sometimes that means evolving to meet changing patron needs.
While many still think of libraries as warehouses for books, it is more accurate to understand 21st century libraries as, in the words of author Neil Gaiman, “places that people go to for information.”
This means continuously adding to our collection of 5 million physical items in 40 languages, but also offering up-to-date digital access to content in fast-moving fields like medicine and law. It means tailoring programs to specific communities — from literacy training for parents of preschoolers, to building pop-up libraries in underserved neighborhoods, to helping inmates record themselves reading to their children.
We are proud of the kudos that the new Brooklyn Park Library has received, and we are more proud of what is happening inside the building:
• A Homework Help after-school tutoring program that connects 300 adult volunteers with more than 1,400 children and teens.
• A Tech Center that features a full-service recording studio with green screen and 18 workstations loaded with high-end creative software like ProTools and Adobe.
I agree with the article that Hennepin County Library remains one of the most admired systems in the country. Some 840,000 people checked out more than 16 million items last year.
In Brooklyn Park, “core services” have experienced tremendous growth since the new building opened in June. Monthly circulation increased by more than 40 percent from the previous year, and requests for library cards doubled.
If anything, the evidence suggests that adding a little well-deserved “glitz” to our libraries may not be the problem behind declining attendance. It may be the solution.
Kristi Pearson is executive director, Friends of the Hennepin County Library.