are public libraries still essential?

Is Your Library Essential Enough?

By Brian Risse

This article, “Being Essential Is Not Enough,” is a compelling commentary on the environment in which today’s libraries must function. Though written from an Academic Library perspective, when you read it with public libraries in mind, it still rings 100% true. And as the author, Rick Anderson states, “it’s a hard truth.”

Replace the word “academic” with “public.”

Swap out “campus/university” for “community.”

Substitute “student” for the all-encompassing word “patron.”

The challenges are the same. Some of the more impactful statements don’t even require translation at all. Try this one:

What will determine our future is not whether we and our services are essential in fact, but whether we are seen by our stakeholders as more essential than the other essential programs and projects that are competing for the same resources.

Maybe it’s because I read this article on the same day as the USA Today piece “Libraries’ choice: Change or fade into oblivion” but to me, this commentary is more evidence that the problem isn’t really that libraries aren’t relevant—or essential. Many libraries ARE innovating and bringing new and engaging services and programs to their communities.

Where most libraries struggle, according to this and countless other articles, is around being essential in a way that is “explicitly, visibly, and effectively” clear to their stakeholders.

So, what are libraries doing about it? There are some standouts, sure. Valerie Gross of Howard County Public Library, for example, really gets the impact of using strategic vocabulary to tell a more compelling value story—the transformation of how she presented her library’s budget was powerful, and in a climate where her competing essential services were being cut, she secured flat funding.

And while there isn’t likely a silver bullet solution any particular partner or library vendor can provide, recent programs and products from Gale, like Gale Courses, Career Online High School, and Analytics On Demand, were developed in consultation with our public library partners specifically to help drive greater user outcomes, increase community engagement, and enable you to more effectively measure and communicate your impact—your essentialness.

Our research shows that Gale is the brand public libraries most associate with advocacy and support for libraries—we pride ourselves on this fact.  We are invested in creating meaningful outcomes for libraries and their users because we believe libraries are critically important to the communities they serve. We can’t succeed if you don’t. We aren’t essential if you’re not.

So, how can we help?


brisse-thumbAbout the Author

Brian Risse is the Vice President of Public Library Sales. Brian has been with Gale for 15 years and believes the opportunity for Public Libraries to have a positive impact has never been greater than it is today.



3 thoughts on “Is Your Library Essential Enough?

  1. Thanks for the shout-out, Brian, and these are great comments. I would argue that in some ways, this challenge is even greater for public libraries because the services with which they’re competing for budget allocations very often have the same kinds of halos around them as libraries do (and with good reason): public parks, after-school programs, homeless shelters, etc. All of these services are, like libraries, arguably essential. But you can’t spend the same dollar on all of them.

    • You’re spot on Rick. Public Libraries must not only prove that the services they provide are essential, but also that these services are differentiated from and more valuable than services provided not only by agencies with, as you mention, allocated budgets, but also all of the services with which they compete in the private sector. Good Enough is not Good Enough

  2. Brian, your view of public libraries is spot on. Rapidly, libraries have ceased being the repository of curated content. Now they are the hub where numerous essential things come together. Maintaining their “essentialness” requires innovation. It requires community engagement; it requires breaking new ground.

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