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AE 8: Public Services

Public services are those activities undertaken by the library which benefit the library user directly. These services often involve interaction between library users and library staff.

This Administrative Essential covers:

  • Library service philosophy
  • Library service to children
  • Library service to young adults
  • Library service to adults
  • Library service to people with special needs
  • Reference and information services
  • Public access computers
  • Measuring library service
  • Sources of additional information
  • Library service philosophy

The public library which you direct is a public service organization. It is supported by public tax dollars because it provides a benefit to the public. You need to be ever mindful of this fact. Library services should be designed to meet the needs of the public and to be as convenient and as easy to use as possible. A retail model in which the library user is viewed as a customer is a good one. You want to satisfy the needs of the customers of the library as fully as possible. Although the customer is not always right, the library's customers should always be treated with courtesy and understanding. The library staff should always be friendly and helpful in serving the public.

The public library serves the entire community not just those who are current users of the library. You need to develop strategies for making non-library users into library users. Sometimes this involves extending the services of the library beyond the walls of the library building. It also involves the marketing of the library's services (See AE 18: Library Advocacy, Public Relations and Marketing).

Since no library can do everything, it is important that you and the library board establish service priorities for the library. This is especially the case in smaller public libraries. For instance, many smaller libraries try to emphasize their role as a popular materials center.

In directing and providing services to the public you need to take into account that the library serves all age groups. Services are provided to people throughout their lives, from birth to death. This presents a significant challenge to you and the staff of your library. How you respond to this challenge depends largely on the size of the library's staff and collection.

Library service to children

Services to children constitutes a substantial part of the services of every public library but especially the services of small and medium sized public libraries. Depending on the size of your library, you may or may not take an active role in providing library service to children and young adults. Often, another staff member will have a primary responsibility for library service to this age group. Although you may not be the primary provider of service to children, as director you should demonstrate leadership in this vital area by providing encouragement and by seeing that adequate facilities and resources are made available to those who do.

Within this age group there is a significant developmental span of which you and the library staff must be aware. Collections and programming need to be appropriate to the child's developmental stage. More and more public libraries are developing services for children in the birth-to-five age group and to the parents and caregivers of these children.

Programming is an essential part of library service to children and you need to plan for this. These programs range from "lap sits" and "toddler time" to pre-school story times and regular story hours. If you are someone on your staff is not able to present children's programs, you may be able to recruit volunteers from the community to assist with programs.

Use of the public library by children is especially high in the summer when school is out. Your library will almost certainly participate in the DLT sponsored statewide summer library program or a system sponsored program to promote reading and library use in the summer. DLT and your system will assist you planning for this important activity.

Library service to young adults

Large public libraries are most likely to have a special service program for young people in their teens. However, even if your library is small it should develop at least some services to respond to the needs of this age group. A designated collection of materials selected to appeal to this age group would be a good start. A library program or programs designed to appeal to young adults is another way of serving this group. How about establishing a young adult advisory group to help plan some activities or provide advice on library services.

A primary reason for many young adults using the library is to gather information for school assignments. You should work to make this a positive experience for young adults. Work with teachers and school librarians to ensure that students don't have false expectations of what kinds of resources are available in your library.

Many schools now have student community service programs. Identify library projects that students could assist with.

Library service to adults

You should know that adults constitute the library users group with the greatest age span and that their library service needs will vary greatly. A significant number of adults who come into the library are there to find a good book or audio-visual item for themselves or someone in their family. You can facilitate their search by effective arrangements and displays of your adult collections of materials and by providing staff assistance.

If you are not already aware, you will soon be aware that many adults come to the library to make use of its resources "in house". They may come for the purpose of reading current magazines and newspapers which can't be checked out or they may just come for a quiet place to study. Others are there to find information on a particular topic (see "Reference and information services" below).

Library service to people with special needs

There are people in your community who may be reluctant to use the library or who may have difficulty using the library. These people fall into all age groups and have a variety of special needs. Their special need may relate to poverty, level of literacy, aging, mental illness, mobility, a speech or hearing disability, a cognitive disability, or a vision disability. There is a growing population in Wisconsin with limited or even no English speaking ability. You need to be able to respond to the needs of these individuals for information and library services.

DLT has identified six general strategies which you can use to overcome the barriers to use by adults with special needs. Similar strategies can be used to overcome barriers to use by children and young adults.

  1. Include adults with special needs and their families and advocates in planning, implementing, and evaluating public library services.
  2. Welcome adults with special needs and their families and advocates to the public library in a responsive, sensitive, and appropriate manner.
  3. Offer a diverse range of resources, services, and programs that are relevant to the lives of adults with special needs and their families and advocates.
  4. Collaborate with community agencies to provide the best possible services to adults with special needs and their families and advocates.
  5. Ensure that public library collections, services, and buildings are fully accessible and inviting to adults with special needs and their families and advocates.
  6. Market public library services, collections, and programs to adults with special needs, their families and advocates, and the community.

Reference and information services

One of the primary functions of a public library is to help library users obtain the information they are seeking to satisfy a personal need. That need may relate to a school assignment, a business or professional problem, a hobby, or just curiosity about a particular topic. Although the library user may be able to satisfy their information need on their own by consulting the library's resources, often they will need additional assistance from the library's staff. Sometimes the library user's information need is simple, but it may be more complex. Your training and the training of your staff will determine how successfully the complex information needs of library users are satisfied. Therefore, it is imperative that you and your staff take advantage of continuing education opportunities that will improve your skills in this area.

Even if your library has a limited onsite collection of reference materials, you will have access to enormous reference and information resources through the Internet. These resources include the DLT BadgerLink online databases of thousands of magazines and newspapers.

Every Wisconsin public library participates in a public library system that contracts with a resource library for reference assistance. If you or the library's staff are unable to successfully satisfy a library user's information need, you can seek assistance from the system resource library yourself or you can direct the library user to the resource library for assistance. The state's public library system resource libraries are in turn backed up by the DLT Reference and Loan Library.

Public access computers

Your library will most likely have a number computer work stations for use by the public. These work stations can be used to gain access to the library's online catalog, to access online digital databases, and to gain access to the Internet. The public demand for access to these workstations for the purpose of accessing the Internet is usually very high. You will need to ensure that library policies are in place to ensure the best use of these workstations by the public. In particular your library needs to have an acceptable use policy which outlines the parameters for accessing the Internet using library computers. One significant issue which your library board will need to resolve is whether computers in the library will be filtered or not (see AE 25 Freedom of Expression and Privacy Policies). Because of the demand for Internet access, you may need to establish procedures for scheduling use of computer workstations.

Measuring library service

It is important to measure and evaluate the services of your library. Information gained from measuring library services can be used to help you plan for and deliver better library services. This information can also be useful to you in justifying additional funding support for the library.

Every public library in Wisconsin is required to submit an annual report of its activities to DLT . In order to complete this report you will need to collect statistics on the services which your library provides to the public. This information is then submitted to DLT over the Internet. DLT and your public library system staff will provide substantial assistance to you in collecting library statistics and in completing the library's annual report. After your library's annual report is submitted to DLT , the information in it is tabulated with the information from other libraries in Wisconsin and the nation. The results can be used by you to compare your library with other libraries of similar size. DLT also uses this data as a starting point in the development of standards for public libraries.

Sources of additional information

Wisconsin Public Library Standards, Fifth Edition, 2010, DLT.

AE 9: Accessibility (

The DLT Summer Library Program,

DLT publication: Adults With Special Needs: A Resource and Planning Guide for Wisconsin's Public Libraries (

DLT publication: Public Library Services for Youth with Special Needs: A Plan for Wisconsin ( )

DLT Web page for public library statistics:

Your library system staff:

Division for Libraries and Technology staff

Administrative Essential: A Handbook for Wisconsin Public Library Directors was prepared by the Division for Libraries and Technology. © Copyright 2008 Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. Duplication and distribution for not-for-profit purposes permitted with this copyright notice.