Annoyed Librarian
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Inside Annoyed Librarian

Mission? Impossible.

A commenter last week argued that libraries should stop considering providing Internet access as part of their core mission, since the primary mission of libraries is “promoting reading and literacy.” Lordy, that one gave me a smile. As if anyone knows what the mission of public libraries is these days.

It’s so quaint. Theoretically, reading has always been something libraries like to think they promote. We even have those cute READ posters from the ALA. And libraries do provide books, at least for the time being.

The ALA is a good bellweather for this sort of thing, being an organization that is almost exclusively concerned with public libraries. According to their mission page, the ALA motto is, “The best reading, for the largest number, at the least cost.” Does this describe the mission of public libraries at all?

Even when we’re talking about reading, it’s pretty clear that the motto wouldn’t apply to most libraries. Maybe it could be, “the most popular reading, for the largest number, for whatever cost we can afford.” That’s not very catchy, though.

What else could we think when we see libraries spending money on multiple copies of bestselling books, or multiple ebook formats of the same book? Of course that’s regardless of the quality of the books, because when it comes to purchasing books librarians have show the discerning taste of people drinking Budweiser while watching Jersey Shore. If it’s popular, get it!

Librarians also like to say that the primary mission of the library is to provide information. Information is such a great term to mask a multitude of sins. It’s like calling something interesting.

When you say something like, “the citizens of a democratic society need access to information,” it sounds glorious, patriotic, almost inspiring!

When you find out that for librarians information is anything from government documents to hard core porn videos, the term loses its shine.

We don’t even have to play the porn card to make this point. There was some brouhaha last week over this piece in the National Review Online, Public Libraries: No Longer for the Literate. It’s not to difficult to poke holes in some of the arguments, or to protest that there’s as much artistic quality in some movies, tv shows, and CDs as there is in many supposedly classic books.

However, those are the DVDs and CDs least likely to be checked out, possibly because they’re not even purchased in the first place. Regardless, none of the DVDs or CDs will promote literacy and reading.

Also, the writer is confused on the traditional rationale of public libraries. “As American citizens, we approve of a portion of our tax dollars going to help the truly needy,” she claims, implying that’s why we fund libraries.

A mission like promoting reading and literacy isn’t about helping just the needy, and public libraries have never been used primarily by the poor, just as public schools, at least in many places, aren’t exclusively for the use of the poor.

As citizens, we we tax ourselves to promote public goods. One of those public goods is helping the needy, but the truly needy need many things before they get to books. Reading, literacy, and education are public goods that are often used to justify libraries.

What the article didn’t get wrong was that libraries have turned into mostly entertainment centers, which then try to justify themselves as a public good worth funding.

We can categorize beliefs about libraries:

Librarians: who know that libraries are mostly entertainment centers or community centers, or places for the poor to access  the Internet.

Library Patrons: who actually use libraries, and know they are mostly entertainment centers, etc.

Everyone else: who are led to believe that public libraries have a grand mission to promote reading and literacy and provide information to everyone, rather than just entertainment to the middle class and YouTube to the poor.

Articles like that, which represent more Americans than librarians would like to believe, are the result of a culture clash, when people who think they’re funding essential services and public goods find out they’re funding Internet porn and teen comedies. Librarians making laughable statements about a Constitutional right to view Internet porn in a public library don’t help things.

We haven’t even started on the supposed missions unrelated to reading or “information.” Libraries as community centers, as tech training facilities for the elderly, as videogaming centers. It’s just too much going on to say libraries have a mission.

If they do have a mission, it’s something like this. The mission of the public library is to provide entertainment, some actual information good for the public, a lot of junk and porn and other “information” that’s not worth publicly funding, a place for people to gather, a place for poor people to access the Internet and the homeless to hang out and bathe, and whatever services loosely connected to the rest of these that no other public agency provides that some librarians happen to know how to do.

That’s quite a mission, but not an easy one to sell to the skeptical. The primary mission of libraries could be to promote reading and literacy, but in practice that’s only a small portion ow what they do.



  1. quirkylibrarian says:

    As a twenty-something library grad student currently employed in public library administration, I have to say that I agree with many of your points. I think public libraries have moved away from their old mission and now many of them are floundering for a new one. A lot of libraries focused, or did focus before they were forced to tighten their belts, on boosting their “entertainment” value, which is basically worthless, in my opinion.

    However, I think this is still too dismissive of the idea that libraries *do* provide a core mission of promoting reading, literacy, and education. This bulging, free entertainment beast library isn’t a problem in smaller library systems that have always had to be lean as much as it is a problem in larger systems that got a little too big for their britches.

    My system serves a rural community with a high retirement population. Sure, we provide popular reading, but to completely disregard the idea that even popular reading has any sort of literacy impact is a fallacy. If people are reading, even if they’re reading romance novels or crime thrillers, they’re engaging words on a page. Frankly, we’re happy if the public can even read and follow plotlines anymore. So circulation is part of our general service, and the more people read “popular” material, the more these people feel like they get their money’s worth through their library taxes. I’ve always thought libraries should focus on promoting their ROI better–Do you buy more than five books a year? Then in our county, the $7 you pay on average per person for library services is practically fiscally responsible!

    I think public libraries are moving towards becoming community living rooms/access points. The community living room part is unavoidable–people hang out where stuff is free.

    But serving as an access point means a variety of things, the biggest being community education. Public libraries will increasingly become continuing education centers. We’re seeing it now in my system in the huge response to our technology classes teaching citizens everything from “What is a computer mouse?” to “How do I use open source software like Audacity to create mp3s?” Grandma or grandpa come in for help using the new Kindle the kids got them for Christmas in our one-on-one help sessions; Carlos comes for the Conversational Cafe to practice his English language skills; John comes for the resume building class and to submit job applications online; Mary never got her GED but she’s learning how to read her daughter a bedtime story through our Adult Literacy program; and her daughter, little Susie, comes for the story hour where she can practice reading aloud to a therapy dog, building her speech and gaining confidence in her reading ability. Library programming will continue (and should continue) to move toward this area, with libraries being recognized as the leading community educational center.

    Sure, there’s a lot of crap libraries peddle, but I think most libraries look at that sort of thing as a necessary evil. None of our collections librarians get *excited* about purchasing the latest James Patterson novel, but if we don’t have it and Mr. Joe Middle Class comes in looking for it, he’s going to think we’re not worth funding because we didn’t meet his need.

    Also, I get pretty sick and tired of hearing “only the poor access the Internet” at the library. In our community, a larger percentage of people use our libraries for Internet access not because they can’t afford it at home, but because in our rural area, most of the houses can only be wired for dial-up, and the libraries have wi-fi and broadband. Public library privilege is often coupled with urban privilege.

  2. Bruce Campbell says:

    I’ve worked in public libraries and am now at a college library. The mission of college libraries are heavily influenced by the accrediting agency of the college.

    Public libraries just have to, like, be what the public is interested in. Guitar hero, Tween Vampires, job searching, story times, live animal demonstrations, etc. There is no accrediting agency for public libraries so their mission is fuzzy and undefined. Even if they have a mission statement there is usually a disconnect between it and what’s happening in the library.

    Not saying public libraries aren’t important, but they are panderbears.

  3. “What the article didn’t get wrong was that libraries have turned into mostly entertainment centers, which then try to justify themselves as a public good worth funding.”

    I work in a large urban public library system and personally help low income people daily with services like applying for jobs, getting immigration information, and yes helping them find books. Your continued grinding of this “libraries are blockbusters lol” ax is both insulting and disingenuous and quite frankly invalidates your legitimate criticisms of our profession.

  4. As a librarian in a large public library system I have often wished libraries would have had the foresight to build computer labs for the public separated from the main library building. The vast majority of patrons these days are a new breed – illiterate and not looking for education, here for the sole purpose of using the Internet. They do not know how to behave in an “old-fashioned” library, so libraries have changed to accommodate them – allowing food and drink, cell phone use, excessive conversation, hooker attire, etc. We’ve stepped up the entertainment factor because that is what these new patrons want – and our old patrons have mostly deserted us. Got to keep up the numbers, regardless.

  5. mary jane says:

    I agree Jeff.

  6. I really think it depends on the library system. A public library system with good public outreach and educational programs, in addition to entertainment, can promote literacy and learning. However, many library systems get lazy. My county library is a prime example of this. They don’t even try to do anything mildly educational. It also doesn’t help that one of the support staff thinks it’s a church.

    So, it depends on what the library director and others are willing to do with the library.

    For the most part, I’ve seen entertainment centers when I’ve bothered to walk into local public libraries. Except for the lack of piped in music and a coffee shop, they don’t differ that much from the local books-a-million. I’m sorry if that offends some of the other readers, but it’s the reality I’ve encountered.

  7. SarahK says:

    “If it’s popular, get it!”

    Well, duh. A librarian can’t govern her collection by what SHE likes best–otherwise your collection will have thirty biographies of Princess Diana that never circ. (Trust me. I’ve seen it.)

    Likewise, I might personally think that James Patterson’s books are mostly written by a bunch of monkeys playing Mad Libs, but if there is a demand, we’ll get them.

    If we don’t have what the patrons want to read, they’re either going to stop using the library, or they’re going to turn up in a pitchfork-wielding mob someday. And facing down mobs is SO not in my job description.

  8. I like the commenter’s suggestion that the library’s mission is to promote reading and literacy. It provides enough direction so we know why we exist and loose enough to be applicable to many libraries. I know that you are just being provocative, AL, but mission statements are supposed to tell us what we should be doing, not what we are doing. You sound like Donald Rumsfeld when he used to fuss about mission drift. Lots of people would agree with you that libraries are not concentrating on their mission enough. The ALA motto makes a poor mission statement for libraries and isn’t even a great motto for purchasing specialists.

    AL, I find your stance against popular materials to be silly. It’s consistent with the ivory tower, academic superiority motif that runs through your posts, which I am ashamed to find amusing. Like you, I don’t care a lick about whether or not we supply DVDs. While I agree that we want people to read the best, most insightful, highest quality books, it’s impractical to think that libraries should not cater to demand for popular books. I’m sure you know that we have plenty of books written by Nobel Prize winning authors gathering dust on our shelves to go along with the books we own that people actually read. Are you suggesting that we collect only the items we expect to be unpopular? Is your position instead that popularity is irrelevant, not among relevant selection criteria? It’s been a while since I worked in an academic library, but I thought even there librarians hoped someone would use the material collected and that if the books purchased were used a lot, that would be considered a success. If it’s not about increasing the frequency of reading among our customers or boosting their reading achievement levels, then what do you think libraries should be doing?

  9. Spekkio says:

    The big problem I see here is this: *there is more than one kind of literacy.* Yes, there is “traditional” literacy – words on a page. And for all intents and purposes, even something as simple as the nearest daily newspaper can help promote traditional literacy. Ideally, you’re going to have the works of Twain, Doyle, Brontë, etc, but even things as “crude” as “Star Trek” novels can help people become better readers and writers.

    HOWEVER, that’s not the end. There’s “information literacy” – for which, these days, you need the Internet. In an age where most government information, most research, and most reference works are accessible exclusively via the “cloud,” an Internet connection is required. There’s also technological literacy…again, something for which you need computers and the Internet. Let’s face it – it’s hard, if not impossible, to function in our society without knowing what it means to “Google” something.

    So then we move on to those things that the AL seems to dislike…CDs, DVDs, popular reading, and – worst of all – video games. What function do these serve, beyond entertaining the “riff-raff?” It’s called “cultural literacy. Basically, to be culturally literate is to know the myths, facts, and fictions that most people in your culture share.

    Try stepping outside of yourself…treat the world like you’re an alien observer and you know nothing of the local culture. You’re literate (you can read and write English) but that’s it. Watch and listen for all the references that people make.

    If you were an alien, you might think that:
    *The Beatles are insects
    *Mickey Mouse is a household pest
    *Mario and Luigi are plumbers that you can’t find in the Yellow Pages
    *Zombies, werewolves, ghosts, and vampires are real threats
    *A lightsaber is a handy weapon
    *People referring to Yoda or “The Force” might be referring to a religion

    How might you react if you heard someone hum or whistle the following notes:
    G3, E4, C4?
    (For those who aren’t musically inclined – those are the NBC chimes.)
    Or “bum-bum-bum-bummmmmm.” (Beethoven’s Fifth.)

    On any given day, as an alien, you would find yourself inundated with references to things you know nothing about. You might watch TV (a good way to study human culture) and often would have no idea what they were talking about. We do this *all the time* without thinking about it. Some of our entertainment – and literature – depends upon familiarity with existing culture – high, low, and everything in between. We drop references as jokes…we make allusions, we use similes and metaphors…and it all depends on having a common cultural “backbone.”

    A good example from Avengers #10…the Protector (a friendly alien visiting Earth) gets frustrated with Spider-Man’s mode of speech and says:
    “You often use words whose meaning I comprehend, but when YOU use them, they make little to no sense in context of one another…and I know you are doing it in a humorous fashion, but — my inability to understand the reference point in which you are using sarcasm to make an observation about the world around you is very frustrating to me.”

    So what I’m arguing is that, to help people avoid that confusion and frustration, we need to offer the proper resources. So – yes, libraries need to have video games, CDs, DVDs, comic books, magazines, etc.

    Now, one might argue that these resources might be used not to educate or to acclimate, but for “mere” entertainment. Setting aside for the moment whether or not “mere entertainment” is a good use or a bad use of scarce resources: “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.” The best we can do is have the resources available…so that the next time we’re dealing with an extraterrestrial, we can help them figure out what the hell everyone’s talking about.

  10. Randal Powell says:

    Part of the reason why public library collections outside of huge cities lack intellectual rigor is simply that the buildings and budgets are too small to provide a breadth and depth of coverage for nonfiction. Public libraries aren’t going to be able to appeal to intellectuals. Only universities, public libraries in huge cities, and Project Gutenberg are going to be able to do that.

    If you remove any trace of the “community center”, “entertainment center”, “internet café”, “homeless shelter” from the average public library, what you’re left with is an inferior warehouse of books. From my personal vantage point, I would be for it, if the warehouse had what I wanted, but that’s not likely.

    In terms of making a community substantively smarter – this is really what we’re referring to when we talk about literacy, reading, and “education” – I think that the best model for that lays undiscovered.

  11. Annoyed says:

    Jeff expounded, “I work in a large urban public library system and personally help low income people daily with services like applying for jobs, getting immigration information, and yes helping them find books.”

    I am so glad that I went to school to become a social worker.

  12. Fat Guy says:

    Yawn. Well-trodden ground for you, AL. Do better.

  13. Annoyed griped “I am so glad that I went to school to become a social worker.”

    It seems like a lot of people went to library school with the intent to hide behind a desk and dole out the books they think people need as they saw fit and you’re free to bury your head in the sand and say that’s what the library’s role should be but at some point you’ll have to face the reality of the situation and accept that we have to offer a variety of services to remain relevant.

  14. Annoyed says:

    I didn’t go to library school to aid and abet illegal aliens either.

  15. I went to library school to manage libraries. Instead I find myself reading library themed blogs.

  16. The AL’s characterization of public libraries in the penultimate paragraph happens to be accurate in many cases. I think that libraries do need to firmly side with print literacy and reading as the best anchors for a safe and well-educated society.

    I’m going to go ahead and play your devil’s advocate.

    In the childrens area in my library there is a small computer in a block of colorful plastic that is loaded with very simplistic and not-very-educational games. Almost every kid who comes in the room plays on the computer the whole time they’re in there, without looking at books, & their parents usually let them. Would they read or at least look, at the books if the computer wasn’t in there? Probably some of them would.

    If we keep diluting the waters of the written word with video games and audiovisuals, the reading level will keep dropping. Our culture deemphasizes deep reading for knowledge already. The generation born after 2000 is sadly on their way to totally devaluing it.

    So libraries (excluding of course music libraries & other special collections) should continue to devote themselves primarily to written language, even if the culture is being inundated with visual and audio spectacles.

    We need to set an example as an institution that is above base, commercialized pop culture, and a culture that values television over reading. Maybe that stance will consign libraries to oblivion–on the other hand, with enough leadership and vision, the profession could combat the ills of TV addiction, illiteracy, low faith in the future of America, and low levels of civic participation (drawing a tenuous correlation between education and participation).

    Libraries should value “information literacy” and “technological literacy” only insofar as they promote traditional literacy.

  17. @Randal Powers

    “Part of the reason why public library collections outside of huge cities lack intellectual rigor is simply that the buildings and budgets are too small to provide a breadth and depth of coverage for nonfiction.”

    That’s why most public libraries
    – are part of a library systems (counties, city, etc.)
    – will often purchase requested items
    – have developed efficient schemes like standardized cataloging, Worldcat, & ILL for resource sharing
    – have entered into consortia to obtain access to expensive electronic resources

    You’re right, it is hard providing in-depth coverage on limited resources, but libraries have done quite admirably in adapting. And any failures are not signals that small public libraries should abandon the mission to build collections of intellectual rigor and instead focus on other means of education.

  18. you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him read.

  19. A common public library refrain is that they’re only giving the public what it wants. Baloney – those that make the claim are giving their regular users what they want. The substantial audiences for public broadcasting, TEDTalks, open courseware, etc demonstrate that hundreds of millions of people want high-quality content and are increasingly finding it outside their public libraries.

  20. gatoloco says:

    If libraries do not focus on their educational mission, I think they are other entities designing third spaces that would be difficult to compete with. A self indulgent Steelcase executive was speaking with us about collaborative spaces yesterday. They have opened for profit centers for work and meetings, with better design than 99% of libraries would receive. A company like Steelcase would love to sell this concept to anyone with enough dough to pay for it, and has millions in R&D to back up. If I were an academic decision maker a center such as this would be more attractive than a librarian Womaned/Manned computer lab.

  21. the dude says:

    It’s all one big agency problem. We create work for ourselves. If a twenty branch system took out the computers and stopped circing popular AV materials, they’d only have enough business left to justify three branches. I think we have essentially been getting away with something for about twenty years now and the piper may finally be calling. On the other hand, this last round of crisis saw a huge amount of levies passed in Ohio by 70% or more, so I guess lots of people are perfectly OK with our mission creep.

  22. The dude abides. I couldn’t agree with him more. The only reason we keep stats is for job security/growth, it seems. The need to “stay relevant” is the need to preserve our jobs.

  23. Spekkio says:


    I’m not sure why your reply seems so…divorced…from what I wrote. At the risk of sounding impolite, I feel like you may be biased against non-text works. Your word choices and phrasing lead me to that conclusion…particularly ‘inundated,’ ‘spectacles,’ “base, commercialized pop culture,” and “TV addiction.”

    Maybe I’m wrong, though. Maybe I wasn’t clear enough. I will admit that I wrote a book and maybe I didn’t hit my points hard enough. So I’m going to try to be more succinct.

    There is more than one kind of literacy. In our multimedia-rich “remix” culture and our interconnected world, libraries cannot – and should not – restrict themselves to ‘traditional’ literacy. Make no mistake – I love reading and I love books. But the simple truth is that to function in our society, people *need* to be culturally literate.

    Our culture – including “base, commercialized pop culture” – is a huge part of how we relate to each other and how we communicate. A lot of this stuff can’t be picked up in books. Hell, oftentimes the books we read contain just these sort of references and cultural touchstones. People need to know what a Jedi is, or why it mattered to people that the first space shuttle be named “Enterprise,” or what all the sports terms mean that people use in daily life (“home run,” “struck out,” etc). Libraries need to be a place where people (of all ages) can learn this stuff. We can’t force anyone to learn, but we can make the resources available and encourage people to use them well.

    In short: We need Chaucer, but we need “Star Wars,” too.

  24. “One of those public goods is helping the needy, but the truly needy need many things before they get to books. Reading, literacy, and education are public goods that are often used to justify libraries.”

    I know, it’s like libraries should be staffed with people who can recommend and host materials and programs for audiences of various reading levels and skill sets…oh wait…

  25. Gosh AL, you sound like an intellectual snob. Your whole article is offensive to someone who works and cares about public library service.

  26. I agree with your point that people need cultural literacy to orient themselves, but I argue that libraries need to limit our scope to primarily books and written language, not audiovisuals. Fully embracing your mission would require us to include in our collections not just music, movies, and video games, but also paintings and sculptures, DVDs of sports matches, and various realia (interaction is of course the best teacher).

    I’m not inherently biased against non-print (although I do partly blame it for the lowering levels of education and critical thinking in this country, and for, as I implied, distracting people from reading). But I do think that libraries should retain resources facilitating traditional literacy as their primary core.

    We’ll have books (and even lectures) about the influence of science fiction on 20th century American history, and let them buy Star Wars for $5 at Wal-Mart.

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