Annoyed Librarian
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Inside Annoyed Librarian

Busy Isn’t Enough

Public libraries have to be the strangest social agencies ever. It’s the one publicly funded institution that nobody can say for sure what it’s supposed to do.

I would count librarians in that group as well. If you asked ten public librarians what the purpose of a public library is, you might not get ten different answers, but you would probably get three or four.

The public that the public library supposedly serves has no consensus on the issue.

Here’s a Canadian columnist making the baseless but now familiar claim that ebook readers and public libraries are equivalent entities. Because ebook readers exist and literary classics from the nineteenth century are free on them, “no one, at least in our First World, is being kept out of the magic kingdoms of learning and imagination because he or she cannot access books.”

Sure. Maybe when governments decide that ebook reader ownership is a civil right and start handing everyone Kindles and iPads, this will be true, but I don’t think that will be happening anytime soon, even in Canada.

Not to mention that if confined to pre-1923 sources your learning will be somewhat outdated. “Hey, did you know that the sun never sets on the British empire? Oh, and I learned that there was some sort of riot in Munich by a group called National Socialists. I don’t think they’ll be very successful now that their leader is going to prison.”

A headline in Seattle asks, “Are Public Libraries Obsolete?” Using Betteridge’s Law of Headlines, we know the answer, which is “no.” Naturally, the headline leads us into an article arguing that public libraries aren’t obsolete, or at least that they shouldn’t be made obsolete.

This sort of passionate bickering about public libraries has been going on more or less since there were public libraries. I assume it’s because public libraries aren’t essential public services.

You might protest, but if public libraries were essential public services, there wouldn’t be this sort of arguing about them for 150 years. Nobody argues that cities should eliminate police departments or sanitation services, but public libraries are always ripe targets for budget cuts when times get hard.

They’re treated by politicians as luxury services for the good times. The politicians no doubt think it’s a pity that people won’t be able to get free DVDs and bestsellers, but that’s just life.

Even a lot of librarians don’t think they’re essential public services, which explains all the  “marketing” of public libraries to “customers”? If you believe that libraries have to be marketed to customers, then you already believe that libraries aren’t essential public services. “Essential public services” don’t market themselves to customers; that’s what private businesses do.

People interact with stores trying to sell them something as customers. People interact with government agencies as citizens. There is a huge difference between being a customer and being a citizen, or at least there used to be.

No other public agency has to “market” itself to “customers,” except those like the United States Postal Service that have essentially been privatized and have to generate their own revenue, which libraries don’t have to do, at least not yet.

The reasoning behind the marketing also demonstrates that the marketing librarians don’t think of libraries as essential public goods.

If they don’t market, fewer people will use libraries, or at least that’s how the logic goes. If fewer people use libraries, then usage statistics will go down, and if usage statistics go down, then what? It supposedly shows that libraries aren’t necessary, and thus their budgets can be cut. It’s a numbers game, but true public goods shouldn’t play that game, because it’s a losing one.

The confusion is thinking that a lot of people using something makes it important, and thus perhaps even essential. The only problem with that argument is that it’s completely wrong. Just because a lot of people use a service doesn’t mean it’s important or essential.

Most Americans have televisions in their homes and some service providing entertainment for them. If the federal government started paying for cable television for everyone in the country, most people would sign up, including most of the Tea Party crowd.

That doesn’t make it an essential service. It just means people like getting stuff directly for free, even if they pay for it indirectly, or even better, if others pay for it indirectly.

The numbers game also assumes that if only a small percentage of a community used the public library, then the public library would have no reason to exist. If there’s no justification for a library other than a lot of people use it if it’s around, then there’s no good justification for a library.

The Canadian columnist is writing as Toronto considers closing some of its public libraries. An article in the Toronto Sun about the closings includes a way not to argue for public libraries. After mentioning a potential branch closure, the article says, “One problem, it’s busy.”

We’ve heard this familiar refrain during the recession as libraries have been threatened with closures or budget cutbacks, but “busy” isn’t enough, especially since we all know that the majority of the business going on in public libraries is hardly an essential public service, but instead a luxury entertainment service.

Librarians need to start reminding people of why libraries are necessary, even if nobody is using them. That’s a harder argument to make because it can’t be tied up into a neat little quantified package, but ultimately it will be a better argument.



  1. > Librarians need to start reminding people of why libraries are necessary, even if nobody is using them.

    This is what’s being done now, and not so well. Libraries claim to do everything and anything – from preserving democracy to lending garden tools. This engenders confusion and the perception of an institution that has lost its way.

    To remain viable, libraries need to clearly articulate what their services are and then perform them well. The public is facing many years of difficult economic times and it will become harder and harder to justify funding for institutions with a nebulous purpose and service offering.

    • Anon Y. Mous says:

      “Librarians need to start reminding people of why libraries are necessary, even if nobody is using them.”
      Seriously? Maybe libraries need to start adapting to the changing world by which they’re surrounded rather than expect the public to value them just for existing. Libraries in general seem really unable to re-evaluate their services and mission and change course to better fit into today’s society. Granted, that process would involve endless committee meetings and years of pontificating, so most just stay decades behind the curve.

  2. Public librarians are going about this whole “justification for existence” thing all wrong. The file sharing “information wants to be free” crowd has already proven that there’s still a healthy demand for getting something for nothing. Libraries have been in that business for the past century, much to the chagrin of publishers and other people who want to sell more copies of their IP.

    So libraries should take advantage of the great file sharing scare. Just point out that libraries might be providing a copy of materials for free, but at least the publisher is getting paid something for their material, and something is better than nothing. You’d have libraries underwritten by the entertainment industry in no time.

  3. While I agree with many of your thoughts here, I have to wonder where these, obviously unsubstantiated, claims came from:

    “‘Essential public services’ don’t market themselves to customers…” and “No other public agency has to ‘market’ itself to ‘customers’…”

    That is quite simply not true. Since you refer to police and fire as examples of “essential public services,” I’ll use them as examples too. Something as basic as a quick Google search turns up all sorts of examples of these services needing to market themselves– is a post called “Marketing Your Police Department.” is a report from the Federal Emergency Management Agency called “Strategies for Marketing Your Fire Department.” Scanning the Table of Contents, you’d think you were reading a publication for libraries. Chapter 3 is “Understanding What You Really Do.” Chapter 4 is all about trying to understand “What the Community Wants” and has sections on focus groups and community/customer surveys (yes, they use the word “customer”). Check out this quotation from the Phoenix fire chief: “Customer-centered means that customer needs, perceptions, and feelings begin to design and drive how the service delivery systems looks and behaves….” Sound familiar?

    While I don’t disagree with you that libraries are not essential services, your use of the need to market a service as a way to define whether or not it is essential is nonsense.

    • OR,

      Does it just mean those other services aren’t essential either?! ;)

    • Police departments aren’t going to lose their funding if they make PR gaffes. Trimming, sure, but you don’t (and won’t) see articles asking “Are the police obsolete?” Marketing is absolutely an appropriate definition. If you need to spend money on outreach in order to BRING PEOPLE IN THE DOOR, then you are by definition non-essential. Either someone else offers your good/service, or you are a public safety or sanitation worker.

  4. Here here, AL. A great post- and too true. It’s the fact that libraries spread the cost of this entertainment (ranging from $13-$68 percapita) across the entire potential user base- and often in a farely progressive taxy kind of way- that this issue arises. National average shows that under 70% of citizens have library cards. Of that 70% only 15% (!!!) use the library once every 2 weeks or more. (where I work, our numbers are DRASTICALLY lower as far a library card holders:citizens goes).

    We would never have this issue if the libraries were member funded and publicly run- for all luxury services. however, if we got of the teat of mandatory public support, we might collapse (but I don’t think so).

  5. Randal Powell says:

    “The reasoning behind the marketing also demonstrates that the marketing librarians don’t think of libraries as essential public goods.”

    I disagree. Real education, which is what public libraries should be facilitating, is a long-term essential public good in a capitalist democracy. And if our society wasn’t so screwed up, perhaps marketing would not be necessary. But it is, so do it.

    • On that note, most other public services find themselves marketing to some extent because, with the exception of maybe the fire department, you’ll be hard pressed to find a public service that enjoys universal approval. There will also always be a small but vocal minority who thinks that the private sector can handle public services better than the government does.

  6. Just A. Librarian says:

    The difference between libraries and other public services is that you can go other places to fulfill your library needs.

    To a bookstore.


    A neighboring town’s library.

    Say you have a fire at your house. You can pretty much count on your town’s fire company to respond.

    Same if your house is robbed.

    Or when you go pay taxes.

    Or question your elected leaders. It would be pointless to go to the neighboring town to air out your laundry.

    Libraries are much more like real-world companies than other governmental institutions.

    • Except….People who are unemployed and have no transportation. I work at a library in a town where there is no bookstore for miles. People often do not have internet at home. People do not have transportation to the library in the next town. What do you suggest?

      I met someone last night who works at the dollar store and who got his job because he used the internet at the library to fill out the application. Otherwise, it may not have worked out for him.

      Yes, libraries are needed to provide support services and real education. The unemployed are especially in need right now, and libraries can help.

    • @ J

      That’s very nice for him. Shouldn’t that be something the workforce commission or unemployment office helps with? Is that what we are now? I didn’t get my master’s in social work.

      Aren’t schools supposed to educate? We are not adult education centers/ged centers, are we? Is that what we do now? I didn’t get my adult teaching certificate from Grad school.

      Are we just providing services that other people already provide? If that is what we’re providing, then why are we spending all our money on summer blockbuster DVDs and romance novels?

  7. “Nobody argues that cities should eliminate police departments or sanitation services, but public libraries are always ripe targets for budget cuts when times get hard.”

    Is that unfair? When police and fire departments don’t do their jobs, people die. That can’t be said of libraries.

  8. Let’s take Mr. Ferrier reasoning further and question why such organisations, which are not without incidents of orgnaisationally and morally questionable behaviour, should be sheltered form funding cuts anyway? Surely the American way is that everyone should be responsible for their own life. In any event if funding cuts are decided simply on the basis of whether life is saved or not what value would life have without a myriad of non “life dependent” services which are common goods. A life per say is isn’t dependent on parks, public baths, education, community centres, child care, roads, transport or public libraries…I could go on.

  9. If you have to cut, shouldn’t you cut something less essential rather than more essential?

    If you had to choose — and many polities do — would you prefer to be without police protection or access to a public library?

    • Way Barra says:

      I would prefer to be without access to a public library than police protection.

      Now, a question for you: Let’s say that police funding makes up 30% of your city’s annual budget. Library services, 3%. Would you cut ALL library funding before ANY police funding?

    • No way. I’d cut the police funding and take them back to essential duties. I would also elminate overtime as a rule.

    • Way Barra says:

      BREAKING NEWS: Candidate Spencer Soft On Crime; Completely Unelectable

    • Let’s wait and see if crime escalates before the headlines rush out ;)

  10. I do take your point. Yes many polities do have to make such decisions and yes I agree that police protection is unfortunately necessary which says more about human nature than just about anything. However, one could argue that there are significant numbers of Americans, for whom the term police protection is an oxymoron but for whom access to a library, good or indifferent is a tangible positive. Perhaps less greed, less selfishness and a commitment to the common good, libraries amongst such goods, may have prevented the resulting financial straights in which America finds itself. Idealistic at my age…pathetic really.

    • Julian Gautier says:

      It’s not idealistic! Education reduces rates of crime, rendering police protection less necessary.

      AL’s point is that the public library’s mission of facilitating self education is what’s essential and what should keep us busy. That’s what needs to be marketed as irreplaceable. B&N doesn’t stock and lend subsidized books, many areas still depend solely on a library’s Internet access, and you can’t remedy the redundancy of library services in general by pointing to “a neighboring town’s library.”

      But I’ve had difficulty persuading my own bosses at libraries to embrace the development of local college faculty speaking series on thought-provoking issues. Small business aid and resume writing? “Sure!” Discussions about science and philosophy, no matter how well I frame them for public interest? “I don’t think that’s right for this demographic.”

      Maybe nurturing that demographic is harder than helping create a demographic that expects the library to be an Internet cafe/Blockbuster. If you don’t believe the library you work at can be the best instrument for life-long learning regardless of demographic, then…

    • Julian Gautier says:

      Oh, only the first line of that rant AL inspired me to share is directed at you Tofidog, which is really in agreement with what you wrote. I didn’t mean to hit reply on your post.

  11. Controversial as ever, AL, and that’s why I keep reading you, even though I often disagree.

    I have been thinking about the mission of libraries, public and otherwise, a lot recently, particularly due to the recent trend in the UK of transferring management of public libraries to charitable trusts. Some local authorities are also transferring management of school libraries to trusts, whilst others are choosing to retain in-house management.

    The decision to transfer management is meant to save money and increase efficiency, but it does make me wonder if the mission of public libraries will be diluted further. UK public libraries are frequently measured by superficial indicators such as issue statistics, rather than focusing on the educational mission of libraries. There is an obvious danger in managing the value of public and school libraries in this manner, so I agree with you AL when you state that librarians need to deliver a coherent measure regarding the value of libraries.

    High issue statistics/website hits and high quality, educational library services are not mutually exclusive, but the former does not necessarily indicate the latter.

  12. Why not allow the entertainment industry to fund parts of the budget pertaining to movies. Hold computer and English classes. Help people get their GED. Help people learn real job searching skills. Help people get email addresses, learn how to use the Web. Connect people to other social services in the community (I do this all the time). Provide high quality programs for young children and their parents. Libraries play a vital role in early childhood education (ie before the children enter preschool). Help provide reading materials for families who cannot afford these things…etc etc

    Yes, libraries need a clear mission statement, and if they don’t make one well, someone else will take up these causes individually, or we’ll just continue to deteriorate as a society.

    It’s up to us.

    • Why, oh WHY, would the entertainment industry fund our movie budgets? I’m completely lost on that one.

      We are public librarians- not ESL teachers or adult educators. Most of all the librarians I know are completely unqualified to teach anything- with the exception of research skills- but not so much teaching here as using.

      So, we are here to help people get e-mail addresses. Great. We’re a social services directory. Great. We’re story time readers. Great. We’re preschool supplements. Great. We subsidize leisure reading. Great. Sorry if I’m not giddy about what kind of clear mission statement that’s going to bring about.

      In San Franciso people pay almost $70 per capita for these services, and these are the types of justifications we find.

      (i’m not picking on you- it’s just these are the arguments I hear from many people and I just don’t think they hold a lot of water.)

  13. Thanks for suggesting it is not idealistic Julian. I agree with your remarks which were better made, than I could do, when confronted yet again we are forced to choose between which common good gets cut the most.

    Seems to me libraries are the softest target not only because most government decision makers are either illiterate themselves or have the analytical skills of an amoeba, prerequisite of self interest aside, but that librarians cannot unitedly put forward an indisuptable argument based on readily available hard facts on the REAL value of investment in their common good provision. Still I suppose the analytically amoebic wouldn’t understand anyway. Any ideas on how to make libraries seem as important to save as the Giant Panda. Libraries might not be quite as cute but they are still marginally more useful to the “common man” and a damned sight closer to extinction. Now there’s a money making opportunity going begging.

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