Annoyed Librarian
Search ....
Subscribe to LJ
Inside Annoyed Librarian

Libraries without Librarians

Most of you have probably seen the Wall Street Journal article: New Library Technologies Dispense With Librarians.  It’s about new “express” libraries of various kinds around the country. Some deliver books to a branch library that consists of nothing but book lockers. Others are more like vending machines for books.

All of them fulfill the dreams of shy bookworms with a hankering for convenience; people can get books quickly without having to even see, much less talk to, a librarian.

Some are all for it. The president of the Public Library Association thinks it’s a great idea! It lets people get books even as budget cuts reduce hours and staffing. Yeah!

Others, not so much. One library director said, “The basis of the vending machine is to reduce the library to a public-book locker…. Our real mission is public education and public education can’t be done from a vending machine. It takes educators, it takes people, it takes interaction.”

There’s that pesky word mission. I dip into these waters occasionally, wondering just what the mission of the public library is. I tend to think the public library is best justified as an educational institution, more akin to public schools than, say, parks and recreation. That’s different than the “real mission,” though. My point is merely that people are more willing to tax themselves for serious purposes than for public frivolity.

Many librarians have disagreed with me over the years about this. For them, the library is about community, or gaming, or fun(!). It’s not your grandparent’s library, we were told for years. It’s not some musty book warehouse. We have videogames and tattooed librarians!

For the really old school, the public library is about education, but over the decades it seems not many librarians were motivated by the educational mission, and even fewer members of the public. Back in the day, librarians wanted to elevate the taste of the public, and the public said, “We like our taste low and slovenly, thank you very much!”

And thus, we get the library of today, supplying the lowest common denominator of cultural production.

The comments are interesting as well. My favorite was this one:

The people in a “brick and mortars” library involved with shelving books , charging them out, and receiving them when they are returned are almost NEVER librarians. They are clerical help. Librarians refer to those with a masters degree who provide reference services (advise on how to do research) or engage in overall management. The article doesn’t discuss jobs performed by librarians (though perhaps it should, since the librarians’ jobs can be done independent from the places where the books are kept).

Miss the point much?

That’s right, you show ‘em! Real librarians don’t shelve books! We have “masters degrees,” darn it! We’re professionals! You’d think as often as librarians have whined those lines in the past few decades, more people would sit up and take notice of how professional librarians are, instead of asking them (as a public librarian friend of mine was once asked) whether they are paid to work in the library or whether they volunteer.

It should be pretty clear that most of the public don’t care. To them, the library is a warehouse for books and videos and such, and that’s just the way they like it. Most people don’t talk to the librarians and don’t need research help. Most library users just want stuff, the latest vampire novel or hot audiobook.

Arguing with a newspaper article that this technology dispenses with support staff rather than librarians is beside the point, because for most people the support staff are the librarians. Librarians are people who work in libraries.

I won’t put too much pressure on this one article, but it brings out tensions in librarianship that have existed for a long time. Librarians insist they are credentialed professionals. Sometimes they play up the educational mission of the library, and sometimes the entertainment mission.

But the public doesn’t care. They don’t come to the library to be educated, and unless they’re children they don’t come to be entertained by the librarians.

Such “express” libraries could become the norm, once communities decide they can’t afford staff and buildings. They’re just the physical equivalent of digital resources that library patrons can access unmediated at any time. The only time library patrons need help with the Internet resources is when the systems are so complicated and non-intuitive that one needs special training, like some ebook or online audio systems. That’s not a sign that librarians are necessary, though, so much as a sign that the technology sucks. It’s a violation of Ranganathan’s fourth law to “save the time of the reader.”

Maybe that Ranganathan guy got it right. Books are for use; every reader his or her book; every book its reader. It’s just possible that in the public mind, the library isn’t about education, or community, or tattooed fun. It’s about books and reading, entertainment in the service of literacy. We hear all the time that the book is dying, but only the uninformed think reading is dying.

That’s one thing the ALA gets right with all those silly posters. READ. The vending machine eliminates the need for librarians and library staff. But instead of reducing the library to the status of a vending machine, these “express” libraries elevate vending machines to the status of libraries. Instead of education or entertainment, maybe they’re just about books and reading, and as long as people can get to their books, they don’t care if there are librarians.



  1. A young female was trying to start a conversation with me while checking her out and sarcastically joked, “So did you need a degree to work here?”

    I smiled and said, “No, BUT I am currently in graduate school to work over there (nodding towards the info desk).”

    She blushed out of embarrassment, but I believe it was mostly out of embarrassment for me.

  2. “It should be pretty clear that most of the public don’t care. To them, the library is a warehouse for books and videos and such, and that’s just the way they like it. Most people don’t talk to the librarians and don’t need research help.”

    Once again, the broad generalization bug strikes AL. This might be true in the library you go to but it’s certainly not true everywhere. I’m a librarian in a major urban system and people here are needy; they need help navigating the internet, they need help with resumes, they need general help applying for jobs, in short they need help with fundamental information literacy skills. Even though you glossed over it at the beginning it’s absolutely true that librarians play an educational role in the library and to flippantly say that nobody takes advantage of the librarians’ skills is simply not true.

  3. Bruce Campbell says:

    Agree with Jeff. As long as there are computer illiterate people there’s a need for librarians.

    But I don’t think these computer illiterate people have any sway with the heavies that decide to cut library funding.

    Even so, I’m guessing the ratio of reference questions to books checked out is something like 1 : 40.

  4. Bruce: on a good day, our question/check out ratio is 1 : 10 with hundreds of requests: help me open, click, edit, email, print, watch, download, delete, forward, save, submit, search, start, find, understand, resize, buy or reserve this.
    But I like these libraries without library workers. Imagine a tiny staffless storefront with wifi and a netbook rental machine, a dvd/book vending machine and some lock boxes which get filled once a day with holds by a staffer from another branch. You could probably get a couple of these to enhance a small library system. Or better yet, rent space in an existing business, like a struggling coffee, frozen yogurt, sandwich shop and put your machines and lock boxes in there.

  5. Fat and Grumpy says:

    I agree with the AL that the public does not begin to touch on my vast body… of knowledge, body of knowledge! BUT, while I cannot speak for all libraries, at our library, we circulate around 20000 books a month, and answer around 2000 reference questions a month. That’s 10 to one, not 40. No guess there, I’ve got the numbers. Here at least librarians are needed.

  6. Bruce Campbell says:

    I smell a lot of fear. I actually get more reference questions than book check-outs but I live in an area with LOW education levels, so they need lots of attention using the computers.

    Did I say books? I meant DVDs. ;)

    Keep those stats going people and our jobs won’t be replaced by the same technology that delivers Twix bars to obese tweens.

  7. I don’t know–we get a lot of computer assistance questions, as well as standard reference of every sort. It may not be that the majority of people using the library use reference services, but there are more than enough who do to keep reference librarians hopping.

    Book stands are fine for casual users, but they’re not good for reference in any way. Ordering up “a book” on something isn’t helpful if it turns out to be the wrong book. Having the shelf to browse, and a librarian to turn to when you’ve run out of options, is important.

    And as to “Well, that’s just for kids…” Well, honestly, that’s a huge part of the clientele–toddlers, preschool kids, school-agers, high-schoolers… I even see a good number of college students, though I can’t imagine why they’re not using their college library for their academic texts. (One or two have been surprised to learn that their campuses probably do have their own libraries. Hey, I didn’t say it was a GOOD college.)

  8. Green Librarian says:

    Unfortunately, the people who really need the library and librarians are not the people who have any say in whether they get funding. The people who really need the library and librarians are not the ones writing newspaper articles about the library, either. I’m sure the automated library would be as successful as a starbucks is for the middle class. However, it really would not replace the library and librarians for those members of society who don’t have their own laptops and don’t even know how to double-click.

  9. ElderLibrarian says:

    Kidlib-Whatever happened to Academic Librarians teaching or demostrating their services to the students? Cutbacks in Academia?? I have seen several instances of college students without a clue on using databases or reference services. Some of them for whatever reason preferred us to their school library. Our local community college and 4year college have great resources, so that can’t be it.
    I guess a lot of higher ups seem to think that a book vendor or Internet is all a student needs with no guidance or help from a PAID professional.

  10. It isn’t walls of lockboxes that librarians should worry about. Worry about places like this, where the reading public can find premium information, service and connectivity:

  11. Having looked at this from the management perspective for years now, I can tell you that the big reason this makes sense for me: small branches are not economically efficient.

    I can build several big branches with lots of staff and services that people will use, or several small branches with perhaps only one or two staff members. Three small branches cost me almost as much as a “mega” branch, yet do 1/5th the circulation, programming and services combined. Since I cannot shut the small branches down (political suicide), this alternative to move to vending machines actually makes a lot of sense. It still, arguably, provides the service to small areas that currently have small branches, but I can consolidate the budget resources I gain from shutting down the traditional small branches into the pool for the larger branches.

    I know there are more facets to this debate, but this would be a major deciding factor for me if I had the opportunity to pursue it.

  12. It really comes down putting a “red-box” library at the mall to get Sally Suburban a free copy of the latest trash romance and a some books for her child to destroy…well that does save her a few dollars at Macy’s and gets larger happy meals for Sally and Sammy Surban jr.
    Better to close the “library”invest in real education social programs and let Sally buy her own damm books.

  13. Antigua, replacing a branch with a lock box is not going to be any less political suicide. Lockboxes don’t do storytimes, or offer computer help, or provide a place where people meet. It’s the choice of the people how to spend their library monies–at least it should be–not the choice of the library administrator deciding what’s best for them from on high. If the people want branches, then it means giving something else up… and if, in knowledge of this, they choose to keep the branches, then that’s what the choice should be.

    Elderlibrarian–I have no idea at all why these college students aren’t aware of their school libraries. It took me completely by surprise that *anyone* wouldn’t look first to their college libraries for books assigned in college classes.

  14. @Kid: they probably have but either the library doesn’t carry the textbook and/or all the copies of whatever book are out. students typically do everything possible to avoid buying a book. most students are aware of the library’s existence just not all of the services they offer, like ILL, ha.

  15. MrTadakichi says:

    Jeff, all those reference services you provide can, and are, provided by reference “Support Staff,” for about half the price of a librarian. I have never seen a public librarian do anything that I couldn’t do with two weeks training.
    And the next time you go to the hospital, remember that those nurses keep you alive with only a two year undergraduate degree. Their job is far more important and difficult than yours will ever be.

  16. ElderLibrarian–well, it’s tough to convince professors to schedule library time, they see that as “valuable class time,” and don’t value the library instruction. If they DO schedule it, the kids see it as a good day to cut. Or they’re not paying attention because they have nothing concrete to research yet (I am a proponent of giving the research prompt, developing the thesis, THEN going to the library after they’ve started formulating questions, instead of doing the intro to the library at the beginning of the course, when the students have NO IDEA what any of these resources could possibly be used for, giving them NOTHING concrete to tether this new information to, so it goes in one ear and out the other). When they’re there, they aren’t paying a lick of attention because “everything can be found on google,” including some other student’s paper to pass off as their own. Good times.

  17. Punch Jackson says:

    How many libraries are there in North America?
    How many Librarians are there with Masters degrees?
    How many libraries are managed by non degree people?
    Do we close all the libraries managed by non degree people?
    Are there user satisfaction studies between libraries run by degreed librarians and non degreed librarians?
    Ah yes how do you measure the quality of the experience?
    Bless all those non degreed folks for doing the best they possibly can for the folks they serve!! We live in a world of continuums……get over it.

Optimization WordPress Plugins & Solutions by W3 EDGE