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Inside Annoyed Librarian

Readers the Library Doesn’t Serve

Last week someone commented to the effect that one of the many things I didn’t know about public libraries was that there were people there doing real research.  The comment in part:

Then, there is another class of people who use the public library for research purposes, because they have no access to the ivory tower libraries with their superior clientele wiping their noses, getting tintinitis from their ipods and wearing their tattoos like honor badges.

If you notice, as I did, that the comment drips with resentment, it won’t surprise you to learn that it’s by a public librarian who couldn’t find full time work in academic libraries. Maybe the problem wasn’t the lack of available jobs, but the attitude.

But I digress.

Whether all, or even most, universities and colleges could be called “ivory towers” is seriously open to debate, but I’m certain there are people with serious research needs or reading interests trying to find intellectual sustenance at their local public libraries.

Good luck with that.  Because one thing I know for a fact about public libraries is that most of them gave up on serious readers a very long time ago. The move was deliberate, and as a result serious readers often don’t find much support in public libraries.

If you disagree with me, then it will be over the definition of “serious reader,” because otherwise I am absolutely right and you are absolutely wrong. So, what is a serious reader?

Let us begin by stating what a serious reader is not. Serious reading is not defined by quantity alone. The people who read a romance novel a day or a bestselling thriller every two weeks aren’t serious readers. They read for entertainment.  There’s nothing wrong with reading for entertainment. I do it myself. But by definition it’s not serious. It’s the literary equivalent of watching television, except without the ads (at least so far).

Serious readers are also not necessarily scholars. Scholars read to produce their next book or article, but there are plenty of serious readers who might read some of the same serious books, but only for the purpose of discovery or enlightenment or curiosity. These are the readers most ill served by libraries in general, because they’re not necessarily affiliated with a university, but they can’t get what they want from public libraries. And since Amazon isn’t selling scholarly Kindle books for $9.99, they can’t afford to buy all the books they want. Scholarly books are priced for libraries, not individuals.

Serious readers do not confine themselves to the contemporary best seller lists or to the latest genre fiction.  If they’re reading what the book trade calls nonfiction, they usually like to read very deeply, sometimes even books written by (gasp!) people in ivory towers. If they read fiction, they’re likely to explore authors that most public libraries either never bought or weeded because they hadn’t circulated in a while. If they read poetry, then they might as well give up entirely, because most public libraries aren’t going to have much that isn’t being assigned to local high schoolers.

Twas not always thus. Public libraries often began life by stocking books for serious readers. Librarians were even a bit ashamed to buy the kind of shallow, ephemeral bestselling trash they now stock with glee. There was the “fiction problem,” in which librarians noticed that they stocked serious books for serious readers, but that most people who read at all wanted fiction, the easier and trashier the better.

Oh, what should librarians do, they wondered? If we buy serious books for serious readers, then we will serve only the small percentage of serious readers in any community. But if we stop buying serious books, and stop pretending we’re here to educate people, and buy what the “public” wants, then more people will use the library.

The choice was an agonizing one for many librarians, but they eventually caved in or died off. As a result, public libraries changed. They were no longer for serious readers, but for the masses, the bigger the mass the better.  In the course of the first half of the last century, public libraries transformed into the bread-and-circuses, lowest-common-denominator, give-the-”people”-what-they-want institutions we have today. This isn’t necessarily true of large urban systems that have a research library somewhere, but it’s true for most public libraries, even in wealthy suburbs

As libraries gave up on serious readers, serious readers gave up on public libraries and public librarianship. It’s not uncommon today to hear public librarians say they hardly read books at all. And why should they? If your job is to promote videogames or develop an “online presence” then why should your reading habits be any different from a sales executive or a groundskeeper?

I think the thing public libraries do best is interest children in reading. Promoting literacy is one of the most important things public libraries do. Compared to that, promoting gaming is trivial fluff. I would like it if they bought books that would sustain a lifelong love of serious reading, but it’s never going to happen.

My commenter seems to resent the “ivory tower libraries” that wouldn’t employ him (I’m not sure why, but it sounds like a him), but I’ll present a different resentment. Let’s say I’m a serious reader. I have an avid curiosity about medieval history or physical chemistry or nineteenth century fiction that isn’t Jane Austen or Charles Dickens. Where would I turn? Your public library?  How deeply could I research the Carolingian empire in your library? How many books does your library have on physical chemistry? I’m reading George Gissing’s novels and would like to read his collected letters?

Could your library get me what I want? And what if I kept coming back for more, and more, and more?

Would you try to charge me for interlibrary loans because I’m a patron with “special needs”? Would you point me to some university library that probably won’t lend me the books I want even if I go the the considerable hassle to travel there? Or would you just give up? For the most part, we know the answer, because public libraries gave up on serious readers decades ago.

I’ll admit I don’t know about a lot that goes on in public libraries from first hand experience. That’s because in my adult life, I’ve rarely encountered a public library that could supply my reading needs. Once upon a time, I’d get videos from my local library, but for the price of a latte a week, Netflix will send me all the videos I want, and with a breadth of choice no library ever gave me. Libraries even tend to fail me with music since I don’t listen to much pop music and the classical and jazz selections at most libraries are pretty slim. If I want the latest pop album, fine. If I want the latest recording of the “Jupiter” symphony, tough. One scratched CD of Mozart is pretty much like any other, right? And forget about baroque concerti or big band jazz, because you’re not going to find many of those at your public library.

And guess what. I’m part of the “public,” too. So the next time you climb atop your low horse and complain about how clueless I am, think about this. I’m not producing obscure scholarly tomes. I’m just a lifelong learner with a wide-ranging curiosity. I love books. I read a lot. I went to the public library. The public library never had the books I wanted. Or the DVDs. Or the CDs. I left, and never went back.  The serious reader/viewer/listener: just the person the average public library doesn’t serve. If that doesn’t bother you, maybe it should.



  1. Hey, before we get too bitter here on behalf of the “serious” reader, remember that you’re speaking in generalities. Our small public library does, in fact, have several serious readers who are currently conducting historical research (often in foreign languages) and are working toward publication. One of these is a retired professor. Although we do charge for return postage on interlibrary loans after a point (we are a small library and our budget cannot serve these patrons disproportionately) we put our full resources at their disposal, borrowing from our local academic libraries and nationwide on behalf of these patrons. Although we will readily admit that academic librarians may have more subject-level expertise, these patrons prefer to come to us. Despite the attitude, what your commenter implies is true- non-students often encounter resistance from academic library staff. If they deal with us and are willing to tolerate slight delay, they can freely borrow the same materials and use them at home.

    Not everyone has given up on the serious reader.

    PS I am not disappointed with my choice of public librarianship. I’ve tried the other side and didn’t care for it. Although I occasionally envy the salaries.

  2. Bruce Campbell says:

    Could your library get me what I want? And what if I kept coming back for more, and more, and more?

    Yes. I worked in a public library for two years and managed interlibrary loan. I had 15, maybe 20 regulars who were serious readers. They requested books EVERY week. They were all middle-aged and not attending college, so they had no access to academic libraries. Guess who stepped in and gave them access (95% of the time it was free) to all their serious reading pursuits? Moi. In a public library.

    As far as I know, you can’t walk in to an academic library as a non-student and have access to their collection for free. You can do this in a public library. Sure, you might wait a week or two to get the book, but it’s free.

    I hear you about public libraries being more like Blockbusters for books, and I definitely hear you about public librarians not being “readers.” That always shocks me when a public librarian says they don’t read. It’s like a mechanic saying he can’t stand getting his/her hands’ dirty.

    Your last post about public libraries was entertaining but fairly uninformed. Aside from children’s literacy, many public libraries serve as adult education centers. I’ve led classes that helped libraries reintegrate laid-off workers back into jobs and I’ve been given gifts by the students after they land jobs. Pardon me for taking up the causes of the common people but I think this is volumes more important than any serious reader pursuits, which by the way, are being fulfilled by public libraries practicing interlibrary loan.

    If you’re interested in learning about an library exemplifying these career services try this link

  3. Real Librarian says:

    You should change your name to the AAL, Annoyed Academic Librarian.

  4. As usual, I think your comment misses the point. I frequently have the same problem with my public library, and it has nothing to do with being academic. For example, I like to read golden age detective fiction–Ngaio Marsh, Nicholas Blake, John Dickson Carr, etc. These were at the time very popular writers, but they aren’t easy to find in some public libraries because anything that doesn’t circulate frequently gets weeded after a few years. And yet there’s nothing particularly academic about this kind of reading.

    Okay, I guess those don’t count as “serious reading,” but it’s another example of how libraries don’t necessarily serve even all the readers in a community. My library has very little of this kind of book other than Agatha Christie.

  5. SpongeBob Librarypants says:

    For many years I was part of the “give ’em what they want” camp. Now, after years of seeing thousands of dollars spent to buy multiple copies of the latest crap from the NYT best sellers list and checking out so many DVD’s that I feel like I’m working at Blockbuster, I have changed my mind.

    If public libraries stopped circulating DVD’s and limited internet usage only to real research purposes (no games, no social networking, etc.) we would see our circ stats and door counts head south like a goose in October. Then if we bought only quality fiction and made Mary Higgins Clark get a real job we might as well close the doors and turn out the lights.

    The dumbing down of society reached public libraries long ago, and we opened the door and welcomed it inside.

  6. Bruce Campbell says:

    My comment is still awaiting moderation???

    What did I say?

  7. I’m not sure where you’re going with this. Do you feel that every public library should have unlimited funds and unlimited shelf space so they can collect everything ever published and never weed anything? Even academic libraries can’t do that. And as for your interest in Carolingian history, I have personal experience with this subject. As an undergraduate I did a term paper on Carolingian architecture. The academic library at my university had very little on the subject so they referred me to the Avery library at Columbia University in New York. Yes, it was annoying that I had to travel and it was annoying that I couldn’t borrow anything when I got there, but I got my work done.

    Maybe we should spend a little less time being annoyed and a little more being amazed at what we can get.

  8. nerdylibrarian says:

    As someone who has been known to do “serious reading” for fun, I do miss my academic years when I had giant research libraries at my disposal… and sadly, no time to read up on anything that was not specifically related to the course of study I was doing – no chance to go in depth about those fascinating Carolingians.

    I do wish public libraries had the budget to have more scholarly resources in their collections but they generally don’t.

    They have the same problem as any other government or non profit agency. They have to prove their value to the community in order to get continued funding.

    The most easily understood way to indicate your value to your financial supporters (who are never librarians by the way) is to show that people use your facilities. For that, you need hard numbers like circulation stats, website hits, and attendance numbers. Those who are going to fund your library collection are not likely to be bought by a few lines about social capital, democratizing access to education, and expanding the public sphere.

    As valuable as those goals are, the people holding the purse strings don’t care about them. They want to know that people want the library, so you buy the popular books that people want. I guarantee that the hold list for the Da Vinci Code was a whole lot longer than the hold list for the “Collected Letters of the great writers of 18th century Liechtenstien” – regardless of which one I’d rather read.

    But wouldn’t it be great if it wasn’t like that, if people believed in the value of libraries for libraries’ sake, if they actually believed those ideas of social capital, and democrating information? Then, maybe, public libraries wouldn’t have to limit themselves to just buying what Oprah tells people to read in order to be allowed to keep their doors open.

  9. Doodlehum says:

    At our large urban library (in Ohio), ILLs are .50 per request. That’s at least 7 items for the price of a tall soy latte. Hardly an onerous financial burden. And at one wealthy suburban PL, ILL (incl. for dvds & cds) is free.

    I used to order those serious books when I worked at Large Urban Ohio PL. Loved it! But guess what? Our budgets were slashed. Goodbye lovely serious books that don’t go out much. Hello books that circ.

    Then we ran out of room, and unlike the academic libraries in Ohio, the public libraries don’t have a depository where we can hide all our low-circulating books. Hello booksale.

    My point is that public libraries that used to stock serious books are now under restraints that academic libraries don’t always face. Your patron base demands serious books; only a small portion of our does. So we have to make some tough decisions. If we still had the budget (and/or the room), we’d have more serious books. As it is, we have ILL. And that will have to suffice.

  10. It would even be great if public libraries had ILL services as robust as most academic libraries. I work in an academic library, and there’s a lot it doesn’t have (including golden age detective fiction), but I can get what I want to read through ILL. My local library is great for loans within the system, but not so great for items outside the system, and especially outside the state. But maybe that’s just my library.

  11. Morse, you said “For example, I like to read golden age detective fiction–Ngaio Marsh, Nicholas Blake, John Dickson Carr, etc. These were at the time very popular writers, but they aren’t easy to find in some public libraries because anything that doesn’t circulate frequently gets weeded after a few years.”

    Just to address that, public libraries are almost all working with pretty limited shelf space. Actual circulation is the only useful metric we have of gauging whether something should be on the shelf, trying to guess whether someone will want something at some point in the future invites bias on the part of the librarian and a lot of wasted shelf space. If you can’t find what you want at your local library or through ILL then that’s a shame but to broadly generalize about all public libraries because of your personal disappointments isn’t really fair. As to the broader question of the dumbing down of libraries, it should be said that public libraries are working with greatly reduced budgets. If I have to pick between a book that 20 people want and one that 1 person wants then most of the time I pick the one that more people want, whatever my own opinion of the book may be.

  12. Can’t we all just get along??

    But seriously though, I like reading these debates because you never get this in any lectures or class discussions.

    No one wants to argue with the person who has the power to pass or fail you.

  13. Fancy Nancy says:

    For someone who claims to not know much about public libraries, you have certainly nailed it on the head, AL. I’ve worked in public libraries since the 80s. This is the best and most accurate article I’ve read on the state of public libraries today.

  14. noutopianlibrarian says:

    I agree – public libraries should eschew the general public in favor of annoyed librarians and other serious readers. In doing so, we could cut our staffs and materials budgets to almost nothing. In our community (a university town), there are probably a few dozen people who rise to this exalted level. Even if they each read 100 serious books a year *and* listen to every new recording of The Planets, we could operate out of a kiosk. And eliminate those annoying children to boot! You’re a genius, as well as a serious reader, AL.

  15. “If you can’t find what you want at your local library or through ILL then that’s a shame but to broadly generalize about all public libraries because of your personal disappointments isn’t really fair.”

    Okay, granted. I read this and was thinking of the books that most academic libraries never buy and most public libraries never keep.

  16. healthlib says:

    It’s not just serious readers. Another area many public libraries don’t serve are patron requests for health information. I have seen so many public librarians break out in a cold sweat over the concept of helping a patron with a medical question. If they don’t back out of helping them by refusing to get information for them by insisting they only talk to their doctor (hello you can find informaiton for them AND tell them to talk to their doctor too), they often do only a glorified Google search.
    Those patrons who actually have the citations to specific medical articles have difficulties getting them through their public library’s ILL.

  17. My academic allows community patrons to borrow our materials provided they show a library card from the public that serves our area. We even very occasionally get referrals from the public library who saw that we have what they wanted. I’ve always assumed that other academics operate likewise – do they not?

    Some publics, including two big systems, have even joined our statewide consortium (Ohio), giving their patrons access to a bazillion academics. But this requires compatible database software (among other things), so isn’t readily feasible for our other publics.

  18. Bmore Literate says:

    We’re the epicenter, the genesis of “Give ’em what they want”, and I have to agree with a lot of what you said. And I also abhor librarians who aren’t readers — a good librarian has to at least be familiar with the collection, titles & authors, even if they detest reading all or subsets of what is in the building.

    However, you’re dead wrong about the lack of serious reading in the public library. True, you might not find a lot about the Carolingians, or the exact recording of ‘Jupiter’ you want. But are you being realistic? There are so many well-researched works of nonfiction in most sizable public libraries, and plenty of literary novels… not simply truckloads of the latest romance and bestseller. We pride ourselves in advising adults who ask what to read next. Your thesis, while having merit in a situation where space and money is unending, seems extremely ivory tower to us low-brow public librarians.

  19. I’m reading this and agreeing with much of the lamenting of the choosing almost always of “popular” over useful or learning-oriented—reading while doing my nearly daily two-hour shift in the audiovisual department, where I’ve mostly been doing checkouts of popular recent movies and very few of the Great Course series…

  20. I have to agree with SpongeBob Librarypants. I feel tearing at my undergraduate English degree holding soul when I have to tell a high school senior (who is probably only asking because it is required reading), that our entire system only has three copies of Heller’s Catch-22, but in the meantime I am happy to get him a readily available copy of Dwayne Johnson’s latest masterpiece, of which my library ordered 25 DVDs.

  21. Here in Southern California, the libraries stock many popular books in multiple languages, and then there’s the manga and graphic novel collections, the collections of romance novels, gay romance novels (I’m not kidding–Pasadena has quite a selection), and so on.

    And then when the book is off the best seller list, the multiple copies go on sale for 25 cents each (Twilight series in English, Spanish and large type editions.)

    Pasadena also has the 1 Community 1 Book program, and then has dozens of copies of the books. Why? Why? Why?

    UCLA lets non-students pay to check books out of the library and it’s a lifesaver.

  22. NotMarianTheLibrarian says:

    I live in one of the largest cities in the U.S. and worked in its public library system close to 30 years ago. I was appalled that we had to buy a 100+ copies of popular dreck (can’t have the public waiting months to read the latest Danielle Steel!!) and serve as a living room for the homeless.

    I was thrilled to leave the public library and its idiocies for corporate America. I’ve sinced moved on to academia and a minuscule salary. I happily buy much of my leisure reading material so I don’t have to schlep to our main library or a branch. I’d like to see our public library buy more in the way of “good” books and less of the best seller trash. It would sure save me some serious cash.

  23. I do disagree with your commentary on what a serious reader is–I don’t think it’s about the particular books, but the approach to reading. You can read Anna Karenina unseriously, worrying about who the cutest guy Anna knows is, and so on. Or you can read The Stand as a serious reader, looking at the impact of atomized technology and nameless evil on humanity. Whether you’re a serious reader or not is based more on what you bring to the table than what the table is.

  24. That said, the tendency to stock 200 copies of the latest Oprah-whoring fake memoir over getting a decent number of titles that might not move very fast is, to put it mildly, distressing.

  25. I’ve probably complained about this before, but it bears repeating: there’s a lot of elitism here. As KidLib rightly points out, seriousness isn’t necessarily about the material. Video games, comic books, graphic novels, manga, popular films, popular non-fiction, popular fiction…one can think and learn from any of these things if one is so inclined…or encouraged / challenged to do so.

    Instead of railing against such “unserious” things, we should be pushing public librarians to try to expand people’s minds *using* popular things. (Hell, there’s probably room for academic librarians to do this, too.) Maybe the efforts wouldn’t bear much fruit…but at least you could honestly say you tried.

  26. “Instead of railing against such “unserious” things, we should be pushing public librarians to try to expand people’s minds *using* popular things. (Hell, there’s probably room for academic librarians to do this, too.) Maybe the efforts wouldn’t bear much fruit…but at least you could honestly say you tried.”

    Spekkio, it’s been tried for a century, and failed. Early on librarians were going to “elevate” the taste of the public. The public doesn’t want its taste elevated. It wants entertainment. That’s always been the case, which is why public libraries have evolved the way they have. There’s a great book on this I read in library school, but I can’t remember it at the moment and I’m too lazy to try to track it down. I think it was red, if that helps.

  27. Medium-sized low horse librarian says:

    AL makes a valid point about public libraries and who they don’t serve by distinguishing serious and non-serious readers. Unfortunately, public libraries exist to strive to serve all readers and have failed miserably in their mission due to library administrative reliance on circulation statistics, acquisition of the latest bestselling schlock, dire lack of funding and (depending on the public library system), librarian personnel who can do it all: collection maintenance, reference, part-time psychiatrist, father-confessor, medical advisor, etc. without competitive salary. Public librarians provide a service for better or worse and, due to our bread and circuses culture, cannot adequately serve the public due to the combination of these factors. Yet, masochistically we still provide a free but limited service. I’ve never heard of librarians trying to “elevate’ the public’s taste, but in this ‘infotainment’ age, the general public is already dumbed down and on the way to being amused to death, if not already. We deserve the sorry, public libraries we have as a result.

  28. I’m a medical librarian who has found herself a public librarian in a large public library system for ten years now. Four or five times a month I’m (happily – because I do enjoy research) showing college students who come to our tiny community library how to access materials on their own college library website. Perhaps we’re less threatening.

  29. Libraryman says:

    I work at a public library and completely agree. I would like us to return to serious reading but am ruled out. I asked for a set of Kurasawa movies (not all that obscure in my opinion) but was shot down because “no one would watch them.” Instead we have to get all of the amish romances. Our library is rather small but serves a proportionatly large population. Out of 44 shelves only 12 are for non-fiction.

  30. Real Librarian says:

    LibMomRN, I bet a lot of those students are undergrads that are actively shunned by the Academic Library.

    If you are not a grad student or a professor, the librarians will not help you at an academic library. They are there to do their specialized work and general questions are way beneath them. Especially if you dare to ask them a question about their on-line systems.

    “How dare you, these are the finest systems known to man and I don’t have time to show you how to find anything. Begone.”

    It is good to be the AAL.

  31. AnAcademicLibrarian says:

    Wow Real Librarian. Sounds like another bitter person there. I’ve never had that experience at any academic library I’ve worked at or been in. Most academic librarians understand undergraduates are our bread and butter because there are generally more of them on a college campus. You show an understanding as astoundingly horrible of academic libraries as AL shows of public libraries.

    Most public librarians I’ve had the pleasure of interacting with know that you have to consider the community you are in when ordering materials. I see public libraries trying to provide programming that will “elevate the minds” of their communities, only to have about 10 people attend. They make the effort. But like many have already pointed out there are a variety of factors that limit what public libraries can have on their shelves – space and budget being the two biggest issues.

    It’s disappointing to see so many comments here that show a huge disconnect between academic and public libraries. We are not on opposite sides and there is a lot of opportunity for collaboration and cooperation that is being lost by harboring bitterness and misconceptions.

  32. Bmore Literate says:

    I would also like to add that bestseller doesn’t automatically equal schlock. Let’s be clear, James Patterson and Danielle Steel, yes. But there are many unexpected bestsellers every year that have considerable literary or cultural value.

    Getting out of the bubble of academia from time to time, having just the slightest idea of how the publishing industry works, and understanding what the public wants beyond reading a bestseller list would help bridge the gap that clearly exists between public & academic librarianship.

  33. Real Librarian says:

    Academic libraries, public libraries, special libraries do not have much in common.

  34. Doubtful librarian says:

    The blockbuster syndrome must afflict mostly american public libraries, because even though in Canada we also have popular fiction and nonfiction, many libraries have collections built around multicultural prize winning authors.
    If I go with the “serious reader” definition given here, well I am one, but I would add that a “serious reader” is someone who reads everything, across genres, across languages, across cultures, regardless wether it is Herta Muller or Paulo Cohelo.
    Fortunately in the public library I go to in Canada, I’ve found most of the books that I ever wanted. In several languages en plus! And have you ever been to a public library in France? If you dare say that there are no “serious readers” in France, I’ll question your “serious reader” acquired knowledge.

    Maybe there is a difference between countries. Canada having more “serious readers” than our neighbors?

  35. Paul Hollins says:

    It’s the same in the UK.
    My wife and I were both avid serious book readers as children. We both gravitated to the adult library section before we were teenagers and read our way through it. We both trained as librarians. I have a library ticket for the local public library which I have used twice in the last 7 years. My wife isn’t a member. My oldest daughter joined the library aged 16 having hardly used the public library since she was a toddler. My 14 year old has yet to join.
    However, all of us read books a lot and we have hundreds of them in the house. We long ago found that the public library didn’t cater for serious readers and we don’t give it a second thought these days. I mostly go in there now to collect extra plastic bags for recycling rubbish (a scheme run by our local council which uses the library as a service point).

  36. “Academic libraries, public libraries, special libraries do not have much in common.”
    My career path has been academic library, public library, academic library, special library. I have found that the basics are quite similar, though the details are very different.

    I also have library cards for 4 libraries/library systems. They all have different strengths, so they meet different parts of my reading needs. All are very good at responding to my requests. However, now that I no longer work for the university, I do have to pay for the card. It’s not cheap.

    I have not worked for the public library system within whose boundaries I live, so my relationship with those librarians has been built as a patron. They are invariably cooperative about filling my requests. I can ILL anything I want, no questions asked. In fact, I have found that they are better for ILLs than my current employer.

    In short, my experience has been that I do have to respect the realities of not enough space or money to purchase everything I’m interested in. However, if I’m pleasant and cooperative, I can get anything I want/need.

  37. With free statewide ILL and database contracts, those wishing to do research can do PLENTY at/through their public libraries. Of course, this depends on the states, but many do offer such services. And, as at least one poster has pointed out, many public university libraries should be open to all, at least to use the resources in the library. Also, a lot of older fiction titles are OP, so that’s why ILL comes into play again. It’s not an either/or, or two ends of the spectrum; it’s all places in between.

  38. I Like Books says:

    My local public libraries have actually done quite well in the political and economic issues of our day, and fair in history and music theory.

    A problem with doing serious reading in any library where you can walk inside, look around, and see all of the outer walls from where you stand, is that they don’t have much space to put stuff. They might satisfy one reader’s thirst for the Carolingian Empire, and others’ for the British East India Company, the Tang Dynasty, making your own musical instruments, and the influence of pagan mystery cults on early Christianity. But then someone comes in looking for the Stamp exercises, something that is so often used and recommended by trumpet players that no collection of musical literature could possibly be complete without it, and… well, multiply that by the rest of the musical instruments, and then by all of the other topics out there. Where’s Jackson’s most-used text on electromagnetism, Hutton’s book on the ritual year, Bevington’s book on statistics, Wolman’s Handbook of Parapsychology?

    The library at a relatively small college might take up a four-story building the size of a city block. A university might have a dozen different libraries scattered throughout the campus. The public librarian has a single-floor building about forty yards across.

  39. Here’s distressing: there are five library’s in our system, one of the librarians recently told me that she is cutting her non-fiction way back because it doesn’t check out anymore. This made me so depressed. We have figured out a way to put a quantity to educating and informing the public, the circ count. This demon number has crippled libraries to only focus on those materials that meet the desires of those needing their serial fix. Libraries are falling prey to the faulty logic that we buy only x books because that’s all that checks out. If you only buy x books then of course that is all that checks out. I run into this problem with my library director regularly. Libraries have become to obsessed with raising the bar on their door counts and circ stats as if they are a publicly traded company. There are better and more informative ways to show value in something then an arbitrary number. I also thinks that this points to a large collection of uninterested and uniformed librarians. I am constantly amazed at how many librarians I come into contact with who no very little about the item’s they are tasked to purchase. They are easily duped into buying cheap book packages full of rotten titles that no one needs or uses. And yet if they are presented with more challenging works of fiction and non-fiction are quick to dismiss them as a waste of tax payer money. If I had more of a say I would push most anything with Thomson Gale or Avalon Romance/Mystery/Western into a river. Not because they are not used, but because no one would miss them if they were gone. We have better/cheaper reference sources and better fiction and non-fiction to choose from. I want my library to be eclectic, because communities are eclectic. Without a desire to push boundaries into new places, libraries will continue serving the needs of the few versus the whole.

  40. I think part of the problem is that public libraries don’t seem to use the PLA planning process. This helps the library to do strategic planning in the 8 roles of public libraries. Now that more public libraries are having to cut drastically, now is the time to examine priorities (if that hasn’t been done). For instance, how many public libraries still run a cable-access tv channel? Why is our library cutting actual programs, and still spending valuable budget $$ on cable access in the you-tube era?!

  41. Librarian with Issues says:

    I am a happy to be a public library adult services librarian. That being said I love AL’s column–I enjoy her humor, her insights, and especially the rigor of her analysis. I do agree that the public library does not serve well the serious reader.

    It has been my experience that even the largest facilities in relatively well-funded public library systems do not seriously collect less popular fiction writers or nonfiction in more than a few areas (such as home decor, self-help, cooking, gardening, etc.) Public libraries do not typically collect audiovisual media other than popular movies, popular tv shows, and very popular music. Yes, public libraries in medium/large systems will often have some interesting non-fiction in the sub-genre sometimes described as narrative nonfiction, i.e. nonfiction written in a lively style geared to a college-educated person–books like Mark Kurlansky’s “Salt: a World History”. But even the selection available in that sub-genre of book is pretty limited. Lynn White’s books on medieval technology are scholarly but also very, very readable–good luck in finding them in most public libraries. Good luck in finding more than a few books of contemporary poetry. Good luck in finding a good selection of fiction in translation. Good luck in finding a good selection of material dealing with current technology. Good luck in finding….well, I think you catch my drift…

    I understand why librarians doing collection development in public libraries make the choices that they do–I’ve made and do make these same choices myself when I have collection responsibilities. The new model of public library collection development does prioritize very popular materials–for better or for worse.

    There is no perfect model of a public library, and no perfect model of public library collection development. Each collection choice I or any other librarian makes leads to a well-served library user and also a poorly served library user.

    Once again, thank you AL for your writings on this blog. Yours is my favorite column.

  42. As a librarian who has crossed ‘cultural’ boundaries and worked in Academia, with the great unwashed Public and as a ‘Special Librarian, I find that each kind of library has issues, pros/cons, failings in serving their constituency. And each type of librarian is determined by the personality of the person. Their level of service is determined by their personal ability to serve that person and the interest they have in making that person satisfied with their library.

    And for the person disappointed with their switch from public to academic libraries, I have found that crossing the line is a VERY difficult task, in both directions. Academics don’t want public as they are not experienced with deep reference or library instruction. Public libraries don’t want academics because they are not experienced with the fast pace and quick questions or with the huge variety of people that come through the doors.

    And if you think the modern book is ad-free, you haven’t really looked at the ‘dime’ novels of today.

  43. …one thing I know for a fact about public libraries is that most of them gave up on serious readers a very long time ago. The move was deliberate, and as a result serious readers often don’t find much support in public libraries.

    Exactly. It’s all very circular: in an attempt to get attention, some librarian or administrator declares, shockingly, that libraries should, oh, stop concentrating on education and start concentrating on carrying 20 copies apiece of everything James Patterson writes. This person winds up speaking at ALA because of their daring, cutting-edge ideas; around the country, administrators, or ambitious librarians looking for a way to sound hip and knowledgeable, start going on and on about these amazing new ideas as if they’re proven facts; collection development policies are changed, intellectually-challenging material is weeded, and collection diversity goes into the toilet; once the collection is destroyed, the serious readers who used to come to the library for interesting materials now no longer bother to come in, while the casual readers who always came in continue to do so. This is used as “proof” that the library made the right decision. Anyone who questions this is called “old-fashioned,” ignorant, and learns to keep their mouth shut if they don’t want to lose their job, so nobody dares question the validity of the new policies.

    A vicious cycle indeed.

  44. Firstly: a small point about the “Great Courses” DVDs.

    I was curious about something I had forgotten about and made the mistake of checking out a “Great Course” DVD. turned out to be a boring and mediocre lecture delivered in a boring way to an audience of Easter Island Statues (back view). The lecturer didn’t care about his subject any more than the blackboard behind him.

    Kenneth Clark is about as far as you can go towards a lecture format without losing the audience. You can’t just say “people should care about this,” you have to show them why they must.

    A larger point about Public Libraries:

    As Federal and State funding for these shrinks, they are more and more reduced to depending directly on local funding. That is, they must show immediate relevance to whatever local neighbourhoods want in a library. If they want Dance, Dance Revolution – then that’s what the library must do in order to go on existing at all. Academic libraries are not yet under quite that kind of pressure. That fact does not excuse their inability to see the situation that small, public libraries are in. Or even that large, nationally known public libraries, are in.

    A third point:

    Libraries, as publically-funded institutions, are fobidden to defend themselves politiclly from what are essentially political attacks from an increasingly fascist mainstream media. They are sitting ducks. (Some are also very stupid, consigning their internal communications to Google, which has already moved against net neutrality.)


    There are several technological and social revolutions occurring simultaneously right now. Why are so many supposed librarians sneering at libraries for not solving problems that no other set of institutions has solved, either?

  45. Belinda Gomez says:

    Pasadena, CA stopped buying cookbooks as so many “encouraged unhealthy eating”. Not kidding.

  46. It’s called “change” and it happens often in libraries.

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