Annoyed Librarian
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Inside Annoyed Librarian

Libraries for People Who Don’t Need Libraries

To celebrate Valentine’s Day, we could all talk about our love of libraries. It would be sweet. And we do love libraries. It might be more festive than the New Zealand library that is celebrating Valentine’s Day by giving people blind dates with books. I find that a bit sad.

Instead, let’s talk about all the people who don’t love libraries, at least in practice.

Thinking more about the “great debate” from last week, it seems clear to me that two facts are pretty well established by now: 1) Library budgets are under siege nationwide, and 2) Lots of people have no idea what libraries and librarians actually do. It’s possible these two ideas are related.

Take all the nonsense about ebook readers destroying libraries. If all books become ebooks and all publishers refuse to sell or license the content to libraries, then that might destroy libraries and possibly civilization itself. But the Kindle or iPad won’t destroy libraries.

The people who believe this talk about the lowering cost of ebook readers or the ease of carrying thousands of books around, but they never seem to talk about the cost of the books themselves, or what it would really mean for books to be available only to individuals. They don’t know much about these issues, because they know almost nothing about books or publishing or libraries.

The “only in a library” versus “only online” debate from last week was just one of many examples of people who know nothing about libraries telling the public about libraries, as if large portions of library content aren’t already, or even exclusively, online.

Even the library advocate in that debate didn’t emphasize the contributions libraries make to children’s literacy, which is far more important than their championing of so-called banned books and which could never be replaced by giving a toddler a Kindle.

Librarians and library advocates can deride or bemoan this ignorant criticism all they like, but it’s out there, and it’s based on the fact that lots of middle and upper-middle class folks just don’t need libraries, so they don’t use them. That’s why it sounds like they haven’t set foot in one in a decade. They haven’t.

If you aren’t a voracious book reader or a scholar, then a decent income will get you all the reading you’ll ever want. There is an abundance of reading material free online. Computers are cheap. Internet connections aren’t free, but they’re usually cheaper than cable TV.

Ebooks aren’t free, but if you read only a popular book or two a month, they’re affordable. The people who make claims about how cheap ebooks are apparently read only popular bestsellers and not the $5,000 Kindle books like this one, but popular bestsellers are what most people read. For the price of an iPad, you can buy 50 Kindle bestsellers.

Tens of millions of Americans have smartphones. If you think nothing of spending a few hundred dollars on a phone and another hundred or so a month on cellular, data, and texting plans, then spending twenty to thirty dollars a month on ebooks is nothing.

Even with childhood literacy, libraries aren’t necessary for a lot of people. Children’s books are cheap, and middle class people concerned with their children’s education often buy lots of them and read to their children themselves. They don’t need public libraries, and the ones who aren’t concerned with their children’s education don’t want libraries.

These are the people whose children tend to go to well funded schools with good school libraries as well, so they don’t need public libraries for student research.

People concerned about the dire future believe library advocacy is necessary, and they’re right, but it’s a hard sell. It’s hard to convince people who don’t need libraries that libraries are important.

It’s the large middle class that buys iPads and Kindles and smartphones and laptops and videogame consoles and HDTVs that don’t need libraries very much, and it’s also those people who disproportionately pay taxes and vote.

That’s the audience that’s been missed. Library advocates do a great job of reaching the people who already use libraries.

Add to this the twopointopian belief that social media will save libraries. So a library gets its Facebook page “liked,” but only by people who already use libraries. That library blog or Twitter feed is fine, but only for people who already use libraries. Twopointopians like to think they’re really reaching the community, but hiding behind your computer isn’t much of a reach.

The most effective library advocates I’ve seen have understood the twopointopian fallacy, and have realized that the best medium for socializing is the human voice and personal contact. Blogs Facebook and Twitter are fine for communicating with people dispersed throughout the world, but they’re thin mediums for communicating with the people down the street.

Even with great advocacy, it’s still difficult to get people who don’t need libraries to support libraries. But instead of believing that libraries are somehow essential to everyone, which has never been true, it’s better going in to know that for a lot of people libraries aren’t  necessities. How do you get people who don’t directly benefit from libraries to believe they indirectly benefit from libraries?


Please note that new comments for all posts on this blog have been closed.


  1. AL…I’m not sure that it’s worth the time, expense, or effort to try to convince people who don’t need libraries to support them with one exception: funding authorities. Many funding authories do not use libraries; many do. The key is to convince them that their political future is at least partially dependent upon supporting the library. You do this by showing them that your library serves a high percentage of the population that votes. My experience, practically speaking, is that the best segment to target for political advocacy are the high end parents. These people are articulate and demanding and will do anything for their children including demanding quality children’s services. These parents are gregarious and determined. Effective political advocacy focuses on effective target groups. High end parents are the most effective target group. Do they absolutely need the library? No, not really. They are usually affluent enough to buy whatever Junior needs and then some (how about an ithingy at age 3), but they also want a community that puts kids first because they always want the personal security of living in the best possible place for their little ones to be successful.

  2. ChickenLittle says:

    AL…interesting article! I think the Public Library system either finds a way to “re-boot” what it does, or need to become prepared to turn out the lights. City officials are asking all over the nation, how many people are using these expensive facilities?? Librarians invariably answer, “our circulation numbers are way up!!”…..the city official responds, “that’s not the question I asked, because it’s fairly likely in a mathematical sense that fewer people are borrowing more materials!!” How many people are walking in the doors of a public library??…..fewer and fewer, so when a City official has to cut either the budget for a swimming pool or a library, guess who will win out??

  3. Librarylover says:

    AL . . . Thanks for publicising the Queenstown Library’s blind date with books initiative. I think it’s a great idea.

  4. FinallyaLibrarian says:

    As usual, AL, you have exposed the real question and the real answer. I think one way that would tap into current social movement is to focus on all the other valuable information sources available at the library, or better yet, from their website, that answer the questions middle class folks (parents) need. Things like the best rated (insert latest gizmo or appliance here), medical questions, and college ratings.

    Since they are heavy users of The Net and get much of their information from there, libraries should find ways to let them know the VALUE of THEIR library’s website by (gasp) selling the library face to face at meetings these folks tend to attend. Homeschooling groups, PTA meetings, Girl/Boy Scouts, Sports Leagues, and even PLACES OF WORSHIP. Yes, face-2-face Selling at churches, that should curl the hair of the twopointopians!

  5. I think this is a really astute question. I’ve seen a lot of odd things in the desperate attempts to “market,” but most people involved–myself included–don’t have a great idea on how to market to people who aren’t already listening. And even there, we’re not doing all that well, frankly–library databases have been around for a couple of decades now, but every week, I have patrons who are utterly shocked to discover that we subscribe to databases which will give them full text access at home to popular magazines and scholarly journals. The message has never gotten through–including to teachers, who sternly instruct their students that they can’t use the internet, and didn’t make the caveat that databases aren’t “internet sources,” per se, just sources that have been digitized and subscribed to.

    One point that ought to be important is that a city’s cultural capital–including libraries, museums, parks, and other cultural services–makes the city more attractive to people including those considering where to base their businesses. Like the schools in a neighborhood, libraries and museums are part of a package that you use to sell your city above the one down the road. In other words, we aren’t talking about a competition between Library, Inc. and Barnes and Noble; we’re talking about a tool in the competition between East Nowhere and South Wilderness, which are otherwise identical options. Even people who don’t necessarily *use* the library take pride in *having* the library. It may not be terribly logical, but it’s true. People like to brag about how great their towns’ institutions are, and what amazing things they own. (I worked at a major urban library–after the BECPL, which is also a good library–and gave tours to inner city kids who’d never been in the fancy part of the library before, and you could see the visible rise of the shoulders, the eyes getting wider, a certain pride in the step when they realized, “I’m part of this.”)

    And yes, children’s literacy programs are very big. Unlike the schools, library programs don’t measure and horsewhip literacy education, but instead try to teach love of books and reading through shared experiences, making books available that kids might not have thought to look for on their own, and creating a pleasant association with books. It’s a luxury to not have the pressure of only reading books your parents can afford to buy.

    (I do have one quibble with your presentation, though–upper middle class parents use the library a LOT with their kids. They can afford to buy books, but even being able to afford them doesn’t mean that they want to buy the books for every single report from kindergarten to twelfth grade.)

  6. FinallyaLibrarian says:

    Unfortunately, most librarians come to the profession from public service backgrounds and have spent little career time in business (the “REAL WORLD”). I could easily develop and run a marketing program to connect my library with various groups since I was a commission only sales person for many years. Our system does have a decent PR department but most systems do not or throw the job on librarians with no sales experience.

    Most people I’ve met who work in public service positions really don’t know how good they have it. Try keeping your job when it’s based soley on the $$$$ you bring in.

  7. Randal Powell says:

    I agree with everything KidLib said, especially with regard to libraries as cultural capital. Having a good university around helps with cultural capital too, because of the accompanying libraries, museums, et cetera.

  8. LittleTownLibrarian says:

    What about tax assistance, legal forms, connecting people with other social services, helping parents feel more confident about reading with their children, assistance searching for employment, ESL classes, summer reading programs and so much more that libraries now do…

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