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Inside Annoyed Librarian

Attack of the Carny Librarians

A kind reader sent in this news story from Atlanta with the following comment: “Lots to chew on in this substantive account of how self-preservation is the #1 job of library staff.”

Indeed there is. The story is the by now typical one of how this isn’t your grandfather’s public library anymore. On the other hand, it can also be read as a story of how public libraries don’t need librarians anymore. Librarians are turning into carnies. So why not just replace them with carnies? Carnies are cheaper.

In Atlanta, a public library offers performances by barbershop quartets and brass quintets. One singer “hit a high note so resonant it could be heard well past the commons area.” That’s the sort of behavior that should get someone kicked out of a library, not invited to it.

“So much of that dynamic programming used to go on in meeting rooms where it wasn’t visible,” said Raphael. “Now it spills out. Now we say, ‘We want you to be comfortable.’

Is that what we say? It’s not what I say. I don’t want your brass quintets and yoga classes spilling out into the library common area.

But it makes sense, of course, because “libraries also see an edge in providing the space for people to gather, and in teaming with other groups, both nonprofits and individuals, to offer experiences that will bring bodies into their stacks.”

Bring bodies to the stacks…by any means necessary. The carny librarian’s mantra. It’s a recipe for survival for librarians if they want to survive as degraded former professionals who serve no purpose other than to get people into a building.

A member of the brass quintet who no doubt annoyed everyone who was trying to use the library as a library chanted the new librarian mantra. ““The library has had to become a community center, otherwise they’re not going to survive.”

Ahem. Perhaps it should be pointed out that if libraries become community centers offering live music and pet massages, then they won’t survive. They will die and be replaced by some center of random activity that no community would ever have taxed itself to fund. The only losers are people who need real libraries.

As libraries move further away from the mission to promote public literacy, their funding is in increasing danger. All that needs to happen is a few hundred more articles like this, and plenty of TV news coverage, so that the general populace can see how their tax money is being spent.

Libraries aren’t doing a good enough job of spreading the word. A “lot of systems have no advertising budget because of the perception that taxpayers will object to their money being spent that way.”

That’s not just a “perception,” that’s a reality. Taxpayers object to this kind of thing all the time. All it takes is for them to find out what’s really going on in public libraries, and that the money they work hard to earn is being spent with the sole purpose of drawing people into a building called a library. It’s bread and circuses, only with less bread and more circus every year.

“You’ve got to make the place a happening spot to be,” according to one librarian. “If you stick with the mission of just being a repository of books and materials, that way extinction lies.”

Extinction for what? Extinction for the jobs of people who call themselves librarians and paid by budgets intended libraries. As for the libraries? If this current trend continues, libraries will be extinct.

The only good news for taxpayers in all this is that there’s no real problem now with slashing library budgets. Libraries were once upon a time serious places, and then for many decades they were basically infotainment centers. Now they’re becoming entertainment centers where much of the entertainment is provided by people for free.

What doesn’t an entertainment center need? The entertainment centers formerly known as libraries don’t need money for books. Book stacks just get in the way of barbershop quartets and banks of dated computers.

They don’t need DVDs, either. Public libraries began as places to supply books in quantities that people couldn’t afford individually, but there are relatively few Americans who can’t afford $10/ month for Netflix, and the ones who truly can’t afford that probably don’t use libraries anyway.

And it certainly doesn’t need degreed librarians. Hiring a professional librarian to run something like this would be a total waste of money. You don’t even need a college degree. The biggest item in a lot of library budgets is staff. Stop hiring people with library degrees and hire some even cheaper people. What difference does it make?

As a person who thinks public libraries provide educational benefits to their communities, I’m saddened by their descent into irrelevance and obsolescence.

But as a taxpayer, it’s at least some comfort to know that when libraries turn themselves into entertainment centers, I don’t have to feel bad about their funding being cut. So at least this cloud has a silver lining.

As for the library school students hoping to work in public libraries, I suggest turning your energy and talents in another direction, because if the carny librarians have their way, you won’t have a library to work in anymore.

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Comments

  1. pt frawley says:

    One unique thing public libraries have going for them is their ability to borrow materials from other libraries (ILL) – I never see this publicized.Libraries, reading and intellectual pursuits are anti-”democratic”. Basically, we pay taxes so that a small group of “smarter” people – better educated, more curious about the world, less entertainment-addicted – can get what they want at our expense. … this rankles and librarians feel they need to appease non-readers by offering non-book-related activities.
    As was pointed out in the beginning of the documentary “Spellbound”, learning and knowledge in America have a communitarian aspect that differs from the image of elitism libraries project. Try as we may to change it, libraries are stuck with this image. It’s nothing to be ashamed of so why are we?

    • Penny says:

      You are so right about ILL. I learned about ILL in library school. None of the public libraries where I lived ever publicized it, and I lived in major metropolitan areas. Now that libraries all have websites, ILL services are usually found someone buried on the site, but not often under the “Services” tag.

    • elena schneider says:

      Public libraries don’t publicize ILL because it is SO costly. An average transaction costs 20-25$ in academia; not sure what it is running for the public libraries. And most public libraries also cannot afford the fees (shipping, handling, staffing) that lending libraries charge. Hopefully your public library is not attached to a consortium or network where it is less costly to share books between libraries.

    • elena schneider says:

      I meant to write, “hopefully your public library IS attached to a consortium” …. I hit submit too early.

  2. Jennifer says:

    We kicked the local a capella singers out of our library – we were letting them use rooms that weren’t in use to rehearse, but you could hear them outside the rooms and they were AWFUL. We wouldn’t have minded if they were good – we let patrons play the piano in our front lobby if there are no meetings going on and people like to hear our regulars (a couple people who like to play and a young autistic girl who’s really good)

  3. Re: If this current trend continues, libraries will be extinct.

    In Jan 2010, I predicted this would be a “do or die decade” for libraries. I could easily see libraries closing in all but the wealthiest communities and some large cities. At that time I also saw signs of social, political and economic developments over the next decade that favor a public library renaissance. The OCCUPY movement is one of those developments. National Journal’s year-long series “Restoration Calls” beginning with the article “In Nothing We Trust” on the crumbling of our national institutions is another. (Public radio did a terrific interview recently with the journalist.)

    Libraries have a timeless mission that transcends data delivery formats and all the stuff that currently has libraries so flummoxed. THIS IS THE WINDOW OF OPPORTUNITY FOR LIBRARIES AND IT WON’T BE OPEN LONG. We need leadership to reconnect them with their transcendental mission and craft true 21st century library services. We need this foremost for the vitality of our country and society … and yes, for the survival of the institution as well. Zumba classes, speed-dating, free wi-fi, “egovernment resources”, etc. just won’t cut it.

    • Joneser says:

      Free wi-fi is almost an essential these days – besides, lots of people who use it in the libraries are also using our other resources, both print and electronic (e.g. downloadable ebooks and e-audiobooks).

    • My point exactly Joneser – free wi-fi is widely available these days and no longer needs to be touted the way libraries seem to. Libraries need to be articulating value-adds that distinguish them from retailers & other institutions.

  4. Sam says:

    The people who “truly can’t afford” $10/mo for a Netflix subscription were among the heaviest users of the public library I worked in.

    They included generally low income groups, folks living in shelters and nursing homes, and patrons who did not have a credit card or bank account (immigrants, ex-cons, some students).

    However, the people who checked out the most movies were parents of young children, nannies, and wealthy older couples (whom I can only assume were too frugal to get Netflix).

    • Jen says:

      Maybe they weren’t ‘too frugal’, maybe they just wanted to support their library system because of interactions with people such as yourself, a service that Netflix does not provide.

    • Veronica says:

      That was the part of this article that irked me the most. Low-income individuals are our #1 patron demographic, followed closely by senior citizens. The aforementioned groups need the library. I can’t tell you how many people came in for DVDs or computer usage and walked out with a book (or ten!) in hand. That’s not even including the many successful citizenship and literacy students we teach each year. I don’t believe that the author of this article has a good grasp on what it is to be behind the desk of a library that is centralized in a very economically disparate community.

    • Friendly ghost says:

      Patrons too frugal to get Netflix?

      Maybe – - but our patrons can walk into a public library, and get 6 entertainment DVDs per card holder. With Netflix, the patrons could wait to have their one DVD mailed to them (assuming they do not have Internet at home).

      Who wants to wait for a DVD to be mailed to them?

  5. not a hipster librarian says:

    In defense of programming at the library: the primary focus of any library program should be to deliver relevant library services to their constituents. If you’re not doing that, then you’re not serving your mission. There can be a place for a well-conceived music, yoga or arts program in the library if the primary goal of the program is to educate, not entertain (and often, education and entertainment can go hand-in-hand). The goal of the program should not be to simply get bodies in the building. Offer a program that the public wants, advertise it well (word of mouth is often more effective that paid ads), and they will come. Programming should complement the services of the library, not dominate it and should therefore occur in a place that does not disrupt other patrons from using the library.

    It’s unfortunate that the reporter and the librarians are focused on getting people into the library rather than the quality of their offerings. Readers, please don’t dismiss all programming because of one article.

  6. it’s like the NYPL moving all their books from the main library to some crappy library just to make more room in the main reading area for laptop and tablet users. if that’s the goal, then leave the library alone and pump wifi into the street and just change your metric to count the people who sign on. leave the library building to those who need research; the wifibrarians can chat from anywhere while the real librarians can help you find a book. god, about 17 more years before I can retire. I’m not going to make it with these aholes in charge.

  7. pt frawley says:

    The “Aholes” will always be in charge but that is not our problem. The idea is to find something exciting and interesting about working with the public everyday. The people who use librarians are already telling us what they want and it is part of the job to identify what those things are.

  8. Susan says:

    I was just saying how the Summer Reading program was now less about reading but more about programming. We concluded that we are more cruise director/Camp counselors than librarians now

    • Re: cruise director/camp counselor

      The libraries I’ve used in Massachusetts have been in the cruise/camp mode for awhile now. By 2010, I’d come to accept that “the libraries available to me are good sources for popular entertainment material and pleasant conversation with staff. Anything else is more than the system can provide.

      By acceptance, I meant that I would not place unrealistic expectations on local library staff working within systems that no longer had the aspiration or resources to provide reference or similar services. Though I haven’t totally given up on the Institution, I am greatly concerned (as my comment above exudes) that we’re going to lose our libraries if we don’t begin addressing some pretty complex & deep systemic issues.

    • Amanda says:

      I think there are a lot of reasons for that shift. If I worked in a community where kids went to summer camps or were allowed to roam around the neighborhood, summer reading could be about reading. (It was where I grew up – in a small town where kids spent summers building forts and playing T-ball and re-enacting Disney movies in the backyard – there was so much to do in the world that we walked down to the library only once a week, to check in and get a yo-yo and a few new books.)

      In real life in my working-class community, though, the library is a safe place for parents to drop their kids off every morning before work. And they do, in droves. On any given Tuesday afternoon, we’ll have 40-50 kids and teens hanging around in our department. Most of them will spend eight hours with us. Their parents give them a sack lunch or five bucks to get a burger at McDonald’s. (Or they don’t, and we spend the day feeling guilty about how hungry all these kids are.)

      What are we supposed to do with all these kids? Our policies say that as long as they’re old enough, they can be here as long as they/their parents want. They only get two hours on the computers each day. Sure, it would be great if they spent the whole day reading, but that’s not likely. They get bored, and all of a sudden we’re a playground, and there are loud noises and injuries and complaints for the adult patrons.

      We have four or five programs each day, every day during the summer. We have to, just to keep our kids’ energy from boiling over and becoming destructive. Last year we had a few hundred kids in the reading club, and a few thousand at programs. Am I thrilled about that? No, of course not. But we play with the hand we’re dealt, and if that means we become cruise directors for two months out of the year – and we’re damn good at it, I might add – so be it.

  9. Cindy Rosser says:

    I just don’t get you, Annoyed Librarian, one post you rant about how much you hate the shushing bun wearing books only sterotypes of librarian & libraries and now you rant about libraries that try to offer more of what their patrons & taxpayers seem to want.

    • Re: libraries that try to offer more of what their patrons & taxpayers seem to want.

      Cindy – not sure how representative my experience with a few local libraries/friends group in Massachusetts is … I’ve found them to be really closed to input except from:
      1) The Trustees and Friends boards, comprised of the same people who have served for years and have a rather limited interest/information radius.
      2) The local consortia whose members have the same qualities as the Trustees/Friends boards.

      The impetus for new programs is that a staff or board member heard the library in the town next door did something — or we’ll get some ten-years-too-late campaign the ALA cooked up, like “Go Green” in 2010.

      These libraries make incredibly anemic attempts at outreach (not sure if it’s through a lack of ability, or by design) and response is poor — and then they say they can’t get the public involved.

      So, at least in my area, I’m not convinced the library services are the ones taxpayers want.

  10. Library Spinster says:

    Ah, yes. I remember when I worked at Philadelphia’s Library for the Blind and we had an event that entailed a handful of Mummers and a small string band. You haven’t lived until you’ve tried doing telephone reference with four or five guys in feathers and sequins playing “Oh Dem Golden Slippers”, “Alabama Jubilee”, “I’m Looking Over a Four-Leaf Clover” two yards from your desk.

  11. Log-Man says:

    On a slight tangent, the Carny Librarians line made me recall the fun I had calling out to the entire two-story library in my best ringmaster voice that the library was closed. Circus training pays off at the library!

  12. Annoyed Librarian says:

    “I just don’t get you, Annoyed Librarian.”

    The Annoyed Librarian moves in mysterious ways.

  13. We have a healthy program schedule that has been paid for by the Friends group of our library. There was ZERO budget for programming, slashed book budgets,and a hiring freeze. The advantage of having people come into a library for a program is…they come INTO the library. People who are not regular library users are coming back, looking around and getting Library cards! When they complain that new nonfiction is kind of slim, its an opportunity to say that budgets have been slashed, and if they want to they can talk to town hall. If they want extended evening hours…talk to town hall. Take the Carny opportunity to show off, and plug for support from the community.

  14. For years libraries have unwittingly been positioning themselves as buildings with random amenities versus vital public institutions of learning & civic participation. It courses through the professional and promotional materials they generate and is reflected in the subject article, which is one of many examples.

    Check out the headline in this May 2nd report from Action News of Memphis: “Libraries, pools, and community centers could face cuts with new budget“. Hmmm … save the library or save the town pool – probably a tough choice for communities in warm climates …

    … or the photo of a library marquee Huffington Post chose to run on the top of its “Libraries in Crisis” page. It reads: “Free coffee, internet, notary, phone, smiles, restrooms & ideas”. What the library is saying, quite literally, is that ideas are the last thing you’ll find there.

    My sense is that people who fund libraries (tho don’t necessarily use them) do so based on an aspirational model. I’d bet their support will wane as they continue to receive messages about libraries as places to get free coffee, zumba classes, etc.