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The Silly Search for Relevance

Maybe it’s a good thing that the most ridiculous attempts by libraries to be “relevant” seem to happen in countries besides the US of A.

In the past few months, we’ve seen a Scottish library add a class on pole dancing. Then there’s the sad plan to make a Polish library more relevant by turning it into a swimming pool.

The latest silly attempt comes from New Zealand, where we learn that “Auckland libraries are spicing things up with erotic readings and burlesque dancing in an attempt to lure more members and stay relevant.”

We’re told it’s the “brainchild” of “a consultant seconded from the UK by Auckland Libraries to help cook up new ways of getting Aucklanders through the doors of their local branch.” So in addition to sex, we’ve added cooking into the mix, or maybe it’s just a sloppy use of metaphor.

After watching a movie about sex addiction and discussing sex with a psychologist, one library “will hold readings of erotic literature, music, burlesque and theatre exploring the theme, including opera/burlesque troupe Oh! Is For Opera.”

And then it gets a little weirder. One of the organizers “wants to use the festival to develop the libraries’ relationship with its lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender users.”

Because nothing says LGBT better than soft porn and light stripping, apparently. The rationale?

“Very often, at certain times of the year, we celebrate a particular thing, in this case, sexuality,” she said.

“But for our LGBT customer, that’s an identity they wear every day, and we don’t do a lot that addresses that.”

Maybe my thinking is a little off here, but are sex and sexuality really that related here? Reading porn and talking about sex isn’t exactly “celebrating sexuality” in the same way as, say, a gay pride march. Am I wrong here?

Anyway, that part seems like an inappropriate afterthought to an already pointless activity.

There are at least two problems going on here. The first is thinking that whatever brings people through the door of libraries makes them “relevant.” There are all sorts of things that can be done in a library building that won’t make the library any more relevant.

The second problem is thinking that “sex sells.” Yes, sex does sell, and yes, reading erotic literature out loud might bring some people into the library, where they will quickly realize they’re not in a sex garden. But what does it have to do with libraries?

In addition to burlesque, why not just add erotic massages to the library’s suite of offerings? Librarians can take advantage of that librarian fetish some people have, pull off their glasses, shake their hair out of its bun, and massage away. For a cash donation to the Friends of the Library, they can throw in a happy ending.

That would get people through the doors. Would it make the library “relevant”?

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Comments

  1. M S says:

    I guess it depends how you see the function of a library. If you see the function of a library as a place where you keep books, then yes, this isn’t very useful. If you see a library as a place of knowledge, curation and learning, then I absolutely see the relevance.

    Sexuality isn’t just about whether you’re gay or straight. It’s about how you engage with your own sexual identity. And there is a lot of knowledge contained within a library which can engage with that. But the “straight-laced” view of libraries may make it very hard to unlock that knowledge, unless libraries are more open about what they might have available.

  2. anonymous says:

    At least they are reading! I am more upset at a pool being installed in a library than a discussion about erotica.

  3. Mary Jo says:

    We have week long programs in libraries about finances, heath issues, gardening – so why not sexuality? Over the course of the week they are covering a variety of topics related to sexuality, including that fact that libraries carry erotica amongst their collections. These libraries are presenting themselves to the community as a place to get all sorts of information about sexuality, taking the taboo out of the subject. Your interpretation of this as just a silly gimmick to get people into the library seems a bit shallow.

  4. Mr Nonomous says:

    “But for our LGBT customer, that’s an identity they wear every day, and we don’t do a lot that addresses that.”

    As a straight male, don’t I wear that ID every day? But then I guess the burlesque dancing addresses that.

  5. ChickenPolitics says:

    You cannot fight the consensus. Just lie back, close your eyes, and think of England.

  6. miss.smith says:

    The pole dancing was marketing genius! They got national news coverage an it appears international news coverage ;) It was a one off, after the dancing bit they showed what they really have to offer i.e. the arts and crafts, reading etc.. it even says at the end of the report that the pole dancing isn’t going to be a regular thing.http://local.stv.tv/edinburgh/212611-free-pole-dancing-classes-at-dalkeiths-mayfield-library-a-success/

  7. C says:

    Like Mary Jo says, we have discussions about all different types of things, including mental health, taxes/finances, author discussions, movie nights, how to knit, and even how to quilt. Why not sex? I am not necessarily saying I want stripping in the library, but an honest discussion about sex, sex addiction, and what the library has to offer on these topics seem fine to me. I wish they had something like this in the U.S. And maybe a program on teen sexuality as well. Sounds like an intelligent way to help our patrons learn.

    • Mark says:

      Actually I might question whether *any* “programs” are very relevant to the library’s place in the community.

      The library makes books etc. more useful by (a) collecting and organizing many more than most of us could reasonably afford to have, *especially* including the ones we might not have heard of, and (b) providing experts in navigating the pile and evaluating what we find. I think that’s plenty of relevance.

    • c says:

      Mark, I agree with you, but for one thing. It would depend on the library whether any programs are “*any* “programs” are very relevant to the library’s place in the community” based on their mission and vision statements.

  8. K D says:

    It’s regrettable that The Herald lead with the words “in an attempt to lure more members and stay relevant” as I genuinely feel this editorialisiing set a tone or the article that misrepresented the intentions of the library and prompted disappointingly puritanical responses. I, for one, was delighted to see a library run a programme dedicated to a subject I am deeply passionate about (the “diversity across the borders of gender, sexual identity, and sexual orientation.” )

    I very much enjoyed reading the thoughts of this patron on the panel discussion last night. http://ashshields.tumblr.com/post/54055466608

    “the library is a microcosm of society and societal values, and it is important in this way. libraries are no longer about holding and collecting books, they are about nights like last night. they are about discussion and thought. libraries, in a way, are on the bleeding edge of society – they are a place where you can (or, at least, should be able to) find discussion about things that are perhaps not discussed elsewhere. nights like last night are important. they need to keep happening.”

  9. Stephanie says:

    I’m pretty shocked at all the people who don’t think it’s ridiculous. I don’t care if you want to let people know you have erotic books in the library. I don’t care if you want to have programs about your sexuality & stuff. Fine. But gimmicks like that just make us seem like we’re begging. I guess I’m old fashioned, because I prefer to have my library BE a library. Not a social club, not a coffee hang out, not a place where people coming to study in a quiet place can’t because there is BURLESQUE being performed. What happened to wanting the library to be educational & fun, but not pathetic? Have the programs recognizing LGBT, don’t make it seem.a joke. I don’t understand also, how the sex talk did lead to the glbt thing either?
    But hey, commentors on here seemed to like it. Glad it’s not my library

    • c says:

      Wow, kinda harsh, I know what I was referring to, if you had read carefully, was not the Burlesque that was being performed, but rather an honest open discussion about sex, which is a pretty taboo subject in public society. I for one did not mention anything about social clubs or a cafe. In addition, there is no reason why the library can’t hold programs without the sound bleeding out to the rest of the public. Many libraries have dedicated spaces for different types of programs including movie nights, a discussion on autism, a psychic author, and more. Plus, it sounds like the library had more than just burlesque… some actual educational opportunities. Correct me if I am wrong but, that seems a place where people can come to learn, study, and also just have a spanking good time.

      P.S I have no idea how that related to LGBT either…

    • Stephanie says:

      I was kind of replying to several commentors. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having fun programs inviting more social type stuff. I just have work in a library where they’re pushing stuff like burlesque dancing & other loud things in branches that have meeting rooms, but they aren’t sound proofed. We have signs up warning patrons ahead of time & do announcements, but it runs off people trying to do serious studying.
      A library IS a place to learn, share ideas, be involved with it’s community. But things like swimming pools, pole dancing classes, that’s just pathetic. I’m sorry. We don’t need to change the publics view from old & out of date by becoming grandma wearing skinny jeans & asking about stuff she saw on “spacebook”. There’s a wrong way to get noticed.

    • Mary Jo says:

      I think we have to remember that the posted article was not library PR, it was a newsperson’s limited understanding of what it is the library is trying to accomplish. The library did a program exploring multiple aspects of sexuality, and it concluded with an event that reminds us that sexuality can also be fun (and opera can be too). The “burlesque” in question is Oh! is for Opera – http://www.eventfinder.co.nz/2013/oh-is-for-opera/auckland/newton – and it was not held in the library but in a local theater venue, as were a number of the events.

      While the finale was risque, it was not a random gimmick to get people into the library. In his blog (http://matthewfinch.me/2013/06/17/on-a-dark-night-you-can-see-for-ever-library-burlesque-hits-auckland/), Matt Finch (who planned this program) wrote:
      “This isn’t prurience on a library budget. It’s making sure that libraries are still part of the conversation when Fifty Shades of Grey sells 70 million copies and Dita Von Teese is a household name. It’s about respecting ALL our patrons’ tastes, and at the same time challenging those people who use sex and sexuality in the media for mere profit…
      This isn’t about exploitation. This is about questioning sex and sexuality in our culture…We’re turning things on their head, drawing on the best of contemporary Kiwi culture to show gender relations in a different light. We’re playing with the media and discourse around sexuality – to show you what’s out there, and make you think critically…The point is this: if libraries are “your space of imagination, learning, and connection”, that applies to every aspect of our culture…

      The people who run libraries are responsible for understanding their communities. This program might play as a gimmick in a small public library in America, but New Zealand is culturally different than America. For a population as small as they have, the prevalence of art and theater is amazing. What’s more, the kiwi attitude toward sexuality is less closeted than in much of America. If the public is abuzz with Fifty Shades of Grey, why shouldn’t a library, which is in the book business, join in the conversation?

      We are librarians. When presented with a news article such as this, we should be using our good librarian skills to find out the full story before we pass judgment, and even then we should take care in not passing judgment on libraries in other countries who are serving other populations that we may know little about.

  10. c says:

    Mary Jo, I think you summed up the situation nicely. Well said, better than I could have. I particularly agree with the comment that libraries are serving their communities which we know very little about.

  11. Library Spinster says:

    “Ithink we have to remember that the posted article was not library PR, it was a newsperson’s limited understanding of what it is the library is trying to accomplish.” Which, arguably, is itself a PR failure.

  12. 1blondelibrarian says:

    I work in an urban library. We already have problems with patrons having sex in the single key-locked bathrooms as well as sneaking into an (accidentally) unlocked meeting room and doing it there. Since funding seems to be such a big issue for most libraries today, perhaps we should just charge a fee and let them do what they want. After all, free speech, free expression, and all that, right? One thing that has not been mentioned is the presence of children in the public library. Should they have to be exposed to those kinds of “programs”? Or do we just schedule such programs after hours and charge admission for all the community’s perverts? At least that way we’d be making money that could be used to build up our collection of pornography which would at least raise our circulation stats…

  13. Captain Librarian says:

    Sadly, most Public Library programming is about nothing more than the administration’s desire to get behinds in seats, so they can report ever increasing yearly attendance numbers…the ability to draw a crowd, and a willingness to show up for free, or close to it, are the two major criteria considered for most programming presenters.

    If we aren’t relevant as information providers and intellectual guides, perhaps it’s time we give up and close the doors. Maybe people have de-volved to the point where Google really is all they need anymore. If, however, this isn’t the case, we shouldn’t need to have pole dancing classes to stay in business.

    • 1blondelibrarian says:

      Well put. I think a lot of this goes back to who we really are and what the mission statement is for a library. Information providers and intellectual guides are who we should be. It is so important to help patrons understand the difference between google search results and research database information.

  14. Raynor says:

    The second Carnegie library had (and still has) a pool and fitness center.

  15. C says:

    Ok, am I the only one who bothered to look up the event? http://www.eventfinder.co.nz/2013/oh-is-for-opera/auckland/newton

    The site clearly states that this is an adults only event, which I am assuming means they have a dedicated space for this. As for charging admission, many libraries already charge for some events. It’s called fundraising.
    Sex happens, sometimes people have sex in public places, we deal with it, however distasteful that is. I worked in a movie theater during my undergrad and dealt with it there. We are not the only ones to have to deal with this. Having a risque event is not going to invite all the perverts, porn stars and exhibitionists into the… wait a minute… they are already allowed in. Besides, I would rather kids get factual information from an also educational and fun library program than their other kids who don’t know anything. I thought the purpose of most libraries was to help educate the public. Why is this any different?

  16. M S says:

    Maybe, as someone has already suggested, the difference here is cultural. Although certainly not across the board, in New Zealand, talking about sex and sexuality is not just the purview of “perverts”. Sex and sexuality are natural, and are things which we need to talk about and address more. I attended a couple of the events, and the “dirtiest” that they got was a reading of some James Joyce – evocative, and provocative, but entirely appropriate to an adult audience.

    The panel discussion was invigorating, thought-provoking, and shows what happens when an intelligent group of people (both audience and panel) get together, open up their minds, and discuss the changing nature of writing, erotica, consumption, and the place of libraries within these. If you don’t see this as being important within a library, then I’m very glad that I have the libraries available to me that I have.