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Is this the golden age of public libraries?

More than ever, public libraries are becoming a vital hub of civic engagement

by Robin Heffler
Ken Brecher
Photo: Ken Brecher, president of the Library Foundation of Los Angeles, with Judy Belk, senior vice president of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors (USC Photo/Steve Cohn)

While many are quick to point to technology and a shifting digital age as the end of books and libraries, more than ever, public libraries are becoming a vital hub of civic engagement for communities as societies grapple with a number of social challenges and public policy solutions.

That was the essence of remarks by Ken Brecher, president of the Library Foundation of Los Angeles, during a convening of USC’s Center on Philanthropy and Public Policy’s “Conversations on Philanthropy” series at the California Club.

In welcoming a group of more than 40 individual philanthropists, foundation executives and trustees, and corporate philanthropists to the gathering, James Ferris, director of the center, noted that “philanthropy has been crucial to developing America’s public libraries,” referencing the contributions of Andrew Carnegie and Bill Gates. Ferris introduced Brecher, one of the center’s board members, and Judy Belk, senior vice president of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, who moderated the event.

The conversation ranged from the evolution of the public library and the role private philanthropy has had, to the effect of technology on libraries. Brecher emphasized that technology has ushered in a “golden age” for libraries.

“Everybody is reading,” he said. “They’re reading on their phones. They’re reading on their computers. They’re using the library as a place to access information that [otherwise] you might not be able to afford or know about.”

With Library Foundation support, Brecher said, the public library uses technology to provide free, online tutoring for all students with library cards as well as after-school student zones in library branches.

When asked why and how public libraries can function as critical agents of social change in the 21st century, Brecher pointed to the fact that, with support from the Library Foundation, visitors to the Los Angeles Public Library can acquire information, receive guidance from a trained branch staff member and successfully apply for citizenship and health insurance through the federal Affordable Care Act.

Belk asked Brecher to address the different responsibilities of government and the private sector in funding libraries. Brecher pointed to public monies, including those provided by the passage of Measure L in 2012, that “turn on the lights, pay the librarians’ salaries and help with the purchase of books,” adding, however, that a program such as “running one of the largest adult literacy programs in Los Angeles within the public libraries is all paid for by private philanthropy.”

He also emphasized the importance of partnerships, pointing to a promising partnership that the Library Foundation has undertaken, giving small amounts of money for the development of “innovation teams” that provide on-site training to new library-school graduates.

“We need to give [the graduates] fellowships to work in a public library system and be paid by private philanthropy,” he said, “but [also] be matched up with a mid-career librarian who may not have all the technology skills they have, but really knows how to serve the public.”

Speaking directly to the philanthropists in the room about the importance of helping libraries to serve their new, expanded purposes, Brecher said, “This is our moment; if we don’t do it, who’s going to do it?”

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