Annoyed Librarian
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Inside Annoyed Librarian

The Value of Empty Libraries

I wanted to post something yesterday as usual, but I’m still a little groggy from the AL anniversary party. The champagne was flowing a bit too freely, and I’ve since been in no mood to write. Plus, I seem to have misplaced my shoes during the party, but that’s a long story.

All week I’ve been thinking more about the mean anti-library guy wanting to shut down public libraries and privatize the world. Libraries seem to be shutting down all over the country, and not just in our country if an article I read about British libraries facing closures is true. Part of this is due to the recession. Times are hard. Tax revenues are down. We’re told it’s good news when only half a million people file new unemployment claims in a month.

These are also the times, as you’ve likely been reading, when people start using public libraries more. With stagnant or reduced household incomes, finding books and entertainment that doesn’t cost money immediately is attractive. People who might have dashed out to buy the latest Dan Brown book now wait for a library copy. Dropping your cable television subscription to save some money isn’t quite as hard when you can get DVDs from the library. Then there are the people who need help finding jobs and access to the information services libraries provide.

This story might be typical. Declining budgets, higher use. Library budgets have been stagnant or declining for years. What were all these people who now need the library doing then? Probably eroding support for libraries by not using or supporting them. After all, who needs libraries when times are good? Sure, there are the poor, but the poor tend not to pay taxes or vote, so they’re no help.

In general, it hasn’t really been that expensive to replace many of the services of public libraries without leaving home. If you can afford an Internet connection and a cheap computer, there’s a world of information and entertainment at your fingertips. Wikipedia supplies your ready reference. Government information is freely available. Go toHulu and similar sites, and you can watch ordinary television shows without paying for cable. Music downloads are pretty cheap these days. Add a few bucks a month forNetflix and you’ve got DVDs and their streaming video service thrown in for free.

And it seems to me only a matter of time before some company – Amazon or Google would be my bet – does for ebooks what Netflix has done for videos, something like Questia , except with books people would actually want to read. $20 a month for all the titles you could read checked out one at a time would seem like a bargain for a lot of people who now depend on libraries to get their bestseller fix. Even without that,ebooks are generally pretty cheap, and cheap used printed books are easy to find through the Internet.

For about $100 a month, you would thus have everything you might ordinarily get from the library. Why would anyone go? Fewer people must have been going to libraries or they wouldn’t be so desperate to attract "customers" and support. But the people who are the most attractive for libraries – the earnest middle classes – haven’t needed them.

It might be the case that the people who are now using libraries in greater numbers are themselves partly responsible for poor library budgets. In the good times, lots of people don’t need libraries, so they don’t support them. In bad times, when the need libraries the most, the libraries are thus less able to help them.

One argument for libraries isn’t that they provide everyone with useful services, because they don’t. Plenty of people don’t use libraries because they can afford all the stuff they would normally get at them. However, it’s not a question of what libraries do for people at the moment. Libraries are something that should be supported as a "just in case" measure at the very least. Right now someone might be employed and can afford Internet service and cable TV and a Kindle, but what happens when all that goes away? Libraries serve immediate users, but they’re also like insurance policies. They’re insurance against ignorance and boredom. Libraries are valuable even if no one is using them.



  1. I don’t know about where you live, but our library usage has been going up for years. In fact, we’ve had a 23% increase in usage in the last 5 years. And we live in a University town in a part of the country that was not hit quite as hard as others. So, yeah our usage went up this year but that’s not unusual.

  2. “Don’t it always seem to go
    That you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone”…

    The dialogue about libraries today is so concentrated on books and DVDs. After they’re gone, we’ll start reminiscing about the other things they offered that we took for granted.

  3. good“`

  4. Dances With Books says:

    The only flaw in your plan AL is IF a person can afford a high speed broadband connection. If you live in the boonies, and the only option is dial up, you can forget about Hulu, Netflix streams, and whatever else fancy stuff you can get on the Internet to substitute for cable TV. Otherwise, I guess the plan is fine.

    As you say, where were the people when the times were good? Probably eroding support for the library they need so much now.

  5. the.effing.librarian says:

    “Libraries are valuable even if no one is using them.” IMO, my library is *more* valuable when no one is using it; have you seen some of these people? When the place is empty, I can finally douse everything with Nonoxynol-9 and kill some of these tea-cup-pig-size germs hiding behind the recycle bins. (Plus no one bothers me for stuff. Priceless.)

  6. Not to sound idealistic, but I think that you are missing something here. A lot of people got to the library for the same reason they go to a bar, movie theater, or concert. It’s not that they cannot get the same access elsewhere, it’s that there is something in the experience worth having. I know that sounds trite, but bear with me.

    A library is not just a place that houses books and DVDs for people to rent, has public computers for the to use, or is a place to find information. It is also a place to get away from the normal distractions that a person has elsewhere; for instance, I cannot study at my computer at home, although I wish I could. There are too many distractions that keep me from focusing on my work. I know some people can focus at home, but for me I would rather not “go home” to work. The library provides a work environment for me to feel less distracted and I know I won’t go home until my work is done.

    A library also serves as a center for the community. While you can also interact with people online, there is something to be said for the discussion and connection you have in person, whether working as a study group or checking out the latest baseball statistics.

    Most people may not realize this about the library, but the experience it affords is different than that of NetFlix, wikipedia, or Barnes and Noble. For one thing, it’s nice that we aren’t constantly trying to sell you something. I like the fact that I am a librarian, not a car dealer, and people definitely respond to you differently in that light.

    So while it is true that people can definitely receive the same access to information and documents elsewhere, there is more to us than is so neatly summarized by a fifth-grade observation.

    Finally, this same argument about “no one needs libraries now that the Internet is here” has been paraded by magazines and newspapers for almost two decades now. The “obsolescence” of the library. Does anyone else see the irony in the fact that this comes while newspapers and magazines are shutting down from lack of subscribers and we (at least my library) has only ever had more circulation, patrons with active library accounts, and programming. Perhaps we need to stop heeding their advice.

  7. HippieMan says:

    Well, if we raised taxes on the rich and cut our insanely bloated “defense” budget, then perhaps, just perhaps, we’d have enough money for social services like public libraries and schools.

  8. NotMarianTheLibrarian says:

    Libraries are closing or reducing their hours, yet the latest issue of American Libraries had an article about the great job market for librarians and how we’re likely to need lots more in the coming years.

    And I met two people this week who are considering the online degree from UNT. Don’t do it!!!!!

  9. I Like Books says:

    I use libraries. Not for the computers– I have one at home, and can log into the library databases from here. (Where do people get the idea that everything is available for free on the internet? Or that everything is available on the internet?) Not for fiction– I have a backlog on my shelves and never seem to have trouble getting more. I get free DVDs, I admit, although not since there was last snow on the ground.

    Mostly I read non-fiction. Maybe six titles in the last few months, it would have cost maybe $100 or $200 if I’d bought them. That’s a significant barrier compared with browsing a section and getting something relevant to whatever current events, history, or science you happen to want to know more about.

    I see the importance of libraries in educating the public, and as repositories for accumulated knowledge (e.g. newspaper archives). They serve an important function in any democracy. It’s perverse to ask a citizen to spend hundreds of dollars of their own money to read about stuff that’s happening when their vote affects others besides themselves. It’s hard enough to get people to read a book when it’s free.

    The romance and the DVDs and all the rest of that stuff, it’s nice and everything. Especially if it gets more people in the doors. But we shouldn’t be placed in a position of defending a library when people are getting their romances and DVDs elsewhere. The core mission is important enough that the usage of romances and DVDs shouldn’t come into the decision.

  10. Lying Librarian says:

    “I met two people this week who are considering the online degree from UNT. Don’t do it!!!!!”

    The ONLY people who should be getting a library degree nowadays are people who meet the following criteria:
    1. already have a job where the degree would be helpful
    2. that job is located in a city with a college that offers an MLIS program
    2. the job provides tuition reimbursement.

    Kids, if you don’t meet the three criteria above, DON’T DO IT.

    DO NOT take out $40,000 in student loans to get a library degree.

    DO NOT pay for out of state tuition to get a library degree, online or otherwise.

    DO NOT pursue a library degree if you haven’t already worked in a library, or if you aren’t working in one right now.

    DO NOT pay any of your own money to get this degree.

    That said, if you are already working somewhere, enjoy the work, and there is a decent school nearby, and your work will pay for it, then by all means, go for it.

    There must be about a dozen or so people nationwide who meet these criteria. That wouldn’t be enough folks to keep all the library school professors out there employed, however.

  11. NotMariantheLibrarian says:

    Great advice, Lying Librarian. We sure aren’t adding professional staff and I anticipate losing some if the economy doesn’t pick up.

    It’s always been a tough job market – I’ve been writing that for ages. It was hard 30 years ago and I had to move to a place I wasn’t interested in. That said, I’ve enjoyed it immensely, did make some decent $$ when I got a corporate job and have had the good fortune to move into low-paying academia.

    It’s a buyer’s market – we got nearly 30 applicants for one job. Most of the resumes were from people who had never worked in a library and had online degrees.

  12. Tyler Enfield says:

    As a children’s author, I hear talk of print books going out of fashion, being replaced by kindles and various digital services- and of course the need to jump on the digital bandwagon, which I may- however books aren’t going away for the simple reason that people like them. We touch them, we hold them, they even share our beds- no wonder people speak of their romance. I think libraries, for all the challenges they face, hold a similar place in our social psyche. As others have pointed out, there’s an entire experience on offer. Bars don’t go out of business because liquor stores open. As long as people continue to enjoy books, and the buildings we house them in, I have no fear of their ever being digitally replaced.

  13. The off the cuff analysis seems greatly flawed. I doubt there is a municipal or suburban library in the country that gets 100$ per month per capita or even per household from the persons with in it’s service area. Not even close.

  14. Biblio babe says:

    “Libraries serve immediate users, but they’re also like insurance policies. They’re insurance against ignorance and boredom. Libraries are valuable even if no one is using them.”

    This is so beautifully said! Wonderful commentary. Thanks as always for your insight.

  15. Anonymous Librarian says:

    Picard said “The off the cuff analysis seems greatly flawed. I doubt there is a municipal or suburban library in the country that gets 100$ per month per capita or even per household from the persons with in it’s service area. Not even close.”

    The analysis is correct – but Picard is correct in that the taxes that go towards funding the public library are a tiny, tiny amount – no where near the $1200 figure (and I think that’s a conservative estimate.)

    I also appreciate the comment about libraries being an experience. We just started showing movies at my library; and an elderly woman commented that she is so glad – the reason is that her husband recently passed away, so she is lonely. She hates going to the movies alone, so coming to the library is a great, social experience for her.

    My public library serves a relatively small community that is fairly affluent, but our usage is up almost 20% from last year, and 50% from 2 years ago. Most libraries are experiencing the same thing.

    I appreciate your insurance comparison. Unfortunately, we librarians are not doing a good enough job advertising what we do and reminding the community of our importance. Our users know it, but it’s the people like the guy in Oak Brook we have to worry about. They’re loud and they get heard.

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