A lot of librarians these days want libraries to change, to adapt, to add new services. The frustrated trendsetters (or frusties) want libraries to become part of every trend that comes along. Though the frusties get all worked up that every library isn’t blogging or tweeting, it seems to me that a lot of libraries have in fact been adapting and adding plenty of services. Sure, they might be a few years behind the curve, but only the clouded frusty mindset could expect every organization to change everything all the time without creating chaos and lowering librarian morale even more.
The question is, what to give up? Writing a blog or feeding Twitter or hosting Dance Dance Revolution parties take time and money. Instead of changing, libraries have just been adding, and I’m trying to figure out what they’ve stopped doing.
Many of the frusties would probably be happy to give up buying books, like they’re now doing in Massachusetts prep schools. Books are a pain. You have to buy them. Someone somewhere has to catalog them. They have to be shelved, quite possibly over and over again, since some libraries have self-checkout but none have self-shelving as far as I know.
The problem is, people still like books. There’ll always be kids wanting yet another Goosebumps or whatever’s popular these days, and there’ll always be some poor woman who simply cannot afford her romance-novel-a-day habit, especially with cigarette taxes being what they are. Every once in a while some school kid might actually need a biography of someone that’s still in copyright. Books are here to stay for most libraries for a long time.
Libraries haven’t given up any services. Reference service has simply added ways to communicate with librarians, even if nobody wants to communicate with them. They still host book groups. They’ve added videogames to their stock of board games, and even though librarians were never expected to teach patrons how to play chess or backgammon, for some reason librarians are even teaching patrons how to play videogames. Some libraries have even retained some quiet spaces, where people are expected to stop yammering on their cell phones or shouting at their children so other people can read quietly.
Not only have libraries added computers, but they’ve been teaching people how to use them for years. The frusties seem to think that the entire world consists of laptop-carrying, iPhone-using, social-networking gearheads, but it doesn’t. Most people do not have smart phones and are not on Facebook. There are still plenty of people in the country, especially the old and poor, who are still on the other side of the digital divide, and libraries struggle to help these people as well.
And it’s not like library funding has shot through the roof. Sure, in richer counties and municipalities some libraries do quite well, or did until recently. But we’ve long been hearing stories of library budgets declining, even in the boom years. The booming people don’t need libraries until they lose their jobs and can’t afford their ISP anymore.
I’m not singing a paean to libraries and all the overworked, underpaid library workers out there, though. I’m seriously asking, what have libraries given up or can give up to plunge into every trend that comes along? Do they just turn a reference position into a digital something-or-other position and let some loner play with his digital toys in the library basement to shut people up? Or is everyone just now expected to do everything all the time?
New demands arise but old demands don’t erode, and, as Johnny Mercer pointed out, something’s gotta give. I suspect that something is librarians themselves. You might recall the story from a couple of years ago where a public library director fired the librarians and then hired them back at reduced salaries as clerks. Others speak of library degrees only for those who manage libraries. And why not? Outsource your book selection and cataloging to vendors, your reference to the Wikipedia and Google, and what do you need librarians for? You don’t need librarians to charge books out to library patrons or teach people how to play videogames.
Personally, I’m not that concerned. I plan to die off before the obsolescence of librarians, but there’s a little space in my hardened librarian heart saddened by a brave new world that has no librarians in it. Maybe in libraries it’s simply that the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity. I wonder if the looming obsolescence I’m assuming is the way things really should go, or just the way they’re going because too few librarians want to be seen as romantics by insisting that books and buildings are just as socially important as bits and bytes.
Sanguine I’m not, today.
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