Annoyed Librarian
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Inside Annoyed Librarian

Give Them What they Need

Libraries are there to help people educate themselves and provide things the public needs but can’t provide otherwise. That’s always been the most compelling case for public libraries, and always the one smart librarians rush to in hard times.

If there comes a time when libraries aren’t necessary for this purpose, if someday everything really is digitized and free on the Internet and the Internet is freely available on the inside of our eyelids, then libraries would cease to exist. We know that day isn’t ever coming, but a lot of people think it’s already here. Except for the eyelids part.

By now, we should know that Americans aren’t going to support public libraries in hard times if they think they’re entertainment centers or welfare organizations. We don’t like poor people and don’t care if they aren’t entertained. Simple as that.

Oh, and another thing about the poor I just remembered. Not only do they not have any money, they usually don’t vote.

So why would people with money and who vote care about public libraries in bad times? They have to think there’s something in the library that isn’t available cheaply elsewhere.

People who use libraries know this already. They check out books, download audiobooks, use the library databases for research, and at a rate they couldn’t afford without community support. It might not take a village to raise a child, but it sure as heck takes a consortium to afford Ebsco databases.

But that’s in good times. When there’s a lot of fat in a country, providing a little community entertainment is nice. We have parks and parades, why not libraries. But in tough financial times, the community, or at least the politicians of that community, decide that entertainment isn’t really crucial. Thus, cut the library budget, and people will just have to talk to their spouses or take a walk instead of watching that free DVD.

So the question is, do public libraries provide something that’s necessary, but not generally available? Not just nice, but absolutely necessary for the quality of life of people in the community?

Here’s where librarians start talking about Internet access, but I suspect that response doesn’t resonate well with the Americans who both have money and vote, those middle and upper middle who participate most in the political process with their money and their votes.

Why wouldn’t they care? Because, like the majority of Americans, they have Internet access either at home or work or both, and if they didn’t have it, they could afford it if it was a priority. Even a lot of poorer Americans could. How many people without Internet connections have cable television and/or cell phones? Most of them, I bet. And don’t say that even if you can afford an Internet service you still have to buy a computer. To use cable, you still have to buy a television.

People have priorities, and lots of "poor" Americans have cable television and cell phones. This isn’t some third world country. Besides, if this were the problem, it would probably be cheaper to subsidize Internet connections than pay for public libraries.

So what do public libraries have that is necessary for the common good, but not available cheaply elsewhere? Whatever it is has to have a serious purpose, something people would vote to tax themselves for even in an anti-tax climate.

The thing is, there’s not much. Strip away the leisure reading and the audio books and the Internet connections and the DVDs, and libraries become small, shrunken places. That’s basically what’s happening now. Libraries are cutting hours, cutting staff, cutting anything not absolutely necessary. You wouldn’t know it listening to librarians, but of all the dire library budget stories, I haven’t seen many where all the libraries in an area would actually close completely.

If librarians can’t convince politicians not to cut, the important thing for the time being is to focus on what can be cut that isn’t absolutely necessary for the serious purposes for which people are willing to fund libraries. If libraries cut the necessary, then they really will have no purpose at all.

And what is the necessary? This is where choices become very hard. What’s more important for the community? Library staff or library databases? Romance novels or reference books? Librarians have to emphasize what libraries have that most people really need, even if only occasionally, rather than what they want only in good times.

Will libraries be fun places? Not for most people. The DMV isn’t a fun place to be, either, but we need it anyway.



  1. Stalin's Ghost says:

    So long as libraries call it what it is, tax payer supported wifi, computer access, books, etc.

    Free is not a word to use here. Libraries do them self a dis-service using this because the population will put no value on something that is “free”.

    Please feel free to comment.

  2. Almost a Librarian says:

    You assume that most political leaders are smart and use libraries, I doubt that concept. Money is often found, unless the coffers are extremely dry, because supporting free “education” for the poor sounds good to the middle class voters and helps with their guilt of success (even though they should be proud of their hard work). And don’t forget the ALA’s part in reinforcing our pinheaded leftist media. Also it does keep the homeless from begging at the corners of gated communities.

  3. TwoQatz says:

    We’ve got a branch library or two situated in wealthier parts of town. Their circ stats are huge – people with money tend to see the value of books for themselves and their offspring. Circ figures for branches in the poorer neighborhoods are much lower. I had to spend a couple weeks subbing in two of the branches serving the poor neighborhoods. Forget Internet access – this is south Texas. We had people in because they couldn’t afford AC.

  4. Not a librarian anymore says:

    Smart libraries will develop high levels of service and expertise in 2 areas–as information resources for business development, including small business, and as an interface for government information. The first places the library in the economic development arena for both job and business creation, and the second ensures that it has a place in democracy. But most libraries are not experts in these area.

  5. William says:

    We go to libraries for books that are not cheap.

    I have budgeted $15/month to buy one book. But not all books are that inexpensive. If I need information in a book that costs more that $15, I’ll borrow it from the library.

    After reading it I will have learned something and will have become a better citizen. But without the library this reading (and its resultant benefits) would never be realized because the books with reliable information are beyond my ability to pay for them.

    Every community should calculate the price at which their average citizen would no longer buy books, and only buy books that cost more than that figure. If everyone’s on welfare, the library might need to buy romance novels, but I suspect that for most communities the books in the $40-$80 range are the ones the community could most benefit from.

  6. social democrat says:

    Yes, the poor and unemployed frequently can afford a cell phone. Or they can afford a television and cable. Or they can afford a computer and high-speed Internet. Or they can afford a land-line. (Have you seen the price of a new land-line?) But they can’t afford a land-line AND a cellphone AND a television AND cable AND a computer AND high-speed Internet. Seriously, come down out of the ivory tower for a few days.

  7. Coastside Librarian says:

    @Stalin’s Ghost – Agreed. Americans will devalue in their minds anything that is “free” – we need to stop parading that horse around the corral.

    In these times, we must link ourselves to the economic recovery in that we are part of the solution, that we can be an economic generator by helping somebody get off the dole, that we are a draw for business traffic (people still have to actually come to the library to get their stuff – it’s not all digital), that we impart value to a community in myriad ways. Quantifying that value is the trick because funders need numbers to justify their resource allocations.

  8. Post Postmodern Librarian says:

    @ TwoQatz I hear I am down in South Texas too. William at least you try to put a money, or a number behind your reasoning. I believe most people will only pay about $7 per hr for leisure activities. Yes even job searching is a leisure since its not directly related to work.

    When all is said and done I believe we are the lifeguards of the information pool. We organize it, maintain it, we keep the peace around it, and we help people who need help swimming in it. Sometimes we help by clearing the pool out for teaching people how to swim, other times we set up the volley ball nets for entertainment.

    Hands down librarians like life guards are there to make sure people have a safe experience swimming in the information pool. As long as we show our professionalism by keeping a well order method of access to information, maintaining our collections to high standards, Helping those who need help,and provide training to those who want to do better we are doing well.

  9. Postpartum Librarian says:

    Post Post Post Post Postmodern Librarian.

    I don’t want a nanny state.

    I don’t need a nanny state.

    Librarians have to lose the attitude that they are the gate keepers to the world of “real information”. I use the public library a lot. I know the collection of my local library better than the librarians they have working there. I cringe when I hear some of the advice reference librarians give to the public.

    A lot of it is wrong. It is equivalent of a life guard coming up to a drowning person and shoving their head underwater until they stop struggling. The operation was a success unfortunately the patient died.

    There are several “professional” librarians at the local library that treat Hispanics like they are two years old. Just because they don’t speak English very well does not mean that they have to be lead around like a two year old and admonished when they don’t follow the librarians information advice. Drop these librarians in Guadalajara for a week and they would be starving on the street.

    When librarians start to set standards for themselves and start policing their ranks and getting rid of the idiots, slackers, jerks, and the like from their ranks; then they can be considered professionals. As it stands now, people are librarians because they went through many years of college and had no where else to turn for money.

    Librarians need and organization like the AMA or ABA to be considered true professionals. Heck, even hack public school teachers have to get a license from the State before they can go out into the world.

    Now get back to work helping the great unwashed of the world.

  10. Libraries should focus on reference for school and everyday life. Most reference books in public libraries are obscure and out of date. Surely, many of the public would be interested in “free access” to the latest on gardening, green living, child rearing, and so forth. Libraries should market the availability of subscription databases – most people have no idea these exist. Libraries also need to work on helping people find the best information. You want people to think of their library website as the best place to start searching for information.

  11. gadickson says:

    Libraries should concentrate on nonfiction, subscription databases, and organizing the best online information. The nonfiction in most libraries is obscure and out of date. Libraries should focus on books for school and home use. Surely, people would be interested in borrowing current books on gardening, green living, child care, and such. Librarians should make their site the first site their patrons think of for finding information – yes that is a lot of work to set up and maintain but finding, organizing, and making accessable the best information is the librarian’s job. Librarians need to market their subscription databases.

  12. I Like Books says:

    I go to the library to learn many things. I learn about other religions, about conflicts around the world, about our economy that came crashing down, about the history of jazz or Europe. I learn about many things, important and not so important. One book after another. If I’d had to purchase all of them I’d have gone broke, or gone through only a fraction of them in deciding what I really needed to know, and which books were really worth it.

    A democracy needs an educated citizenry, and I don’t mean just college-educated. It’s hard enough getting people to read about things they vote on when it’s free to borrow. It would be perverse to require them to purchase it all.

    That, I think, is the library’s core mission. Related to that is reference services that can lead people to that type of information. And if librarians are really worried about Google, they might focus on that thing which Google can’t provide– reference services. But give them something hard and maybe all they’ll do is rattle off some call numbers and leave you to browse. That’s a little better than entering keywords into a search engine, but not much. They could do better, and eventually will have to do better to remain an important information resource in a digital age.

  13. ” It might not take a village to raise a child, but it sure as heck takes a consortium to afford Ebsco databases.”

    When I read this sentence I snorted aloud. Thank you AL for the most delightful moment of my day.

  14. ScalesFallingOff says:

    I have noticed that, depending on the area, library patrons can be either intelligent (and therefore want good reference and non-fiction), or want to remain wilfully ignorant.
    It seems unfortunately to always correlate to income.
    In one branch, the patrons are so pathetic that they won’t even come up to the front desk to ask for help: they actually are so lazy that they just stand in random areas throughout the building, WAITING for someone to go up to them ask them what they need(we aren’t allowed to leave circ or ref desks, so it all depends on whether backup is free)…and what do they want? DVD’S!!! Not information so that they can educate themselves, just entertainment.

    Of course, when the gov’t keeps implementing more and more programs to help the poor, why WOULD they want to get off the dole? Being informed, they would realize they’re stealing from their fellow citizens. As it is, they can feel “righteously downtrodden”, with the man always out to get them.

    It’s time to stop living in the pretend library world of our MLIS textbooks: cater to the people who pay, and stop pretending that most of the “information” libraries are now giving is useful when the most popular items are erotica and popular movies. We’re no longer providing real information, stop pretending we’re so lofty and be honest in what we deal with. By the way, why not provide free pizza while we’re at it? I’m sure the customers would like it.

  15. lmcshane says:

    Communities need safe places for children–all too often ALA and library administrators forget just how important libraries are to families with children and to the children themselves. My own neighbor’s daughter locks herself out of the house on a frequent basis–when it is cold or inclement she would have no where to go, if not for the library. During community emergencies–we get calls on who to contact. The list goes on and on. The physical library is more than just a place to pick up books, movies and cds. It is a crucial community meeting place.

  16. The Man says:

    If you neighbors are that neglectful of their daughter, child protective services has to be called.

    Failing to do so is a crime.

  17. ScalesFallingOff says:

    “Communities need safe places for children”

    Very true, and yet our manager is proud that we allow porn on our computers, which you must walk by to get to the E and J books (and they wonder why there are continual letters to the editor. Here’s a hint for all you clueless managers who would do likewise: move the computer bank!). How is that a safe environment? Safe implies more than a warm place.

  18. Judge Judith says:

    What is a safe environment?

    What is porn?

    I personally find anything from the SI swimsuit issue on up, porn. I hope I can convince my director to get rid of it.

  19. Mr. Kat says:

    May 19, 2010
    In response to: Give Them What they Need
    social democrat commented:

    Yes, the poor and unemployed frequently can afford a cell phone. Or they can afford a television and cable. Or they can afford a computer and high-speed Internet. Or they can afford a land-line. (Have you seen the price of a new land-line?) But they can’t afford a land-line AND a cellphone AND a television AND cable AND a computer AND high-speed Internet. Seriously, come down out of the ivory tower for a few days.

    Well, let’s see, my cable local providers solved that issue ages ago – they offer a cable package that includes Cable TV, a home phone line, and Internet all for the price of a phone contract. So that cuts it down to just “service” and the electronics.

    What does a new computer cost nowadays? $500, Walmart. I’ve seen them there as low as $400 and $350 if you’re really good at watching sales. Laptop OR desktop.

    Cell phones are now getting a lot easier too – between pay as you go plans and family plans, that expense can be minimized. What more, your cell phone provider can also offer wireless internet services that are at a comparable and affordable price [$50 a month].

    If your friends are sauvy enough, they ditch the phones and tvs altogether and get themselves the laptop with internet service[and wifi capability], and do their phone talking for free through Skype and their TV watching via the internet and the DVD player that is now pretty standard on new computers.

    Many of the fast food establishments around here now advertise free wi-fi for their patrons – the very places such people eat at in the first place!

    Quit telling us what people can’t afford…the divide is not as big anymore as the whiners want to whine!

  20. ScalesFallingOff says:

    Hey, Judge Judith:
    Since the Swimsuit edition doesn’t have any real value to society, and, in fact, can wreak havoc on young girls’ self-esteem — because the women are air-brushed and skimmed down and are not what the models even look like,so the girls starve and plastic-surgery themselves and still end up depressed — I hope your quest to remove it is fruitful. How nice to have someone care about kids

    (and Judith, you fool, everyone knows what porn is: it’s the stuff playing on computers in our library with penises going in and out of many orifices of women. And women using foreign objects on other women. Stop playing that stupid, “What is porn?” card. It’s so tiresome!)

  21. Stop Whining says:

    Wow, I haven’t read this blog in more than a year, but I don’t remember its readers being such a bunch of whining fools.

    AL brings up a good point about high quality, necessary services, unlike the “Give ’em what they want” rhetoric that has been swirling for years, which proves its worth mainly via circulation numbers. This is fine and dandy during economic boons, but in more difficult times, we realize that these services are unnecessary to our major purpose: providing free access to high-quality info. and, at times, educating the public of our democracy on where to find it/how to use it.

    In the end, though, let’s stop whining. We did this to ourselves, and we can change it by refocusing on our historical purpose, and re-educating our public as to our true value. The only thing that worries me is that it will take a lot of hard work; if the posters on this board are any indication of the heart of library employees, I wouldn’t bet on this effort succeeding.

  22. Tee Paine says:

    Was it not Voltaire who first said – I do not agree with your whine, but I will defend to the death your right to whine?

  23. Judge Judith says:

    Thanks for the definition of porn.

    I am going to tell those puritans who don’t watching men with other men doing naked things to go get a life and stop whining when kids walk by and see it.

    Or the scenes of women bound up.

    or, well, you get the picture.

  24. Fancy Nancy says:

    Romance novels or reference books? Well my library has already made that choice. We don’t even have a reference section anymore.

  25. Can you tell me, or anyone else, where culture ends and entertainment begins?

  26. Nanette says:

    Good comment, EERH6. 80 to 90 years ago novels in libraries were frowned upon as wasteful and suggestive. Even Huckleberry Finn and Pride & Prejudice were considered bad influences. Would these be on AL’s non-essential list?

    [AL: Possibly. Huckleberry Finn is terrible.]

  27. Culture ends and the edge of the agar.

  28. overmatik says:

    The task of getting clear what libraries are good for is the ultimate question. It differs from institution from institution, community from community.

    Just one thing, though, the fact that people have internet at home doesn’t do anything to devalue the role of libraries. The internet is a great garbage can, and no serious research or even school homework can be done with google.

    The most important role of a library today is, like others have said, to guide people through the information maze. And sincerely, the libraries who can’t manage that task are already useless.

  29. Library Joe says:

    Speaking of the priorities of the poor. I live in a poorer neighborhood. There have to be a dozen people with 3 blocks that have brand new Escalades. I don’t want to hear about it if these people cannot afford a computer and internet access. What the hell are they doing having a $40,000 vehicle in a neighborhood where the houses cost from $40,000-$80,000.

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