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But Who Isn’t Being Infotained?

One of the odder events of the past week is probably Safe Library Guy praising the acting director of the ALA-OIF. I’m not sure what this means for her future at the OIF, but Chicago could probably get a week’s worth of electricity if it could harness the wind power generated from Judith Krug spinning in her grave.

The fun library news of the week has got to be coming out of Florida (via LIS News). A county commissioner named Carlson down there in Dixie thinks libraries should be used for research rather than entertainment. He’s fighting a losing battle, though he actually has some good points to make. If library budgets are tight, and I’m assuming this one is, does it really make sense to purchase multiple copies of best-selling novels? For every extra copy of the latest bestseller purchased, that’s some other item not purchased. It’s one thing for the library to turn into an infotainment center; it’s quite another for the library to cater to the lowest common denominator and operate on the assumption that unless everybody wants it, nobody gets it.

The commissioner, for example, thinks that the library shouldn’t buy fifteen copies of the latest JohnGrisham. Fortunately for him, according the library director, only "seven are usually purchased." That’s really not much of a defense, though. Purchasing only seven copies? Why bother to respond in that way at all? Though it corrects a factual error in a rhetorical flourish, it merely confirms that the library spends money on extra copies of trashy books, most of which will sit unused on the shelves after the first year, only to be discarded after a few years of idleness. Public libraries have literally bought into the culture of planned obsolescence with a vengeance. The commissioner could point out this fact without ever addressing the question of whether computer users at the library should be allowed onFacebook.

Or consider this opposition: "Commissioner Guy Maxcy also served as the liaison to the library board, and made no bones about his opposition to Carlson’s philosophy. ‘I believe he means he would like to take the library back into the 1950s and 1960s, probably the 1950s,’Maxcy said. ‘Libraries have come 360 since then.’" My goodness, that’s one inarticulate politician. I’m not sure why, but the "probably the 1950s" tacked on to the end of the first sentence cracked me up, as if Maxcy was carefully considering the decades in his mind, and decided that yes, the 1950s were really the exact decade Carlson wanted the library to return to. Added to that verbal stumbling, the second sentence was merely icing, though the mental confusion that negates the point of the first sentence is amusing. The newswriter couldn’t help but poke fun at Maxcy with the very next sentence: "Carlson’s ideas are 180 degrees opposite from Maxcy’s."

(Though I’m no expert on the history of public libraries, I don’t think the 1950s would be the right decade anyway. The 1920s might be more appropriate, and we certainly don’t want to return to that decade. Bathtub gin in my martini would be unspeakably awful.)

The public is getting involved in the debate, though as with everything democratic the results are confused. We’re told that "after a question was posed in the newspaper about how taxpayers want their library dollars spent, library staffers copied and handed out the e-mail address and phone number, and more than two dozen calls and e-mails were received on Thursday and Friday. One agreed with Carlson, 28 were against." Let’s see, library staffers hand out the contact information to people who happen to be using the library that day. Not exactly a representative sampling, now is it.

The comments are mostly anti-Carlson, though they vary in coherence. One of my favorites is this one: "Let’s see…how many years has Mr Carlson gone to college to study library science? Mary Myers, the director of our libraries, has been to college for years to find out how to run a library and how to select library materials." This comment is obviously not meant for librarians, since we all know how ridiculous it is. Nobody goes to college for years to find out how to run a library or select library materials. This isn’t to say that the director is wrong or incompetent or anything – I don’t know anything about her – but that she has an MLS (presumably) is not much of a decisive factor in this battle. I’d be willing to bet that even Ms. Myers would admit that compared to her years of experience as an actual librarian, her library science degree means little for her ability to run a library.

Carlson claims only to want to spend the budget dollars wisely. For example, he claims that "more of the budget should be used for ‘the latest and greatest solar energy research books for the kids,’" prompting one reader to comment, "Does he also not realize that research can often times involve FICTION books? It’s not all about non-fiction in our learning process." It’s a disingenuous comment, though, because for research purposes multiple copies of bestselling novels aren’t needed.

It could be that Carlson is a nut, and it’s all happening in Florida, so who really cares anyway. But if libraries have tight budgets that are getting tighter, does it make any kind of financial sense to purchase multiple copies of anything? Did it ever make sense if the library is to serve as much of the public as possible? Those are questions we get out of this debate.

Libraries all over the country are hurting, budgets are being slashed, branches are closing. The best defense of the public library is that it’s a public good, that it serves the needs of the public in a way they can’t be served by private enterprise, that it does something to improve the lives of everyone in the community whether they use the library or not. Have libraries really been spending their money wisely for decades by buying multiple copies of the latest bestselling crap? What books or CDs or videos might have been purchased that might have benefited other members of the community? What constituency wasn’t being served by making sure everyone in the city could read The Da Vinci Code at the same time? Even if we consider the library an infotainment center, how many people aren’t being infotained because the library has spent its money this way?

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Comments

  1. Mr. Kat says:

    Who cares about the children – but you cut our filthy trashy romance fiction novel budget, and interrupt our reading circles that operate on the back of your library, and we’ll be in your library with pitchforks and torches to tar, feather, hang, draw and quarter the idiot who passed the budget resolution!

    Le sigh…mi Ahmayrrreeka…

  2. JC says:

    I was struck by your reference to “The Da Vinci Code” in the last paragraph because several months after that book came out, I decided to see what the hype was about. My public library catalog showed 20 (!!) copies of the book, all of which were either checked out or missing. Where are those copies today? Well the ones that weren’t stolen are for sale in the library’s “book cellar” store … along with the 5 copies of the “Celestine Prophecy”. Huh, guess that proves your point!

  3. me says:

    I think it’s nice to provide more popular materials when the economy is bad because people have less $ to spend on entertainment. That’s one reason why circulation is way up in our system. Also, it is really snobby to call a popular novel “trashy” as if reading for ENTertainment is somehow a dirty, low-class hobby. Usually I agree with you AL, but you are not currently in the trenches at a public library, are you?

  4. Matt says:

    I love it when academic librarians weigh in on public library issues. Stick to what you know, which obviously isn’t public libraries. Grisham may not be high art, but trashy? Please. (And he was great on CSI. Oh wait, maybe that was Grissolm.)

  5. NotMarianTheLibrarian says:

    When I was a wee public librarian I was dismayed at the amount of money spent on multiple copies of Fern Michaels, Danielle Steele, etc. The $$$ expended on these books that sat on the shelf unused a year later irked me. Lots of very good books that would have created a well-rounded collection went unbought because it was so “necessary” to buy multiple copies of not-so-great “literature.” Let their names be placed on a waiting list! (BTW – those “necessary purchases” are fetching $.50 in the Friends’ bookstore. When they sell.)

  6. Richard says:

    I know at least one library that was renting multiple copies of some best-sellers, which was cheaper than buying them, and then returning the books after the mad rush for the titles subsided.

  7. AlwaysWanted2B says:

    I am not a public librarian, but I do use them regularly for my personal reading. I do not understand the complaint about the old books being sold or not being used a few years after they are purchased. If one looks at the cost per use, my guess is it will be quite low, e.g. if 30 people read a hard back that cost $29.95, then the cost per use is right about $1 per person, not including the libraries acquisition and processing costs. But still that is a bargain ad an excellent service to their users. Hmm! Maybe we should give our users what they want instead of what we think is best for them. Imagine if clothing stores and restaurants did that. Shock of shocks they might actually be successful. Academic libraries spend vast sums of moneys purchasing books to meet the just in case model and many of those titles are never used. I think the public libraries get this one right. Circulation is going up in most public libraries. The citizens have voted.

  8. Post Postmodern Librarian says:

    Yes Richard I was going to mention the renting programing but who knows if all libraries have access to it. I want my trashy novels in a public library the question is do you need 10 or of them? Thats a lot of money that can go in to your out of date non fiction collection or to get other trashy novels for that matter.

  9. Mr. Kat says:

    No how about if libraries did buy those ten copies, but instead of putting ten on the shelf, three are put up in the section called “hot releases,” a section with really short checkout times of three, five or seven days with no renewals if there are reservations on the piece. The library could then put the other seven in the library book store at retail value.

    This way, there are a couple books circulating, but those people who really have to have it and can’t wait can simple go Buy the book from the library instead.

    Maybe this way the library would actually have a budget for more serious materials that are of quality substance. Before you say those large colelctions at the universtiy are useless because they don’t serve the immediate needs of all users right now, take into consideration that those collections are serving the needs of people AS THEY COME! The library doesn’t know when people will need books on that subject, but by having them, they can serve those needs.

    Be careful what you call “out of date” nonfiction. There are a number of nonfiction books written and published spanning the last century that contian informaiton not found anywhere else. These individual pieces also have quite a high collector value nowadays; there aren’t any substitutes for these pieces!

  10. Matt says:

    Alwayswanted2b: You are right on the money.

    Mr. Kat: You are ridiculous.

    Marian: you made the right choice to move into the fantasy world of Academia.

  11. Matt says:

    Mr Kat: I mean you are ridiculous in your public library book buying ideas. You are correct about Universities which are a completely different kind of animal.

  12. Dan Kleinman of SafeLibraries.org says:

    I highly recommend the Annoyed Librarian.[FN 1] Thank you, AL! I do say good things about the ALA when it is deserved.[FN 2]

    FN 1. safelibraries.blogspot.com/search/label/AnnoyedLibrarian

    FN 2. safelibraries.blogspot.com/search/label/AlaActsAdmirably

  13. Techserving You says:

    Many vendors offer ‘lease plans’ for public libraries. (Well, public libraries are the more common users of such plans.) They can ‘rent’ multiple copies of popular new books in order to meet the initial demand, and then return them when the demand is diminished.

  14. Mr. Kat says:

    What’s so ridiculous about applying Supply and Demand Economics to a Public library? I’d bet a partnership between public libraries and the likes of Barnes and Noble or especially Bookmans would be a win win situation – although bookmans seems to do well because you have to buy the book when you leave!

    Otherwise, I stand by what I say on vintage Nonfiction reading material. If it hadn’t been for the wise colleciton development practices implemented long ago, collecting books on a couple subjects I find deeply fascinating, it would cost my roughly $2500 to get those same 50 books my library has today. I did the cost analysis as part of a project in Library School. This is what I the public expect of my libraries – they hold books for when I need them, regardless of whether that piece is convienent to the rest of the community or not! The day I start having to use the Local bookstores becasuse some idiot decided that collection was no longer valuable to the community, is the day I become a book hoarder on my subject and vote against every bond issue brought up by the library system!

  15. Picard says:

    There’s a big difference between 7 copies and 15 copies. I think the director is trying to do a reasonable d job of balancing both the high demand patrons and the desire for the broad collection. Of course just how big is this library and how many folks does it serve. Buying one copy of a title that has 100 holds on it is absurd and will get complaints about what a poor library this is. Buying 15 or 20 copies on an anticipated 100 hold item makes sense

  16. dshpd says:

    Many public libraries are run by boards of “book lovers” (the kind of people who have to leave their mark in a book to know they have read that wonderfully written best seller) who only understand buying Danielle Steele, John Grisham, Stephen King, etc and will fire any director who dares buy subversive and communist junk.

    Stick to academia annoyances AL. At least you might have a shot at knowing about that at which you rant.

  17. Matt says:

    Mr. Kat, are you saying that your public library holds on to old nonfiction books just in case you, personally, might need them someday? Preposterous! You should hoard your own junk.

  18. Jean-Baptiste Grenouille says:

    Honestly, the fact that you are even arguing about this show how few of you understand collection development. The AL states “Public libraries have literally bought into the culture of planned obsolescence with a vengeance.” What would happen if we don’t buy the books people actually are interested in reading? Furthermore, the “trash” which you are so enthusiastically demeaning is a matter of point of view… one which obviously the editors of the NYT best seller’s list doesn’t share.

    The question is not why are we spending so much money on infotainment. It is: what do we desire to do with our library? Promote literacy? I don’t remember the last time a colleague even suggested that. So you have your displays and your programs and your book clubs; but if you don’t have a reason for these people to visit the library in the first place, then you might as well give up.

    I know it shocks some of you to know this, but last I checked our entire culture is awash with “infotainment”. What do you think this blog is? Academic literature? The fact that libraries are using it to further their goals is shrewd business. You people sound worse than those indie kids “sellout! sellout! sellout!” I’m sure this offends some of you, but guy that I just helped out in applying for a job seemed quite happy that the service existed in a library that justifies it’s existence by pandering to the lowest common denominator.

  19. Matt says:

    Jean-Baptiste, Amen. I was thinking the same thing about this blog. Lip service to literary snobbery while writing a low-brow blog.

  20. I am No. 6 says:

    What is the mission of the public library? Discuss.

  21. Brent says:

    To be fair, books from Stephen King were fun to read as a kid. It promotes literacy. But 20 copies of a book is ridiculous. First come, first serve. Read something else, like something a 1 or 100 years old. It’s OK to say no to the public.

  22. JK says:

    Hmmmm…let’s see…what is the bigger waste of taxpayer dollars? Buying 15 copies of a bestseller that will circulate at least 35 times per copy and then sit on the shelf after a year or two…or buying 1 copy each of hundreds or thousands of titles that will NEVER circulate because the community is not interested?

  23. I Like Books says:

    I had something to look up in reference, unsatisfied as I was with the online sources, so I went to my local library where I knew it was, and one of the reference shelves was missing! They weeded my reference, along with others, to make room for a new DVD rack. Now, it’s not that I’m opposed to getting the latest releases at the library, but none of the video rental stores in the area had the reference books that I was trying to find.

    In developing the collection for a public library, you need BOTH entertainment and research. There has to be a balance between them. But my personal bias is to balance it towards the stuff that you can’t find in ten stores within a five block radius and rent for $3.

    But 15 copies of a Grisham novel might or might not be excessive. If there were ten branches in the system, and 15 books between them, that would be pretty meager.

  24. Ami Segna Jones says:

    How often does the Grisham novel go out? And how often does the book on solar energy for children go out? I can’t tell you how many ecology books our last director insisted we buy, and which are still collecting dust.

    Of course, libraries need to have an equal balance of what is popular, and what is needed for research – but isn’t that a very large part of our job, to know our patronage and make those painstaking decisions to achieve the right balance? Who would possibly know what that balance is better than we would? Does this commissioner walk into the local hospital and tell them how much of what supplies they should keep on hand?

  25. Mr. Kat says:

    RIGHT ON BRENT!!!! That seems to be what the school librarian told me in Elementary school – if the book I want is already checked out, Find ANOTHER bok – because that is the whole reason WHY libraries keep all those other old unknown musty books!!

    I ask you this: which is better for a library to provide, 15 copies of a book the public can at will read in their local Barnes & Noble, or 15 unique hard-to-get titles that extend the collection to 15 different individuals not previously served by the “General Average Person” Public Library??

    Yes, you heard me! Barnes&Noble even provide cushy chairs and a lounge area to sit back and read Their books!!

    Pandering to the lowest common denominator will only turn you into the greatest common factor, and one you’re the greatest common factor, you become part of the REDUCED BUDGET FRACTION!

    The general role of the public library is not to teach people how to read – that is the role of the schools. The job of the library is to provide individuals like me and you with those rare pieces we can’t individaully afford as a whole set on our own, but collectively we can share enjoy a fuller set by sharing it through the Public Library.

    I fail to see what greater value public libraries instill in their communities by buying enmasse those pieces that become worthless trash within years of printing.

    If you can’t wait in line for the library copy, GO Buy It yourself!!!

  26. Dr Feelgood says:

    It is okay to say no to the public, but saying no 50 times to 50 different persons that want the latest Dan Brown travesty isn’t going to win you as a library director any points with your ACM (assistant city manager). Pick and choose your battles. The ALA isn’t going to come out and help you.

    That said the AL is on to something in her own sultry way. Theres a library in our area that has spent the last year giving away their reference collection online. Listservs advertising Scribners Dictionary of the Middle Ages, Gale sets etc. This library serves about 150,000 – 200,000 persons. It’s annual budget is slightly below average for the area, but not awful, the circ figures are a little, average turnover is probably 2. What are they going to replacd the DMA with? 50 books on two shelves that check out twice each? 100 checkouts a year? Please. It’s moronic. Keep more of the dang reference collection

  27. dork says:

    I think one of the many *ahem* noble purposes of libraries is to promote literacy. Unfortunately, the main role of schools is to get kids to score high on standarized tests so that the money can roll in!

  28. Matt says:

    I Like Books, did the librarian tell you they weeded the books to make way for more DVDs or did you jump to that conclusion?

  29. Matt says:

    Many, many people cannot easily go to B&N and buy a book. Me, for one. I could never afford the books I read. Plus, we have 2 small bookstores with no comfy chairs. The nearest B&N or Borders is 2 hours away.

  30. Matt says:

    Philosophically, sure libraries should keep everything in case someone wants it. In reality, space is at a premium in most libraries and keeping books that go out very rarely is not practical.

  31. cpnrf says:

    It is the old song and dance, libraries promote “lifelong learners” so they will entice them in with bestsellers, dvds, games, food, etc and then hit them with what the librarians know that these people NEED to know.

    After all, they have to justify their Master’s Degree and show off that they know more than the great unwashed.

  32. Matt says:

    I don’t need to know anything anymore. I just want my novels, dvds and food. I don’t care if it doesn’t lead anywhere. I’m too tired to care. Let the snarking begin.

  33. Reads_a_Lot says:

    Hmmm – I just wasted another 15 minutes of my life reading Annoyed Librarian. What really annoys ME is I told myself last time not to bother trying to find the few good points amidst all the sarcasm.

    Regarding the article – One of my library school professors likened popular novels to gateway drugs – get the public hooked on popular fiction and then move them on to “better” books when they ask for something else to read. Bottom line – THEY’RE READING! and coming to the public library to do it!

    Matt – you are so right. When circulation goes up 43%, attendance keeps increasing, and the city won’t lift the hiring freeze, all I want at the end of the day is the latest Clive Cussler and a glass of wine.

  34. Dingaling says:

    You won’t be getting quality wine with your cheap Cussler. All the liquor stores will stock is the cheap stuff. It moves.

  35. sidney says:

    “Hmmm – I just wasted another 15 minutes of my life reading Annoyed Librarian.” 15 minutes to read a thousand words? Speed reader you ain’t!

  36. I Like Books says:

    Matt,

    The Librarian told me they weeded the reference books because they didn’t have enough room. And there was a new DVD rack in the space that the missing reference shelf had been. I jumped to a conclusion from there.

  37. skipbear says:

    I have three dirty words for Florida

    State Income Tax