Most of you have probably seen the Wall Street Journal article: New Library Technologies Dispense With Librarians. It’s about new “express” libraries of various kinds around the country. Some deliver books to a branch library that consists of nothing but book lockers. Others are more like vending machines for books.
All of them fulfill the dreams of shy bookworms with a hankering for convenience; people can get books quickly without having to even see, much less talk to, a librarian.
Some are all for it. The president of the Public Library Association thinks it’s a great idea! It lets people get books even as budget cuts reduce hours and staffing. Yeah!
Others, not so much. One library director said, “The basis of the vending machine is to reduce the library to a public-book locker…. Our real mission is public education and public education can’t be done from a vending machine. It takes educators, it takes people, it takes interaction.”
There’s that pesky word mission. I dip into these waters occasionally, wondering just what the mission of the public library is. I tend to think the public library is best justified as an educational institution, more akin to public schools than, say, parks and recreation. That’s different than the “real mission,” though. My point is merely that people are more willing to tax themselves for serious purposes than for public frivolity.
Many librarians have disagreed with me over the years about this. For them, the library is about community, or gaming, or fun(!). It’s not your grandparent’s library, we were told for years. It’s not some musty book warehouse. We have videogames and tattooed librarians!
For the really old school, the public library is about education, but over the decades it seems not many librarians were motivated by the educational mission, and even fewer members of the public. Back in the day, librarians wanted to elevate the taste of the public, and the public said, “We like our taste low and slovenly, thank you very much!”
And thus, we get the library of today, supplying the lowest common denominator of cultural production.
The comments are interesting as well. My favorite was this one:
The people in a “brick and mortars” library involved with shelving books , charging them out, and receiving them when they are returned are almost NEVER librarians. They are clerical help. Librarians refer to those with a masters degree who provide reference services (advise on how to do research) or engage in overall management. The article doesn’t discuss jobs performed by librarians (though perhaps it should, since the librarians’ jobs can be done independent from the places where the books are kept).
Miss the point much?
That’s right, you show ‘em! Real librarians don’t shelve books! We have “masters degrees,” darn it! We’re professionals! You’d think as often as librarians have whined those lines in the past few decades, more people would sit up and take notice of how professional librarians are, instead of asking them (as a public librarian friend of mine was once asked) whether they are paid to work in the library or whether they volunteer.
It should be pretty clear that most of the public don’t care. To them, the library is a warehouse for books and videos and such, and that’s just the way they like it. Most people don’t talk to the librarians and don’t need research help. Most library users just want stuff, the latest vampire novel or hot audiobook.
Arguing with a newspaper article that this technology dispenses with support staff rather than librarians is beside the point, because for most people the support staff are the librarians. Librarians are people who work in libraries.
I won’t put too much pressure on this one article, but it brings out tensions in librarianship that have existed for a long time. Librarians insist they are credentialed professionals. Sometimes they play up the educational mission of the library, and sometimes the entertainment mission.
But the public doesn’t care. They don’t come to the library to be educated, and unless they’re children they don’t come to be entertained by the librarians.
Such “express” libraries could become the norm, once communities decide they can’t afford staff and buildings. They’re just the physical equivalent of digital resources that library patrons can access unmediated at any time. The only time library patrons need help with the Internet resources is when the systems are so complicated and non-intuitive that one needs special training, like some ebook or online audio systems. That’s not a sign that librarians are necessary, though, so much as a sign that the technology sucks. It’s a violation of Ranganathan’s fourth law to “save the time of the reader.”
Maybe that Ranganathan guy got it right. Books are for use; every reader his or her book; every book its reader. It’s just possible that in the public mind, the library isn’t about education, or community, or tattooed fun. It’s about books and reading, entertainment in the service of literacy. We hear all the time that the book is dying, but only the uninformed think reading is dying.
That’s one thing the ALA gets right with all those silly posters. READ. The vending machine eliminates the need for librarians and library staff. But instead of reducing the library to the status of a vending machine, these “express” libraries elevate vending machines to the status of libraries. Instead of education or entertainment, maybe they’re just about books and reading, and as long as people can get to their books, they don’t care if there are librarians.