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.