In last week’s discussion of library rental fees, someone commented:
It is about our customers. In many cases, the rentals aren’t available either, and then they go and buy the book or check another library system. Yes patience is a virtue, and I can see that argument, but we also need to meet the informational needs of our community be it through, in this case, rental fiction or nonfiction.
This is in response to a line of thinking that argues people should just be willing to wait if they want to read the book for free, or even nearly free. This approach could be used to defend library rentals. Those who can’t afford the extra dollar could wait indefinitely, while the rich among us for whom the extra dollar makes no difference could read their Stephen King novels more quickly than the masses.
Though it could also be an argument against rental fees. Waiting for a best selling novel to be available to you for free could be seen as a character-building experience. The instant gratification culture that we have developed is deleterious to many areas of life, including the ability to read entire books. Giving them the choice of shelling out $30 or waiting several weeks to get a copy of the book that you would never want to spend money on teaches people that sometimes choices are hard.
But for now I want to focus on the comment, especially the suggestion that by providing quick, or even any, access to Stephen King novels or Fifty Shades of Grey, libraries are striving to meet the “informational needs” of their communities. Informational NEEDS? Really?
Since when is desiring to read the latest bestselling novel considered an information need? Is this one of those librarian shifts of meaning from the commonsensical to the nonsensical to justify themselves? You know, the way a book “challenge” somehow slips into “censorship,” because nobody gives a damn about book challenges but censorship sounds like the boogeyman is coming and only librarians can save us from him?
Yep, that sounds about right. Everything from the latest health care research to the latest bestselling thriller is “information.” If someone desires that information, it becomes a “need.” Only there’s a difference.
Let’s say someone is searching for information about a diagnosis they’ve received from a doctor. Are they really dying? Is major surgery the only option? Are they really going to have to give up chocolate frosted sugar bombs for breakfast?
These are things people might actually need to know so they don’t die. And there is a lot of “information” in this category. Business information? Important. Most people need to work to live. Tax information? Legal information? Anything can be a information need if the result of not meeting that need is some sort of hardship. Death, prison, bad investments, diabetes…it doesn’t really matter. Just that someone is worse off if they can’t find the information.
But popular novels? Has anyone ever died, gone to prison, contracted a disease, gone bankrupt, or had any remotely bad thing happen to them if they haven’t read the latest popular novel?
Seriously, what is the worst possible thing that could happen to someone if they haven’t read a popular novel? The worst thing might be that their friends who equate current popularity with literary worth might think them slightly out of date.
If the worst result of that is that you’re shunned by the shallow group of nitwits you think are your friends and are forced to realize you’ve been associating with people who lack souls, then that’s an argument for tossing popular novels out of libraries entirely.
Only in library-speak would a popular novel be considered “information” for which people would have a “need.” For everyone else, popular novels or DVDs or whatever are niceties, maybe even the sort of niceties that libraries should be providing.
However, librarians should gain some perspective on this issue. If you’re spending an inordinate amount of your budget supplying multiple copies of popular novels, you’re gathering less of whatever real information someone might have a real need for.
But why the strange metamorphosis where “information need” becomes corrupted to including “popular novel desire”? That one is pretty obvious, and explains a lot of the panicked doomsaying and ludicrous tough talk coming from some librarians, especially about ebooks.
“Publishers have to sell ebooks to libraries or libraries will go out of business!” “Publishers have to sell ebooks to libraries or librarians will gang up on them and sign petitions!”
It all comes down to defining public libraries as places to get current popular novels. That’s what people want, and what people want is somehow a need.
If that’s all libraries are really good for, then the next decade or so might really mean the end of libraries. If that’s not all they’re good for, then maybe librarians should start talking up the true information needs they fill.
If there are information needs that libraries truly fill, they won’t go away. If their entire rationale is to supply current bestsellers, then they probably will.