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“Libraries” Reinvent Themselves

It’s such an exciting time to be a librarian in this fast-paced age of constant change! Or so I used to hear from librarians applying for jobs at my library, back when there were jobs available.

Nowadays, the excitement has turned more to desperation. We used to get news articles about hipster librarians and tattooed librarians and other kinds of librarians much cooler than you. We’re still told how much the library is changing, only the tone is different.

This article about libraries reinventing themselves is a good example. It starts out hipstery enough:

Kathy DeGrego’s T-shirt lets you know right away she isn’t an old-school librarian.

“Shhh,” it says, “is a four-letter word.”

Ooohh, where can I buy that tee shirt! And the article’s fluffy, hopeful tone keeps up for just a little bit longer. “That spirit of bookish defiance has guided the makeover of the suburban Denver library system where DeGrego works. Reference desks and study carrels have been replaced by rooms where kids can play Guitar Hero. Overdue book fines have been eliminated, and the arcane Dewey Decimal System has been scrapped in favor of bookstore-like sections organized by topic.” That defiance sounds anything but bookish to me.

This is all part of the reinvention of the library, and is very exciting. Why do you need reference desks or reference librarians if you have space to play Guitar Hero. That’s what libraries are all about, baby!

And the librarians must be feeding the reporters their language, because every time I read about some library getting rid of the Dewey Decimal Classification it’s called “arcane.” I can’t quite make out how a classification system that’s been in use for 130 years and is currently used in over 200,000 libraries in more than 135 countries can be “arcane.”

We’re told that libraries must reinvent themselves, and then given a list of typical reinventions:  “Many public libraries are also becoming digital activity centers, where in addition to books visitors can find game rooms, computer clusters or Internet cafes. Collections of DVDs have swelled, as has the number of high-definition televisions.” Game rooms and Internet cafes and HDTVs. I’m sure glad my tax dollars go to support these necessary and important features.

And it wouldn’t be an article about libraries dumbing themselves down (I mean reinventing themselves as “digital activity centers”) if it didn’t include one comment about how libraries are dumbing themselves down.

“If you want to have game rooms and pingpong tables and God knows what — poker parties — fine, do it, but don’t pretend it has anything to do with libraries,” said Michael Gorman, a former president of the American Library Assn. “The argument that all these young people would turn up to play video games and think, ‘Oh by the way, I must borrow that book by Dostoyevsky’ — it seems ludicrous to me.”

Merely in order to refute it. “Others argue that reinvention is a matter of survival in an age when Google Inc. has made the reference desk almost obsolete and printed books are beginning to look more like antique collectibles.”

Huh? Somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000 printed books are published in America every year, and they look like antique collectibles? If that’s the argument “others” are making, it doesn’t seem like a very good argument.

The odd assumptions of the argument aside, take a closer look at the logic. The claim is that “libraries” must survive, but all the changes – Guitar Hero, breakdancing competitions, and whatever else the kiddies get up to these days – have absolutely nothing to do with the ordinary historical or contemporary understanding about what libraries are.

To throw a little linguistics at you, the only thing that is “surviving” is the sign library, while the referent the sign refers to is slowly disappearing under various technological and legal forces. People are using sentences like “libraries are changing,” but what they really mean is, “some totally new thing is emerging in the space we still call the library.” It’s not reinvention so much as redefinition.

A library consultant and “futurist” (is that like a fortune-teller?) quoted would disagree with me. She “believes that the underlying purpose of libraries will not change, even if bookshelves disappear. ‘Saying that there’s a challenge to libraries because books are changing would be like saying there’s a challenge to family dinner because plates are changing,’ she said.”

There’s not much you can say to a statement like that except, “No, it’s not at all like saying that!” The plate is more analogous to the library building or the sign library, not the dinner itself. If you remove the meat and two veg and replace it with cotton candy, there is a change to the family dinner. If you changed the name library to information center but kept everything else, that would be like changing the plate.

In talk like this, the only “underlying purpose of libraries” is to keep librarians employed, since there’s obviously no coherent purpose underlying changes like this.

If institutions that call themselves libraries change to the point where they offer nothing but entertainment space and computers, either because they don’t care about anything not extremely popular or because publishers freeze them out of the digital information market, then “libraries” aren’t surviving at all. To say otherwise is an exercise in doublespeak.

It would be nice if people who want “libraries” to be postmodern arcades would just come out and say they don’t like libraries. They don’t like books or reading. They don’t like providing information about serious issues. They like to play games. They hate the bread, but love the circus.

They could also stop pretending to be librarians and call themselves something else. This article on libraries as amusement parks seems dead on, so “carnies” seems an appropriate designation. The carnies want their amusement parks to be called libraries because libraries still have a good public reputation and might continue to get funding.

If the carnies would just acknowledge themselves as such, we could have a serious professional conversation about the future of libraries. Until that happens, no one can be sure what anyone means by wanting “libraries” to “survive.” Are they librarians who really want libraries to retain their purpose under changing circumstances, or carnies who want amusement parks called libraries? It’s hard to tell which is which anymore.

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Comments

  1. Post Postmodern Librarian says:

    I just had this conversation with my brother last night. He is a big techie loves his Kindle and sees no reason for libraries. He often jokes I should write a book on how to get rid of libraries and make millions. I think most of the people who dont see values in libraries are the people who do not see value in the printed word. This is true whither you are a techie with a kindle or an undereducated person who dosnt read. The problem with the techie trend is that they are American’s middle class, and the lost of their support means a lot compared to the undereducated which have always been when with us. My brother agreed in principle that the printed book is still going to be around…not everyone can afford tech and you need a book on how to fix your kindle when it breaks right. He also agreed libraries belong in mix neighbors so that the techie middle and upper classes can see the value of the library to the poor and undereducated. The poor deserve to play guitar hero too ;)

  2. so they’re changing their library into a park and rec center to survive.. guess what? when our local budget got cut, guess who lost the most money? parks! libraries were (mostly) untouched (mostly, as in, no more money, but no less money, meaning I still make what I made in 2007).
    but parks always get cut first. or the property becomes “multi-use” and gets rented out for private functions like renaissance faires or company picnics. wait, is this the plan? for library nerds to turn our libraries into year-long princess and faerie and hobbit fests? so that’s why our new budget has a line for “turkey legs.” I thought that was furniture. so, crap, I think I have some Spock ears around here somewhere: maybe I can pass as an elf.

  3. librarEwoman says:

    The library where I work now leases our community room to for-profit organizations, for an hourly fee. Previously, we only let non-profit organizations use our community room, and we did not charge. This is one more example of libraries serving a function that was previously outside of the realm of libraries. Is this expansion of libraries into new realms a bad thing? Maybe not, but maybe libraries should be combined with Community Centers, and be called “Library and Community Center.” That way, both necessary functions would be fulfilled, and the name would be accurate.

  4. Paige says:

    This “hipster library” crap really gets old.

  5. Skipbear says:

    Writing is on the wall. I’m pretty much convinced that in the future the only libraries that will be recognizable as such will be the academics and maybe some of the largest urban PL main branches.

  6. Britt says:

    What I find interesting about this trend in public libraries is the librarians leading these changes. Where are they coming from? Are they performing focus groups and discovering that Guitar Hero is what their community wants? Or have they been trained to think this technology is the way to bring patrons into the library?

    As a second-year MLIS student who wants to be a public youth librarian, my classes and readings don’t support this “new” library. We certainly talk about youth and technology, and we even talk about recreational programming, but it is all still very book and information-oriented. As my program is through one of the major research universities, and the faculty is well-respected in their fields, I haven’t been too worried about the quality of my education, but if this is what public libraries are looking for, my fellow students and I are unprepared. All we know how to do is provide developmentally-appropriate literacy services (that are fun, too!), reference, and community outreach and support through our books and information services. This formula seems to work well for the three major systems we all intern at, but maybe us Californians are out of the loop.

  7. St. Martin says:

    Re: Britt

    You ask some very broad questions to which there are no clear answers. I will try and summarize the background knowledge that you seem to be requesting.

    Basically, a long, long time ago, all libraries were about books and reading and information. When a person asked a reference question, we had to look up the answer in Facts-on-File or the OED or some other now digitized document. Sometime in the 1990′s it became easier and faster to start using computers for this same information. Pretty soon, it was feared by many that computers would certainly cause the downfall of libraries as we know them. Librarians panicked. You could read article after article as to how we were obsolete as a profession.

    As a result, librarians worked hard to find their purpose in a new world where everyone, at least the ones paying us, told us we needed to provide computers, movies, and video games. This would save us (or so we were told) and quite a few librarians drank the Kool-Aid. They would say “Look here! My Super Smash Brothers Competition brought in 50 teenagers who have never stepped foot in a library!”. Upper management would look at the foot count and the statistics and privately think that this makes the library look good (some of these people are elected after all).

    And so, we now keep going towards this goal of technology assimilation without really thinking about the consequences. It’s quite conceivable we may wake up in a few years to our fully enhanced librarian cyborg bodies, complete with a multimedia unit and a direct link to the Internet so that we can up-date our library’s Facebook page while we are out in the stacks shelving books.

    Not that we’re bitter or anything.

  8. Spekkio says:

    RE: Dewey…yes, it’s arcane. Why? Because it’s jargon. The general public looks at Dewey and read it about as readily as most of you probably read C++.

    RE: “…maybe libraries should be combined with Community Centers, and be called “Library and Community Center.” ”

    Actually…
    *The Carnegie Library of Braddock, the first Carnegie Library in the United States, included a bathhouse and billiard tables.
    *The Carnegie Free Library of Allegheny (USA CL #2) included a theater.
    *The Carnegie Library of Homestead (USA CL #3) included a music hall and an athletic wing, including a swimming pool. The music hall also had a concert grand piano and an organ. (The piano is still in use. The organ is apparently not operational at the moment.)
    *The Carnegie Free Library of Carnegie, PA also included a music hall, as well as a reception hall and studios.
    *The Carnegie Free Library of Connellsville, PA included an auditorium on its second floor.
    *The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh (aka CLP Main, in the Oakland neighborhood, near Pitt and CMU) is in a complex including a music hall and lecture hall.

    My word…what did Andy Carnegie have against books? Literacy? Seriousness? Why did he listen to everyone who wanted to change libraries? Why did he allow – even encourage – libraries to offer entertainment as well as information?

    In case you missed it, this was sarcasm. Mr. Carnegie is often lionized for his strong backing for the construction of public libraries in the United States, Scotland, and elsewhere around the world. And yet – and yet – he was totally cool with them doing things other than keeping and reading books. I mean…a swimming pool, for crying out loud. Would he object to “Guitar Hero?” Would he demand that they be places of silence and seriousness at all times? Based on what I’m finding…no. No, he would not. Carnegie saw his libraries not just as a means for people to educate themselves or their children, but as a way for people to get together and strengthen their communities. And hell, he was OK with people have a little fun, too. So can we please stop with the “OMG! CDs! DVDs! Video games! No!” stuff? Why can’t we do both?

  9. Youth Services Manager says:

    I hadn’t planned on entering this conversation until I read the last comment by Britt. Most of us in Youth Services offer all the traditional library services, plenty of programming that is educational in the sciences and arts, and we partner and other community organizations. We function as an after school drop-in zone that includes bookclubs, homework help, crafts, after school extension activities, anime, puppetry, and oh yeah …gaming. Libraries will often throw out a lot of board games into the mix since there aren’t enough computers. Kids like both. But gaming is just one program of many. There are traveling storytimes that teach early literacy skills, classes for early childhood teachers for certification to name a few services. I think public libraries are “community centers,” though I prefer to think of the libraries in my region as cultural centers since much of what we offer is educational in one form or another. I also buy a lot of books for my department and despite what I’ve heard about kids not reading, our checkouts don’t indicate this.

    I don’t think that the libraries you are interning in are unique.

  10. InfoPro65 says:

    If libraries want to be community centers, fine, but pay for their services with the community center budget (which is being cut). I’m a librarian, and even I object to my tax dollars funding Guitar Hero tournaments. Carnegie paid to build libraries, and he may not have cared if they provided services other than educational ones, but doesn’t the tax payer have a say in any of this? With the current economy, I cannot see the justification in public funding of entertainment.

  11. Jane Gibson says:

    To those who object to libraries providing “entertainment” – don’t most people read fiction for entertainment?

  12. Heelbiter says:

    Don’t derail, Ms. Gibson. Nobody here is angry that libraries offer entertainment. The problem is that the entertainment in question is getting dumber, more disruptive, and taking precedence over libraries’ primary purpose as a place to learn.

    To the AL–thank you for posting this. It’s very refreshing after taking a tour of the eyeroll-inducing LISNews site, whose uncritical approach to New Modern “Librarianship” grows increasingly tiresome.

    I can’t quite make out how a classification system that’s been in use for 130 years and is currently used in over 200,000 libraries in more than 135 countries can be “arcane.”

    What that usually really means is “We didn’t take Cataloging I, or if we did, we didn’t pay attention, and now we’re embarrassed that we don’t understand two of the underlying concepts of librarianship: classification and organization of materials. Because of our laziness and ignorance, the rest of the world should suffer.” Alas, these are the people deciding the future of librarianship, because their “provocative” statements are what garners headlines and stage-time at conferences.

  13. Jane Gibson says:

    I’ll agree with you that the one of the things a library can do is be a place to learn – it’s just not the only thing a library can do.

    As for “the entertainment in question is getting dumber, more disruptive…” sounds a teeny bit subjective. Libraries can have books for book people and games for game people. They don’t seem mutually exclusive to me.

    In the end there will always be librarians whow want to narrow the mission of the library, and those who want to broaden the mission of the library. The conversation continues…