I don’t normally read the other AL, American Libraries. It’s like the Pravda of librarianship, the house propaganda organ to feed us feel good stories, or stories like this one about recruiting new librarians through undergraduate internships, which tells us in all seriousness that, “As the library profession ‘grays,’ many academic libraries anticipate staff shortages as older employees retire within the next 10 years.” So why don’t you go to library school now, boys and girls, because there will be a librarian shortage soon!
Reading the other AL can give one insight into the schizophrenic nature of the profession, though. For example, there’s a recent interview with Harvard Law Professor Charles Ogletree, who of course is most famous for serving “ as one of several celebrity honorary co-chairs of the American Library Association’s Spectrum Presidential Initiative.”
On the same page was a post from a blog called Green Your Library, which I assume is a regular blog at the other AL. The catchy title of the post is, “Out-of-Box Collection-Defining Libraries a Thing of the Future?” Both pithy and informative!
The Ogletree interview is moving, as these things go. He’s certainly a fan of libraries:
Libraries have been the savior of my life. From the time I was a little kid, reading books at my local county library, I’ve always appreciated the fact that in order to lead, you need to know how to read; if you are able to read, it can then enhance your chances in life. Although a lot of things can rescue young people from the challenges of society in the 21st century, there is nothing that makes you stronger than to have an agile mind, good judgment, and a rich resource of experiences through reading. The library is a sanctuary for those who want to make a big impact on our society.
That’s a ringing endorsement both of libraries and the thing they used to be most associated with in the eyes of librarians: reading. Saving people’s lives. Building agile minds with good judgment. Providing those who can’t otherwise afford it the educational opportunities that reading can give. Serious stuff!
The “green library” blog post, on the other hand, is very different. Ignore for the moment that the post has nothing to do with greening your library. The topic is how to declutter your house by cluttering up libraries with junk people don’t use very often. There are libraries around the country that lend pots, tools, gardening implements, and other non-traditional items. The idea is far from new, and I’m pretty sure somewhere in the AL archives I’ve also recommended the same thing as part of Library Spa 2.0. Anything anyone needs should be available at the library: manicures, crockpots, firearms, etc.
The businessy librarians like to talk about branding. We could talk about branding, or we could use the more traditional purpose. The question would be, what is the purpose of the library? You can phrase it in whatever management babble you want, but the point is the same.
Ogletree thinks he knows what libraries are about. They’re about reading, and reading is good. A lot of librarians don’t agree. Libraries aren’t about reading. They’re about community or fun or giving everybody what they want and being all things to all people.
The problem with trying to be all things to all people is that libraries inevitably fail. They can’t possibly be all things to all people, so they make irrational and random choices about what they will offer.
They offer books, music, and movies, but why not pots for cooking? Or tools for the occasional handyperson? Why not cars? Libraries could work on the Zipcar model? If cars are too expensive, how about bicycles? More bikes wouldn’t green anyone’s library, but they might help green the rest of the world. Libraries have toilets, but why not showers and washing machines? People would be less likely to complain about the homeless if they could wash themselves and their clothes at the library.
And for that matter, why not clothes? Something for the poor guy or gal who can’t afford a decent dress or rent a tuxedo for the prom? A lot of bowlers would probably prefer to check out free shoes from the library than pay bowling alleys for them. Why not circulate bowling shoes? Or martini shakers? Or silver candelabras? Or small appliances? I’m sure there are people who need a food processor or stand mixer only intermittently. Why not circulate those? A lot of people would be just as entertained by them as by videogames.
There are at least two common responses to this. One, some of you think it would be great if libraries really could do all this, if in addition to being free Barnes and Nobles and free Blockbusters, they could be free Best Buys and Home Depots as well. But that sort of thinking means libraries will always fail. You can’t succeed if you don’t have a mission.
And then others will think these suggestions are just silly. Of course libraries shouldn’t be handing out pots and bikes and letting people take showers. But why not? If the main mission of the library isn’t about reading, then what difference does it make? What’s the theoretical distinction between holding gaming parties for teenagers and shower parties for the homeless?
I’ll let you try to answer that one.