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Retooling Libraries Indeed

Last week a couple of commenters wondered what I thought of this blog post about retooling public libraries as “techshops,” places with tools and equipment to make stuff. There’s a short answer and a long answer. The short answer is, I find the post bizarre.

It’s not that I find the idea that libraries could house techshops, because I don’t. Given the diverse nature of what’s offered in public libraries, I see no reasonable objection to the suggestion that they house tools and equipment if they could afford them. The Library as Techshop could offer a community a greater and more lasting benefit than The Library as Blockbuster, especially given the fate of bricks and mortar Blockbuster stores.

So the bizarreness isn’t so much the techshop suggestion as the rationale behind it. The author, a tech writer and editor who writes about DIY projects, doesn’t use public libraries. He opines, and I tend to agree, that a lot of people don’t use libraries the way they once did because of the availability of certain kinds of information and entertainment available for modest fees on the Internet.

Also, he works with lots of younger people, and they don’t tend to use public libraries, either. Being a tech writer, he probably works with a lot of younger people more or less like himself.

Since he doesn’t use libraries but does work on DIY projects, he argues that libraries should evolve from the sorts of places he doesn’t use to the sorts of places he does use, that is, from repositories of freely available books and media to repositories of freely available tools and equipment. QED. That’s the bizarre move, because he doesn’t show that libraries don’t serve a purpose or fill a need, only that they don’t serve his purposes or fill his needs.

The writer asked exactly the right question, how should libraries adapt to change? But his answer was severely circumscribed by his own interests rather than the public interest.

He quotes various statistics showing that public libraries had 1.5 billion visits in 2008, and 2.28 billion circulations. It sure seems that someone is using libraries, even if not him and his younger colleagues. If public libraries are being used, and if they continue to be funded by the communities using them, then there’s not much incentive to turn them into techshops.

The figures he quotes on techshop membership are as low as the library visits and circulation figures are high. Techshop is a commercial chain with three locations, and it has over 1500 members among those locations. “TechShop also had over 200 people signed up for SF before opening.” San Francisco, population 800,000 or so, and 200 whole people were already signed up? I wonder how many people use San Francisco libraries? Probably more than 200.

Granted, Techshop charges a fee, and if it was free more people would no doubt take advantage. But would a techshop ever get as much traffic as San Francisco’s public libraries?

Even if it did, would it be the same people visiting? Probably not. The people using libraries are there to consume, not produce. They want to read novels, listen to music, watch movies, surf for Internet porn. Some of them might also want to build things, but it’s probably a small percentage of library patrons.

If libraries became techshops, what will become of the people who visit public libraries 1.5 billion times a year? Will they stare through the windows of the public techshops wondering where their bestsellers and DVDs are?

The initial claim is that public libraries need to change with the times and adapt their mission to changing circumstances is plausible. All institutions need to do that. But why change in this particular way? The reasoning seems to be that because the writer likes DIY projects, libraries should become places that facilitate DIY projects.

We could come up with parallel arguments very easily. A lot of people love to cook, but don’t have kitchens adequate to their culinary desires. Why not retool public libraries to be public kitchens? People like to play and record music, too. Why not turn public libraries into public music studios?

Both of those would be as related to educating the public as DIY techshops. Both would be useful, used, and probably well loved by their clienteles, but they wouldn’t be libraries, and they wouldn’t serve the same mission or fulfill the same purpose.

The reply might be to ask, just what are public libraries for? What, if anything, is their core mission? Sometimes I don’t even think public librarians are clear what that mission is, or they don’t believe there is a mission.

In various posts over the years, I’ve reiterated what I think that core mission is: literacy and education. People tax themselves to provide for literacy and public education for all. People don’t tax themselves to pay for free movies and techshops and designer kitchens for all.

Some librarians doubt this mission, and some people are in fact unwilling to tax themselves for public literacy and education because they would prefer to keep all their money and live among illiterates. Those people won’t vote to fund anything, but most will if the endeavor is important and essential to the public good.

Having literate citizens is important to the public good. Having designer kitchens and DIY shops isn’t.  Libraries support literacy, techshops don’t. It’s really that simple.

Unless promoting and supporting literacy isn’t a primary mission of public libraries. In that case, it really doesn’t matter what they metamorphose into. Personally, I’d vote for kitchens over techshops anyday.

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Comments

  1. Andrea says:

    I couldn’t agree more, AL. While tool lending libraries (as part of a regular public library) would be beneficial to many patrons, I think the article’s author was instead looking to completely replace some current libraries with what he thought libraries should be. His use of statistics in the article, and his replies to reader comments, made me think that he honestly doesn’t have a grasp on current library usage and the needs of modern patrons. As I read through the comments, I began to like him less and less, as he didn’t seem to be interested in anyone that didn’t agree wholeheartedly with his idea of putting TechShops into libraries. He kept asking commenters “What would you do with $1 million?” and “Where do you see libraries in 5/10/20 years?” All I could think of is, well, if my library suddenly came upon an extra million bucks, they would probably start by fixing the leaking roof and many of the other issues plaguing a rapidly aging building, not suddenly deciding to invest in tools. And in 10 years, I will probably still be helping a young patron learn MS Word or write a resume, because with the severe education cuts happening now, he probably won’t learn these things in school.
    While I love the idea of tool lending in public libraries, I just don’t see it happening anytime soon, especially with the slim budgets that most libraries currently have.

  2. will manley says:

    AL…The biggest growth area in public library use seems to be among people who use the library to plug in their laptops for free electricity and wifi. Seems to me that’s the beginnings of a kind of techshop concept.

  3. Fat Guy says:

    Your critique of this writer’s motivations are valid, but that doesn’t mean that the idea of techshops in libraries is not an idea worthy of further exploration. I’m intrigued by the idea of my library having or at least sponsoring workshops on improving technological literacy in their respective communities. But…I’m guessing you’re not the type who has much patience for this “expanded” definition of literacy so often bandied about in the library/educational world.

  4. Annoyed Librarian says:

    Fat Guy, Techshops aren’t about technology in the information technology sense that librarians tend to use. They have actual tools, the kind people have to use by hand, drill presses and plasma cutters and power tools. How far should librarians pretend to expand the concept of “literacy” until they just look ridiculous? Would there be classes in library school on how to use lathes and bandsaws? Is knowing how to use a bandsaw being literate in any sense? No, unless we just get rid of words like competent, skilled, and talented, and just put literate in their place.

  5. Nate Hill says:

    Step back from the details in this article. If you take a birds eye view of the retooling they call for and avoid some of the troublesome details, it is an excellent response to our increasingly read/write way of learning in this day and age. I don’t know about the other readers out there, but I learn by *doing* and *making* things in a far richer way than when I simply read about them. The internet has changed the way I read- and by responding to this AL post, I’m participating and contributing, and thus learning. You can get caught up in the minutia and laugh at the idea of drill presses and lathes in libraries, but the point to take from all of this is that we should be offering more services in libraries that address participatory learning and co-creation.

  6. Linda says:

    “…Even if it did, would it be the same people visiting? Probably not. The people using libraries are there to consume, not produce. They want to read novels, listen to music, watch movies, surf for Internet porn. Some of them might also want to build things, but it’s probably a small percentage of library patrons…”

    What about the ones who want to produce and use books to do so? People who want to produce cuisine and go to libraries for cookbooks, not public kitchens? People who want to produce furniture and go to libraries for DIY books, not public tech shops? People who want to produce people and go to my local library for pregnancy-health guides in their own section all on the top of a 3-foot-high shelf (had they been shelved with the rest of the health books, some would be near the floor and some would require stretching up), not public prenatal-care clinics?

    “…Having literate citizens is important to the public good. Having designer kitchens and DIY shops isn’t. Libraries support literacy, techshops don’t. It’s really that simple…”

    Yeah, mostly! My hometown library also lent out jigsaw puzzles. Then there are the toy libraries in some parts of the world (see these links: http://www.itla-toylibraries.org/ , http://www.pamplin.vt.edu/magazine/spring11/toylibraries.html , and http://www.activelearninglibraries.org.za/whatis.html ).

  7. FinallyaLibrarian says:

    Having libraries loan tools is an idiotic idea, especially in an area like mine which is full of lawyers.

  8. Spekkio says:

    AL, most of your points are well-taken. No doubt the author has a narrow point of view…and coming from outside of Libraryland, the author was just asking to have librarians come and rhetorically beat him up.

    That said, the idea of retooling libraries is still a good one, IMO. In the “old days,” one of the key draws of a public library was to give people access to resources – mostly for purposes of education or self-improvement – they wouldn’t have access to otherwise. And these days, the sort of tools and resources the author talks about are hard to access. Someone at that blog commented that high schools used to give the public access to their equipment off-hours…but nowadays I don’t think they let anyone who isn’t a teacher or a student into school buildings without supervision.

    It’s been argued that we need to put less emphasis on “book learnin’” and more emphasis on skills and trades. (For example: http://onpoint.wbur.org/2011/03/02/should-everybody-go-to-college) And pundits are always saying that we need people to be more entrepreneurial and inventive and such. In both cases, people need access to tools they can’t buy for themselves or access easily.

    There’s something to be said for the idea.

  9. Fat and Grumpy says:

    @Nate Hill “[T]he point to take from all of this is that we should be offering more services in libraries that address participatory learning and co-creation.” Sounds great. But it involves librarians actually knowing something about something, having some background in teaching, and having the interpersonal skills to involve others in what their presenting. After 30 years in libraries, I’m here to tell you, most librarians don’t even know enough about libraries to teach that, let alone something else. Library school offered no education classes or teaching skills classes, though I spend 10 to 15% of my time teaching, and I’m in a public library now. And as for interpersonal skills… again, no library school classes, and certainly no requirements for many of the librarians I’ve worked with.

  10. JD Kotula says:

    The UNLV Libraries, where I work, is pushing more toward becoming a learning “laboratory” where people in the university community can consume and produce information, and this works well for our users: students and staff who are expected to use and produce information. But when you go this route with a public library, you run into the problem of an explosion of needs. The home cook, carpentry enthusiast, and amateur painter are all competing for space, and they’re just a small fraction of a community whose needs must be met. Public libraries can meet these needs by offering classes in these ares–complete with movable, temporarily available tools like grills or easels–but setting aside permanent library space for these hobbies seems incredibly unwise.

  11. Nate Hill says:

    @Fat and Grumpy,

    I hear you.

    Actually, the sad thing is that there’s plenty of librarians or ‘were-going-to-be-librarians-til-something-better-came-along’ out there with great interpersonal skills but from what I’ve seen a lot of them leave library school and can’t get a rewarding, challenging job in a public library because there aren’t any wonderful entry level jobs out there. I’ve been in libraries a while now, and it is way too much of a struggle to find jobs that actually exercise or push my skills (I’m really lucky to have a good one now). Folks graduate from library school with a great deal of useful, cutting edge knowledge and educational theory/teaching skills and whatnot only to find that if they take a job in a public library they are likely to be ‘trained’ (see also: put to sleep) on a reference desk and asked to do boring work when likely they have a whole lot more they could offer. Then the budget gets cut, and since they were the last hired they are the first out the door and….

    When I was reading about the techshop thing and thinking about staff skillsets, my thoughts immediately jumped to this bizarre predicament some libraries find themselves in which they want to open up computer centers that offer more than just an outdated version of Internet Explorer and Office 97 and they *don’t have staff that could operate them*!!! The techshop is a worst-case scenario of untrained fools slicing off fingers with bandsaws, but meanwhile we can’t even offer Photoshop in the library.

    Anyways, @Fat and Grumpy, don’t be too hard on the librarians because there’s a lot of great ones out there who want jobs and want to do all of these things- they just aren’t getting the opportunity right now. They’ve all been laid off over the last couple of years, or they are about to graduate and are headed into a rough job market. We need to find ways to employ them and let them do what they know how to do… we shouldn’t be maintaining, we need to be pushing ahead… and who knows, maybe we do need some 3D printers just to shake things up.

    For the record: 3D printers are awesome. Internet Explorer 6 is not awesome.

  12. gatoloco says:

    In one of my most helpful courses in library school we discussed technology management, then went into a real library and worked on hardware and networking. This type of constructivist learning is very helpful. With correct course design a techshop could be vital to expanding technological literacy. I usually agree you AL, but I cringe when I see librarians dismiss certain people or skills sets because they are foreign to them (such as bashing frat boys or people who use tools).

  13. FinallyaLibrarian says:

    The blog post also cites a Wikipedia article that lists tool lending libraries (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_tool-lending_libraries) but very few seem to be normal public libraies or are currently open. So after all the data presented it seems tool lending doesn’t work so well in a public library setting. Perhaps for urban renewal tool bank operations, yes.

    Other thoughts are where would we possibly store all these tools? (at my branch we barely have room as it is). Who would clean the tools when they are returned? Are we to test the inspect and test each tool when returned and before check-out?

    Another aspect is keeping track of all the parts associated with tools. Just like we put stickers on books indicating the CD is missing, can you see where a drill set would have a sticker saying “MISSING 2 bits, 3/8 & 1/4″.

    AAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!

    This idea sounds great to folks that never have owned and used tools. So, the few librarians qualified to take on this project (like me) would be the ones refusing to do it!

  14. olly says:

    Great posts lately. I like this blog so much more when you leave out the contempt and vitriol towards librarianship and instead criticize constuctively and include statements about what librarianship does right.

    Libraries are about literacy and education through reading. Libraries are about reading, first and foremost. Books, periodicals, community information, reference, instruction, reader’s advisory, and storytimes are #1 [note: I count graphic novels, maps, photography, and the like here as well].

    Second, libraries are now about being the only place people can use computers and the internet for free. I’m OK with that. Using the internet is now vital for most people, and many people who do use the library are using the internet for serious/important purposes (taxes, jobs, keeping in touch). Let’s serve that community need happily.

    The third and last priority is non-reading education and entertainment. You gotta be selective with this one. There are important aspects to it: adult and childrens programming, resume and job searching help, college prep, some music and documentaries, DIY classes, and so on. There are also trivial aspects to it: Hollywood blockbusters, video games, surfing youtube, spending hours on Facebook, etc.

    This techshop idea grows out of a third-level priority, and moves it to a second or first-level priority. That amounts to a wholesale redefinition of libraries. As you argue correctly, the only reason for such a move is if the first-level priority is irrelevant, and it is not.

    On the other hand, if US society actually does start (continue?) to devalue reading, and reading does become a 2nd or 3rd level priority, this may be something to revisit.

  15. Fat and Grumpy says:

    back @ Nate Hill Though I’ve been at this game a long time, I so sympathize with your comments about not being able to get management, let alone “old-time” librarians, to understand the importance of embracing the new technology. Two short stories: 1985, I developed a macro in WP to automate labelling, stripping the unneeded data from OCLC files and formatting the call number for spines. Had to lay out my own money for labels and develop th whole project on my own time. Then when it halved labelling time, no one in the department even acknowledged it. 1998, returning to academic from public library, I was introduced to the department’s “Internet Guru.” Guy didn’t even know you could open multiple instantiations of Netscape, which at the time, was one of killer features of that browser in comparison to IE. Worse still, the guy had been in the job for 20 years then and is still there now (or last time I looked). Wonder what tabs have done to him?
    And all the job openings where I live are at the top, so we’ve got to wait a cycle at least before we can your “young librarians” into position. But can they teach? And will library boards let them? Libraries should equal learning, I agree, but I just am not convinced most librarians want to teach, even if anyone would let them.

  16. Randal Powell says:

    I completely agree that the main purpose of public libraries should be literacy and education. In terms of education, I do think that technology-education should be an integral part of what public libraries do; I am not opposed to the techshop-post’s spirit of introducing people to technology that they might otherwise not have access to. If you look at what sets the high-tech entrepreneurs apart from others in their generation, besides innate curiosity and probably higher-than-average intelligence, a unifying factor is that all of them had access to computers when few others did. They started early and progressed fast in their understanding of developing technologies.

    I disagree with the techshop-post that traditional library services are no longer as important as they once were. I think that they are, and would like to see the fundamentals substantially improved. I think that there are ways to provide traditional library services, and do a better job of introducing people to technology as well — without engaging in the vacuity that AL rightly rails against.

    I good way to introduce people to technology would be to provide access to good computers that people can use for longer than 30 minutes. Public libraries need to be more consistent in providing good technology classes for the community. I hear that computer programmers past the age of 30 are put out to pasture…why not hire one of them to run the computer section and give free classes to the community? I think that, in many cases, the most qualified people available for a given job are not hired by libraries.

  17. I Like Books says:

    My first rule of humanity is that whatever your job, hobby, or special interest is, you’re going to think it’s more important than other people will.

    Now, you might know that what you do is unimportant. Or, for people like firefighters or doctors, it might truly be important. They’re still going to think it’s more important than other people do.

  18. Tim says:

    How about library-run, country-wide Super Wifi?