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Shut Down the Libraries, because I Never Use Them

A kind reader sent on this opinion article on why We should shut our libraries. Well, not “we” as in anyone living in the US. That article is from the Vancouver Sun, but the original piece was in the Daily Telegraph, and entitled Liberal whingers are wrong – we should shut our libraries.

It’s a curious piece to be published in Vancouver, since the “we” isn’t a Canadian audience either, and it is mostly attacking British liberals for defending a social agency they never use.

The kind reader considered the piece “inflammatory.” Maybe. The title is the most inflammatory part. The rest of it is tame compared to some of the attacks we’ve seen on libraries in the last couple of years.

The basic thesis of the short article is that libraries are being cut because libraries aren’t being used as much as they used to be.  “The crisis in our libraries is not because of the “cuts” – it’s because they are needed less.”

That could very well be true. Unfortunately, there’s nothing in the article to back up the claim. There’s absolutely no evidence presented that libraries are used less than they used to be.

It seems to regurgitate the same arguments we hear all over. “Nearly 60 per cent of us don’t go to libraries at all,” and “fewer than one in five adults in England go more than once a month.”

We could just as easily say, ‘over 40 per cent of us use libraries, almost 20 per cent of us more than once a month.” That sounds like pretty good usage.

Without comparative data, it’s hard to know whether this is a change from the past. What has changed from the past is that people with money to spend on computers, Internet connections, and books don’t need or use libraries like they used to.

The author’s whole case is that people who aren’t poor don’t really need libraries, and they’re just defending them for poor people, and they should stop doing that because they look like hypocrites or something. I mean, really, like Brian Blessed ever uses his public library..

Everyone has access to unlimited amounts of information through Google and their “whizzy new mobile phones.” Books are cheap. Etc.

I have to admit, the arguments have some resonance with me. I’m one of those people who can afford to buy the books I want for personal reading. I have or have access to several computers and a whizzy new mobile phone. I rarely set foot in a public library.

And it’s true that twenty years ago I used public libraries for things that I can now do for free at home. Or at least it’s free once I’ve invested thousands of dollars in computers and phones and am able to pay every month for more Internet connection than I’ll ever be able to use.

I’m still not convinced. The only people these arguments work on are people who don’t need libraries and who also don’t care whether other people do.

The only argument I haven’t seen numerous times is this one: “The final defence of the public library is that it is a place for the pupil who has nowhere else to study and revise. Once again, this is the 21st century. Virtually every kid has a desk at home, even if it often has a games console on it.”

I don’t know what daily life for the impoverished masses is like in the UK these days, but in the US I know that not every kid has a desk or a quiet place to study. They might not be going to libraries, because the libraries where these kids live are always the first to be cut, but it’s not because they couldn’t use a safe haven.

The same arguments are made in America all the time, and they all fail when faced with the evidence that a lot of people still use libraries. They don’t use them in the same ways, and I think it’s possible that in twenty years whatever it is that public libraries are doing won’t have much to do with circulating books, movies, or music, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be doing something that portions of the public find useful.

In some ways, librarians are themselves to blame. For years, I have been scolding librarians for their silliness in trying to make public libraries a wonderland for the middle classes who don’t use them as much as they used to. “This isn’t your father’s library! We have music and games and lots of FUN!”

The implication of that kind of approach is that libraries aren’t essential services. They are merely for middle class entertainment, and if the middle classes aren’t coming in, then there’s a problem.

It wasn’t until the past couple of years that librarians, including the ALA, started trumpeting libraries as a necessity for the less well off. “Libraries are being cut even though they’re being used more than ever!”

In some places, that worked. In others it was too late. But in every place the assumption was finally that lots of people need libraries, even if people with middle class incomes often don’t.

By then it might have been too late in some places, because after years of not using libraries as infotainment centers, the people who vote and fund libraries were less interested in funding infotainment for the masses if that’s all libraries were.

For evidence, read “We should shut our libraries” and every article like it.



  1. AL – though you quoted heavily from the article, you overlooked the most important one. John McTerman wrote “What this debate needs is some honesty. Yes, public libraries have been of huge benefit in helping us educate ourselves over the past 150 years. It’s an honourable tradition, but it’s over.”

    To McTerman I would reply that the honourable tradition is not over. I’d argue it is needed now more than ever. The question is, how do we inform and educate ourselves in an era when:
    1)the press and politicians boil every discussion down to “left or right” and “win or lose” for the political elite;
    2) political and commercial interests barrage us with distractions and convince us that having our morning coffee from the drive-thru is more important than our basic freedoms and rights;
    3) there are so few trusted sources uncorrupted by monied interests;
    4) commercial interests have co-opted our public spaces and digital technology has seduced us into thinking we don’t need them anymore?

    This is a vital question. Years ago our libraries were rich, nuturing fountains amidst vast stretches of informationally barren landscape. Today, they are struggling to justify their existence and (IMO) making mostly wrong choices about how to do it.

    I believe our libraries can once again be nurturing fountains amidst landscapes of dialectic, cultural and intellectual clutter & debris. We need to move beyond cries to “shut ’em down” and “philistine” and begin a dialogue about how to leverage this vast national resource for the public good.

    In the short-term, libraries have the most skin in this game so I’d suggest they take the lead. LJ is an ideal forum to get the conversation started. AL, you have an opportunity to do some real good for libraries by working with the LJ editors to meaningfully explore the issues you poke at in your essays.

    • Hi again, Jean! I was curious about the “wrong choices” that you think libraries are making to justify their existence? Thanks!

    • Wanna know something great Bonnie? I was searching for a blog post I tweeted to support my first item … and it turns out you wrote it!!!

      The most significant mistake, I think, is the exclusive focus on what Mr. West called “power users” and you have called a “cult that appeals to only a fraction of the general population“. These users LOVE libraries just the way they are. They offer continual praise and library staff let their affirmations drown out criticisms and new ideas. These users also serve on library Trustee and Friends boards and are closed to elections that might unseat them and ideas that might change policies and services that cater to them. Meanwhile, the population of non-users grows. There’s a whole generation of mid-lifers who will not become power users in their senior years the way the generation before them did. And forget about the young people who’ve grown up with compelling content and services literally at their fingertips. These people are invisible to the library community and the institution can’t survive without inviting and attracting more of them in.

      The second is the enormous resources libraries devote to digital technology. It’s an arena where they cannot possibly be successful for whatever they offer will be too little too late. As Mr. West and John McTerman noted, specific technologies are outdated by the time most libraries secure funds to acquire them. Digital gadgets and content will please a segment of the power users but will not draw in non-users who already meet their digital technology needs elsewhere. So this perpetuates the trend of libraries devoting resources to serving a small population. Better for libraries to focus (as you say) on creative ways to service the honorable tradition than to jump into the pond with companies like Apple, Amazon, Google and Facebook and countless others that can bring more focus and talent to digital endeavors.

      The last is the desperate attempts to do anything that will bring people through the door or get them to sign up for a library card. Here I speak of things like hosting speed-dating and weddings and hanging out in bars to hawk library cards. The success rate of these tactics is questionable. Moreover, they fall outside the honorable tradition and aspirational mission which is what garners taxpayer support. These types of library activities help invoke sentiments like those expressed by John McTerman.

    • That is great! About the blog–thanks for telling me!

      Amen to your second paragraph, everything you say, really. But I, too, believe that all of this hoop-jumping-through to get the best deal on ebooks is just not going to be worth the effort. We can’t compete in this arena.

      Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts!

    • Why would they pay for something they don’t use and often view as promoting things and thinking they don’t agree with?

      I think I’ve solved this problem already here:

      and here:

  2. No Jean…the “honorable tradition” is over…if there ever really was one! We are witnessing the sunset of public libraries in America, people are using them less, and technology has largely vaulted past them. I keep hearing the old librarian refrain “our circulation stats are way up”….when in reality this just means that fewer people are borrowing more material. Fewer bodies through the door allows for the higher end “power users” (and we all know who they are) to place massive amounts of holds and get more access to books, inflating circ. stats. I’m looking across the floor of my library right now….I see several kids using a few workstations to check their gmail on their way to school….the stacks….empty!! 20 years ago this place was full!

    • Yeah, well, my anecdotal evidence can beat up your anecdotal evidence.

    • Mr. West – usage at the public libraries I have visited matches your description. I’m certain that if library staff felt they could be really honest, the majority would admit that it is also true of their libraries. This is not lost on taxpayers who increasingly will, when presented with the “take it or leave it” choice of paying for a fragmented library system that is increasingly inadequate or defunding it, choose the latter. I desperately want another choice!

      My view is that the means by which libraries have serviced the ‘honorable tradition’ is in its sunset years; the tradition and values they uphold are not. Indeed, there is a strong public need for new strategies for informing and governing ourselves. The old systems are broken. People like Harvard’s Lawrence Lessig and Salon’s Glenn Greenwald are writing about it. Citizens are OCCUPYing the streets because of it.

      Our public libraries are well-positioned to service this need with nearly 17,000 outlets, 145,000 FTEs with great values and college educations, and collective annual operating budgets of nearly 11 billion dollars (2011, IMLS Report).

      My question is whether the library community will settle for the institution dying of inertia or will it dig down deep & bring forth compelling proposals for servicing the honorable tradition and values?

    • The usage of the public library at which I work does not match that of either Jean or West.

      Jean, I’m curious as to whether you have considered going to work in a public library – changing things from the inside, as it were.

    • Joneser – if you’re saying usage at your library is greater then I’m truly happy for you, your colleagues and your community. Do you have thoughts on why some libraries have significant usage and others don’t?

      Regarding whether I’d try working for a library, my extensive research coupled with personal experience suggests change is not yet possible from the inside. I’ve come to appreciate something an advocacy mentor shared with me awhile back: institutions would rather die than change. I hope it’s not true of libraries, although that’s the way it seems to be going.

      I will, however, continue practicing my brand of radical advocacy in the hope that someone in the community will think of me as a resource if libraries somehow decide to halt their march to the precipice.

  3. I agree with both comments, which means we need to find “new honorable traditions” starting with using the two things that make us unique–free stuff and librarians–to turn the tide. We can make ourselves essential in new ways using a little creativity and innovation as long as we’re willing to make big changes where needed.

  4. AL,

    If you think 40% of us using the library- with only 20% using regularly- are good enough numbers to justify the cost to the 80% who either never use it or sporatically use it, then the you should adjust your expectations upwardly.

    • Anonymous says:

      I rarely use fire/EMS service, but I don’t think it should be cut.

    • Randal Powell says:

      The value of libraries should be assessed both quantitatively and qualitatively. I realize that quantitative data is more satisfying for most people, including myself, but it simply does not tell the whole story with regard to the true benefits of libraries. Qualitatively, the 40% who sometimes use the library includes people who gain knowledge and skills that lead to improvements and new enterprises for the community at large; those who benefit from the fruits of their innovation and work, benefit from the library. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve stumbled across a comment written by someone successful who gained a necessary skill or insight through their use of library resources.

      I’ll provide two examples, although I could list others. When I was in college, I took a course that visited a man who created his own farm from scratch. He raised free-range chickens, organic crops, made his own honey from his own bees, and brewed his own beer. How did he learn how to do all of this? He checked out instructional videos on bee keeping and beer brewing from the public library, as well as several books on bee keeping, beer brewing, organic farming, and other relevant topics. Anyone who has ever eaten his food, drank his beer, and enjoyed his honey, including myself, has benefited from the public library.

      Another example comes from the classic non-fiction book, “The Soul of a New Machine” by Tracy Kidder. It basically recounts the story of how a computer system is built from scratch. And the guy responsible for building that particular computer from scratch, Tom West, first learned how to do it by checking out engineering and programming books from the public library. So, the corporation he worked for, all the users of the computers he helped to build, and anyone who has read “The Soul of a New Machine” (that would be pretty much every famous technologist alive) benefited from the public library. His daughter is a librarian.

      So while raw data is important and should be fully used, in the words of Einstein, a guy who was really good at the whole math and science thing, “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

    • Randal – you make a valid point, though it’s not persuasive enough to restore my support for the current state and trajectory of our public libraries.

      The uses you cite are increasingly rare, displaced by infotainment and social media (as AL and Mr. West have noted). I’m also mindful of studies undertaken within the library community that report upwards of 50% of library collections do not circulate and 50% of reference questions are answered incorrectly.

      Could we put the $11b we spend annually on public libraries to better use? I think so – not be diverting it to other institutions but by re-structuring our national library system to meet the needs of the next 50 years instead of the past 50.

    • Anonymous – as part of our social contract, there’s widespread agreement to pay for Police & Fire even if we don’t use them. In fact, most of us are delighted when we don’t need to personally use these services.

      This is not the case with public libraries. With libraries, we pool our funds to gain access to services and materials that we could not acquire on our own and that promote individual and collective well-being. When libraries were founded this meant access to a literate person (a librarian) and materials like large quantities of books, expensive encyclopedias, out-of-town newspapers, etc. For nearly 100 years, people found these things valuable enough to continue paying into our library system.

      Developments in the last century have made library materials and services readily accessible to most everyone who wants them and public support is wavering as a result.

      The idea behind libraries is as sound as ever and so I ask “what is scarce today – what can libraries provide that promote individual and collective well-being that people cannot readily acquire on their own?”

    • Our library system is not “national”. It is pretty much local or, in some cases, state-wide (in terms of significant monetary support). Are you suggesting that we form a national framework? That would require shifting a lot of funding upwards.

      Given our Congress, I fear for any sort of infrastructure.

    • Jonser – levering our resources nationally is precisely what I have suggested. Today individual libraries & consortia are too weak to provide services the public will continue supporting for long. There are successful technical and management models that prove we can leverage our resources nationally to provide what no regional or local library can. I’ve shared some thoughts here.

      Done right, this national system would centralize and economize where it makes sense while preserving local autonomy and authenticity (which is a key strength of the current system).

      And man, do I hear your concerns about our political elite bolstering the military and medical industrial complexes and lining their own pockets while pummeling public organizations like CPB and NPR (whose budgets are miniscule by comparison). They’ve been doing it for years.

      But guess what, those tides are turning. People in this country are finally standing up to be counted. They’re OCCUPYing the streets to basically say “What you’ve been doing for the past 30 years is against the interests of 99% of Americans, and we’re not going to take it anymore.” THIS IS AN OPPORTUNITY FOR LIBRARIES.

      Right now the OCCUPYers are talking about good jobs, good food and good healthcare because far too few people in this country have them. As this movement continues and more of us stand up to be counted the message will become “and in addition to basic necessities, we want things that make this country worth living in … things that nurture our citizens and communities … like safe public spaces, public broadcasting outside the control of private interests, and public libraries.”

      For this to come true, libraries need to stand up to be counted. Conversations like this one are a great start.

    • Randal Powell says:

      Jeans says, “Done right, this national system would centralize and economize where it makes sense while preserving local autonomy and authenticity (which is a key strength of the current system).”

      I completely agree, and have had similar thoughts about the benefits of such a system. Specifically, a national virtual library combined with local brick-and-mortar libraries. For example, a national virtual library could cost-effectively provide access to databases that only users of academic libraries have access to today. It could also provide access to quality ebooks, easier access to government documents, and quality reference service (reference is too hit or miss at the local level). Local libraries could provide more specialized and localized collections — including archival and rare book collections — economy enriching programs, an excellent community space, and good technology resources.

    • Randal – we’re on the same wavelength about leveraging our resources nationally. Like you, I’ve thought through some specifics about the national-local service mix. Things fall into place pretty easily once you embrace the idea, don’t you think?

      The efficiencies gained through a well-conceived national system would free resources at the local level to provide more value-added services. I see this as a big win for libraries, their patrons and our nation.

    • The state in which I live – and this may be one of the reasons why my local library is doing so well – has consortial database purchasing, interlibrary loan, and borrowing. My regional (metro-wide) system also has consortial database purchasing to piggyback on what the state offers. This is not true of all states. So what we are able to offer locally is vastly expanded.

      This statewide model is very effective. There probably would be some issues to expanding this nationally – database vendor balking at one vendor having THE newspaper database, resource sharing (would compete with OCLC) and so forth. And think of how much fun it is to administer LSTA and other federal programs!

      But perhaps if we could expand the networks and services offered by those states currently not offering these resources . . .

    • Interesting … I wonder whether the system structure correlates to the differing usage patterns we’ve described.

      I live in Massachusetts where the library system is incredibly fragmented and parochial (perhaps because some of our libraries date back to the 1600-1700s). Small, independent libraries dot the landscape (26 within a 10 mile radius of my home). There is some sharing but it is limited and unsophisticated. It’s pretty common here for library users to take out cards in multiple towns to cobble together a minimum level of service for themselves.

      I’ve seen far better statewide systems in other parts of the country and know of some multi-state collaborations out west. They’re also experimenting with academic-public collaborations — and those are all moves in the right direction (IMO).

      As you say, there would be friction and challenges with incorporating libraries into a national network, though I believe the benefits would be worth working through.

    • As long as the 40% who use the library are the ones who vote……

  5. Wait… so the argument is that we don’t need libraries because the Internet has made it so that we don’t have stupid people anymore?

    And this is why I work with the general public and this jerk works in a corner office all day.

  6. Techserving You says:

    Meh. You know, I have issues with citing statistics like that. What about PUBLIC SCHOOLS? I’m married, but I do not have children and plan to never have children. Something like 2/3 of the households in my town do not have children under the age of 18. SO, 67% of the population doesn’t use public schools!!! It’s not that they attend less than once a month, it’s that they NEVER use them. No one in my family has EVER or will EVER use my local school system, yet probably $4000 a year of my property taxes go to fund the schools. That’s a HE!! of a lot more than goes to the library.

    I must agree with Jean Costello, though. Spot on.

    • Techserving – re: “Whether the library truly educates people or not, I believe it changes their value system a bit.”

      Do you really see that? My experience suggests that people who already have the values you extol are drawn to libraries. For people who don’t – well, public libraries just aren’t on their radar.

  7. Techserving You says:

    (And the difference between the library and the public schools is that the libraries are open to anyone who chooses to use them, not a select group within a certain age range. The funding for our public library breaks down to literally MAYBE 3% (probably less) of what it is for the public school, and EVERYONE can get their money’s worth and more. The similarities are that it’s in everyone’s interest to have an educated populace. I’m not suggesting that everyone “learns” at the public library – many, probably most, do not use it as an “educational institution” for the masses… but I firmly believe that no regular library visitor has contempt for education. Whether the library truly educates people or not, I believe it changes their value system a bit. And I think those values ripple outward, resulting in a safer, healthier, more educated populace and even a stronger economy in the long run.

  8. Techserving You says:

    Finally, though, I have to say that I have an unusual perspective on the matter. I’m reluctant to go into great detail, because I don’t want to give my identity away, but I have just moved from working at Ivy League university libraries to being director at a public library which was started RECENTLY (very unusual) by patrons who saw a need for library services in the community. It is a public library which is run by a private non-profit, but now gets some funding from tax dollars. And yet… for every patron who is as described by Jean Costello, there are probably 5 who are vocally the opposite. She described the “power user” – “These users LOVE libraries just the way they are. They offer continual praise… These users also serve on library Trustee and Friends boards and are closed to elections that might unseat them and ideas that might change policies and services that cater to them.” But the vocal opposition, showing up on message boards every Town Meeting season is basically, “We’re not going to be able to pay for heat, but we’ll be able to check out FREE BOOKS! Whoo-hoo!!!!” [dripping in sarcasm.] This tells me that the claims that libraries are needed “more than ever” during this economic downturn are not exactly beliefs held by the very people who might possibly benefit from the libraries. This is the story from librarians, and “power users”. The people who might actually most benefit from the libraries do not believe that they are essential services. And we’re talking about people unwilling to pay perhaps $30 more, on average, in taxes for an entire year! A little over 8 cents a day!!! It’s very eye-opening to see that it’snot just big, bad budget committees cutting funding. VOTERS… even poor people… maybe ESPECIALLY poor people… are voting against libraries. Perhaps there is a marketing problem, perhaps there is a programming problem.

    • TechServing – I wonder about the tax to support your library being around $30/year. Is this the per capita rate or the amount that people who fund the library actually pay?

      I ask because like most libraries, my local library quotes the per capita tax rate ($25/year) which sounds pretty low. This is a disingenuous statistic however because my library isn’t funded by residents. It is funded by property owners who are assessed roughly $120/year to pay for the town library. Residents who rent their homes and out-of-town users (which in my town account for 50% of the circulation) pay nothing.

    • Way Barra says:

      I can’t imagine landlords failing to take property tax rates into account when calculating rent. You are correct that renters do not pay property taxes directly, but they most certainly do subsidize owners’ payments.

    • I see your point, Way Barra. People who rent in my town do contribute, albeit indirectly, to funding our public library.

  9. Techserving You says:

    Jean Costello – that’s the amount for property tax payers with an “average” house assessment of $200,000. The library (in my case) is not asking for money to fund the entire operation, and it is also a (very) small town library. Given that where I live a $200,000 house gets you a property tax bill of over $6,000 a year, $30 is not at all a significant increase. $120 would also not be all that significant a chunk for an entire year, where taxes fluctuate far more than that each years, anyway.

    And Way Barra – you are correct. When I moved to the state in which I current live (known as having one of the highest average property tax rates in the country) I was shocked at how high rent was for a region I would have expected to have lower rents. The taxes were most certainly passed on to renters. (I now own a house but did not when I first moved here.)

    • So the amount assessed for the library is around $30-$50 annually. And people are balking? What do you think is behind that response?

    • We are assuming that 1) assessments aren’t down this year and 2) city/county officials aren’t looking to lower the tax rates even if assessments are down (a double whammy). Some people don’t want their taxes raised, period.

      We are also assuming that “higher up” officials (e.g. the governor or former governor) didn’t push down all sorts of expenses so as to have a “no tax increase” record when running for president (or at least running before withdrawing).

      So, yes, $30-50 does make people balk.

  10. Techserving You says:

    (Sorry, to clarify, that is the estimated amount per bill – so per household – with the average assessment of $200,000.)

  11. This may be off-topic, but I wonder what would happen if our “whizzy” phones and our wonderful technology should up and die on us? Now think: where could you go for information then? Well, our local libraries still have books, and people who know how to find information. I know this conceit seems absurd, but it makes you stop and consider the consequences of wiping the Earth clean of libraries. I truly, truly hope that there will still be a place for public libraries in the future, in whatever kind of form or function that they will take. (Fingers crossed…)

    • I agree! I think the slow technology movement (not sure if there is such a thing, but there will be one some day if there isn’t yet) is on the rise. People are shutting off their whizzy phones. I have a cell phone only for emergencies (it costs me 11.50 per month. Ha!) and I rarely use internet at home. My parents don’t have internet at all and they’re only 60.
      Also, living in a very rural town, the cell reception is minimal and the internet cables don’t reach every house. Digital divide still exists people.
      So libraries can’t help but be on the edge of change. Because people are.

    • I Like Books says:

      It’s been my suspicion that if our whizzy phones and wonderful technology died on us, the people who are saying we don’t need libraries because we have the internet still won’t be going to the library.

  12. I always find usage statistics to be ludicrous. For example: only 40% of New Yorkers used the subway within the last year, and only 20% used it in the past month – therefore, we should stop paying for the subway. Do you think New Yorkers would go for it?

    Secondly, while all this talk of “honorable tradition” is nice and all, it’s complete B.S. The biggest problem that librarians have is that they approach their job with such a lazy or ADD work ethic that they don’t actually ever get anything done, their output is lackluster and they come to work wearing anything from pajamas to jeans – all the while bemoaning the fact that no one gives them the respect they deserve. Receiving respect requires holding yourself to a standard and that is something the majority of the librarian community is unwilling to do.

    Face it. The majority of users coming in to story time, computer classes, DVDs or (heaven forbid) books are looking for free content and we provide it. The children’s librarian comes in wearing pink Christmas sweaters for the next two months because she thinks that’s her uniform. The supply clerk wears a dirty sweat suit because we let her get away with it, and god knows the last time she showered. Does that prevent people from coming in for all of our free stuff? No, but they certainly don’t expect much from us.

    Every time I put on a quality program or work with businesses in the community they are always so amazed that we are actually capable of putting something professional together. There’s that whole “Good enough for Government work” stigma. The level of respect is so low that most people think we dropped out of high school and landed this job through chance. I don’t blame them.

    You want to change libraries? Start firing people for doing a crappy job. You might be the pinnacle of this profession, but you’re not going to change your fate with 95% of your colleagues dragging you down.

    • Hi Oleg – a few replies:

      Re usage: my support would depend on a combination of volume and usage. Even if volumes are high, what’s driving the usage? If a large component is infotainment, I don’t want to subsidize it. There are many more public benefits I’d like to see my tax dollars supporting. If it’s internet use for job search, or children’s programming/materials then I might ask why we’re funding other aspects of the library that are chronically under-utilized.

      Re non-users not caring: in my mind libraries were established to offer high quality resources that appeal to a wide segment of the population. I believe this was true early on and remained true for decades. Over time, I’ve come to sympathize with Bonnie Power’s sentiments that “libraries and librarians have cultivated a sort of, well, cult that appeals to only a fraction of the general population.” As I said in my reply to her my experience and observation of libraries throughout the country is that many are very closed places. They serve the needs of their loyal customers well and effectively say the hell with everyone else. Particularly if you’re a person who has been shut out, it’s hard to care for the institution or the patrons it serves.

      I am well aware that libraries have been a part of the social safety net during this recession. They’ve provided loads of support to people around job search, identifying social services, and sometimes simply sheltering them from the elements. I care very deeply about these things and ask “why is our safety net so full of holes that libraries have become resources for these things?” and, if that’s where the burning needs are perhaps we need to channel more of our tax dollars there and away from libraries. Heresy to the library community, I know.

      Regarding technology: libraries are way, way, way behind. Always have been. A national public library corporation could help enormously with this.

      Regarding work habits: I’d say libraries are on par with most government/municipal agencies and worse than the ones that provide more direct transactional services (like the post office and DMV). This is partly because the institution offers no incentive to excel and actually does a fair amount to beat it down. (To a great extent, the motivation for library staff to do good work needs to be present and nurtured from within.) This is okay when libraries are competing against other gov/muni agencies. It will catch up with them for content, reference and entertainment because they increasingly compete with commercial entities incentivized to provide great products & service.

    • Otto – your comment helped me realize I also bring low expectations to my library interactions. Due to frequent experiences like these and these, I rarely use libraries anymore … and when I do, I don’t expect much.

      If this is true for a fair number of users, it contributes to a downward spiral whereby library staff “live down” to user expectations, users lower their expectations in response to poor service and the cycle repeats. It’s a subtle and insidious dynamic that will take a bold action to reverse.

    • Hi Jean,

      You wrote: “If a large component is infotainment, I don’t want to subsidize it.”

      From my reading of library history, I believe that public libraries have always circulated plenty of “infotainment” whether that be tawdry novels, sensationalist political punditry, popular films (or popular documentaries), or music. Entertainment has always been in there with Education as a library goal, though it isn’t touted because you, and many other people, don’t want to subsidize it as such. The problem with dumping the “infotainment” portion of our approach is twofold. First off, it isn’t clear-cut what is educational and what is entertaining; the latest Mary Higgins Clark novel may be seen by some as purely a fun genre novel and by others as a step into literacy; and don’t even get me started on non-fiction titles. Obviously, there are some non-fiction titles that are purely educational and some fiction titles that are almost completely devoid of any value at all. We keep items of both ilks for a variety of reasons oft-times differing depending on the community. Secondly, if we did not have a collection of items that were entertainment then many people would not come into the library and we wouldn’t have as much to stand on when it came to getting funding for educational purposes because let’s face it, qualitative measures are important, but the business people and lawmakers in many communities are much more focused on gate counts and circulation numbers despite how none of those things mattered to me. I bring myself up because growing up in an immigrant community, I read a lot of books from the library that weren’t exactly educational — maybe you don’t want to subsidize that, but I do and will.

      You wrote that “libraries were established to offer high quality resources that appeal to a wide segment of the population”

      Do you have examples of such resources? If we go by one of your links posted above where you wanted literary criticism about Dylan Thomas’ villanelle, I wouldn’t call that something that a wide segment of the population asks for on a regular basis. My feeling is that there are few high quality resources that appeal to a wide segment — most high quality resources appeal to a small group of people within every community. Two examples: 1) A good collection of computer-programming books and an associated database appeals to a relatively small group, namely intermediate-advanced computer users who are interested in programming. 2) A deep collection of plays and monologues appeals primarily to hobbyists and the occasional professional; a wide segment of the population does not read plays.

      I think I also need more info on this statement “They serve the needs of their loyal customers well and effectively say the hell with everyone else.” because I’m not exactly clear on what constitutes a loyal customer. Is it a person who comes every day? Every week? Every 3 weeks (like most patrons)? Is it the person on his laptop? The student in the study room? Not all of those people unequivocally love the library, but they’re using it for better of for worse. So, what constitutes a loyal customer?

      With regards to the paragraph that starts “I am well aware that libraries have been a part of the social safety net during this recession.” — If I may generalize here, I would say that the person who supports social services usually also supports the library while the folks are itching to shred social services are typically not huge library supporters either (though the latter isn’t always true). Getting either type of person towards a consensus on priorities is a tall order.

      “Regarding technology: libraries are way, way, way behind.”

      Maybe for Silicon Valley, but not for the person who needs word processing capabilities. Maybe for web designer who needs Photoshop, but not for a regular internet user. Certainly catalogs could be better, certainly vendors could do a better a job with their databases…Many things could be different. So should we just give up? I don’t think so. What we have serves an ever-increasing number of users; a wide-segment of the population, I think so.

      “This is partly because the institution offers no incentive to excel and actually does a fair amount to beat it down. ”

      Agreed. But I’ve yet to hear of a workable solution other than on an individual basis. Do you have one?

    • Oleg – great points!

      Infotainment – I agree with everything you said about the value of materials for leisure and entertainment. It would be a pretty dreary world without them and I’m not saying they shouldn’t be in our libraries. Likewise, I’m not against gaming at the library, or crafts, or a host of other activities per say. I qualified my earlier statement by saying “a large component”, and what I mean here is that my support for public libraries waivers when I see these things become a significant part of what they do. There are so many things my community and our society needs and I’d rather see my tax dollars going there than providing entertainment for a small segment of the population.

      Regarding high quality resources, I wasn’t descriptive enough and my meaning wasn’t clear. Perhaps I should have said resources that were “high quality, scarce, expensive, hard to get, etc.” A literate librarian was a high quality resource in an age when the population was largely uneducated. A full set of encyclopedias and detailed maps of faraway places were high quality resources. Newspapers from other parts of the country and large quantities of books were high quality resources. These things were all hard to come by and so communities pooled their money to collectively get what they could not get on our own. Even in my childhood in the 1960s and early 1970s, the library was a place where you’d find what was nowhere else — and that drew people of all stripes in. This just isn’t true anymore. It’s not the fault of libraries; the world has simply changed. My library advocacy is about remaking the library into a place that offers what no one else does. This is the only way the institution will endure. What might those “high quality” resources be today? Though I have loads of ideas, this really needs to be the topic of a much broader and inclusive discussion. My advocacy focuses on trying to convince people that this is the discussion we need: what will make the library a place that offers what no one else does and will draw people of all stripes in?

      Regarding the “power users”: This may play out differently in the very large public libraries, but in the smaller ones, as Mr. West said “we all know who they are“. The library is a huge part of their lives; they borrow materials & attend programs but also do the majority of the volunteer work — routine operational stuff AND chairing the committees, runing the booksales, etc. They’re at the library a lot and so it’s also a social center for them to congregate with the other power users. They’ve made the library part of their home and take a high degree of ownership for it. This becomes problematic when it doesn’t let in new people and fresh ideas. A number of people I know have tried to become more involved with their public libraries and been rebuffed. I see it all the time. It’s a polite rebuff and delivered with a smile so they may not even realize they’re doing it. The people I’ve spoken with have felt pushed away and not returned. Instead, they donate their time and money where they feel it’s more appreciated.

      I agree about social service support. Consensus is a tall order, but continually striving for it is our civic duty. (IMO), there’s been a deliberate, concerted, 30-year effort by the political elite in our country to distract the citizenry. I think it’s worked and look where it’s gotten us. Our institutions, from libraries to schools to Congress are in shambles. Far too many of our people are poor and suffering. And things are getting worse, not better. I’ve been waiting for the day when we all gather in the streets and start to figure this mess out and I’m delighted people have started to do just that with the OCCUPY movement. The focus will be on corrupt and co-opted institutions first, as it should be. I’m convinced it will turn to libraries within the decade and I’d sure love it if the library community could demonstrate some vision and solidarity. It’s what I’ll keep beating the drum for…

      We’re on the same page about technology … and it’s why I try to think of how we can re-allocate our resources to free library staff up to do the work you describe. The current system clearly isn’t working because library staff need to spend way too much time procuring and maintaining technology that is often second-class and out-of-date.

      Regarding work habits: working in any institution is like being a nail in a pine board – the minute one pops up someone hammers it down. It’s also true that self-perpetuation inevitably becomes the mission of every institution. It’s true of libraries and virtually every other one I can think of.

      It may be too late to motivate library staff who have been utterly demoralized or have taken their foot off the gas pedal years ago. There are thousands upon thousands (like you, in fact) that want to contribute more, learn more, grow more and help their patrons do the same. Our current system constrains their growth. My proposal to address this is a well-done National Library Corporation that lifts the ceiling on library work. (Here again, I have loads of specific ideas but this is not the forum for it.) In this comment thread, I’ve prefaced every statement on this with “Done well…” because if we burden the governance and management of this new structure with the old dysfunctional institutional stuff we will have done nothing but nationalize the problem. If, on the other hand, we can draw upon the many good models (I’m thinking of some aspects of NPR & PBS, some of the WordPress community, etc), then we can create something truly inspiring and rewarding — for the people who work in libraries and those who use them.

  13. A lot of comments have already been posted, so I’m going to shoot off replies on a few different topics:

    Re. GATE COUNTS AND ATTENDANCE: Most of the statistics for public libraries I’ve seen show an increase, both short and long term, in both circulation and gate counts. I have no been privy to any evidence, other then anecdotal, that this is changing. Links would be appreciated…

    Re. the arguments in the original article, AL had it right when she wrote: “The only people these arguments work on are people who don’t need libraries AND WHO ALSO DON’T CARE WHETHER OTHER PEOPLE DO.”

    Re. falling behind in technology: Public libraries especially don’t have to be at the forefront because most patrons aren’t. What we do need to have are systems that 1) Work, 2) Are comparable and compatible with general standards (meaning no more IE6 or Microsoft Works!), 3) Have the programs people need (mostly MS Office (or OpenOffice)). Having said that, the barrier-of-entry into building mobile apps is not as high as designing and coding up programs for regular computers. Many libraries can rid themselves of an underused database or two and contract a small team if they want have interesting info app ideas.

    Re. what Otto said about library employees and their work habits…No standards or expectations, no measures, no bosses who aren’t afraid of being the “bad guy”, and no incentives for doing above-average work means that the only relatively few people with intrinsic motivation and strong skills will be doing it. That’s the case in every organization, not just libraries, and doesn’t change the fact that the services libraries provide are useful to plenty of people.

  14. GameStop Steps into Tablet PC Sales – Wall Street Journal

  15. I totally fear what technology is doing to our libraries. This is also happening in school libraries. Being a teacher-librarian in a private school in Lebanon, I feel my role is no longer vital as before. Teachers are taking over in teaching research skills and doing reading in class, reduction of library hours, and less purchasing of non-fiction books are also observed. More students prefer to research at home using their computers. E-books are not yet included in our library collection as school principals find this unnecessary. They believe students can purchase this from home or lend through Amazon! Where we are heading is a place of abyss with no jump to the future. Unless teachers, school principals, and the Education Board put more effort in reviving our place and make it more appealing to our teens, then we are heading to extinction. It will be similar to a museum!

    • You’re right on, Carla. Technology disrupts; always has, always will. The primary work of libraries has been automated or taken up by newer entities that can do it more efficiently and effectively. The library community has taken this as a personal assault when it’s nothing more than a historic phenomenon. Neil Postman’s book Technopoly begins with a wonderful survey of technology disruption going back to ancient Egypt. I recommend it to anyone concerned about the future of libraries.

      While library operations are dated, their mission and value is timeless. The mistake the public library community is making in trying to “re-invent itself” is that they foreground low-end activities that will dry up or be more efficiently and effectively performed by others. The promotion of in-library coffee shops, free wi-fi for internet search, passport applications and a host of other things fall into this category. These are things people can get elsewhere and they certainly don’t require librarianship.

      So, what might a high-end 21st century library service look like? I see opportunities all the time. One just came to me this morning while I sat with a cup of coffee and the morning online newspaper. A newspaper article led me to this page on the PBS website which is a top-notch example of curation, collection development and a bit of original content. I surely could have amassed this collection by googling … but would I ever? NO, but I’m into it now because someone presented it to me in such a high quality way … and poof, I find myself engaging a topic that wasn’t on my radar 15 minutes before.

      THIS is discovery, this is learning in the 21st century. Doesn’t mean there’s no place for library-type collections organized by Dewey, it just means that value needs to be added to them. Libraries might say they do this with their pathfinder pages, but theirs fall far short of this example. The PBS page is a value-added piece of work that guides the reader to additional sources in a compelling way. As a talented librarian yourself Carla, when you look at these pages your mind will probably get popping with ideas about how you could guide the reader to another layer of relevant sources, and another — and so let’s think about where this could go in a library context.

      This page could be expertly and elegantly build out to guide people through discovery zones that pursue the narrow topic in greater depth or present intersections with related topics. Many organizations are doing this today. So what would make a library effort different? It would be an implementation of Randal’s vision of the virtual complementing the physical.

      Are there books on the subject that could be referenced so that the virtual pointer leads to a local library? OCLC and Google have the technology to do this now. And within the library, could talks be scheduled with some local history buffs or people who lived through various wars? Oh yeah, libraries do this today and no one shows up. That’s because the library doesn’t put enough resources behind these programs … but what about if a program was nested within a virtual/material collection (including top-notch sources from anywhere, not just the library) and the library partnered with other organizations to bring the program alive? If the library had a museum/historical commission nearby that had a collection of war artifacts, the library could roll these into ‘the collection’. If they were smart, they’d deliver the program at the museum instead of their library and start a tradition of physical hyperlinking to augment the virtual hyperlinking that has revolutionized discovery and reference. Every library in the country has something really special in its backyard. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a national network they could contribute their assets to? And what about tapping into the local public radio network? Might there be a public radio station in the area that could help produce the program, broadcast it and add it to the many wonderful podcasts on iTunes?

      And what about making the collection resonate for all ages and cultures? I’m no expert, but the PBS page seems oriented toward a high school/adult level. Are there different treatments that would resonate for grade schoolers and teens? It also seems rather middle-class-caucasian centric. Are there other lenses through which to explore the topic? Asking these basic questions opens a whole new set of activities for high-end librarianship. My mind is racing right now with ideas on how draw people to the library and add rich community and national meaning through this one collection.

      Any topic or material would benefit from this treatment. I used the war correspondent example because it just came across my radar. I’m thinking now of one of my favorite movies, Mel Brook’s Young Frankenstein. After a pause for some rich belly-laughs I began building an awesome collection in my mind about the movie … ending with a ghoulfest for Halloween at my library, accompanied by dress up and dancing to Michael Jackson’s Thriller.

      The world can be libraries’ oyster and they can help make it so for the rest of us.

      Lots of organization, cultivation, curation and collaboration are required to pull this off – I know. But isn’t this what librarianship is all about? Isn’t it expertise and activity the profession can provide that isn’t being provided elsewhere?

      Libraries have no resources to do this you say? This is because our library system is so fragmented and countless libraries across the country spend their resources doing the same thing each year, starting at ground zero. The results can’t help but be superficial. (Think about Banned Books Week as an example.) What if we leveraged our library resources differently though? What if public/academic/specialized libraries collaborated better and worked with other professionals from universities, museums, public broadcasting better? What could be produced then?

      Whenever I’ve shared these ideas with library folk, they’ve shot them down. I surmise part of the reason is because they like doing library work not articulated in this vision and they see it as a threat. Fear not – there’s so much work to do and there’s a place for everyone! Do you like facilitating reading & discussion groups? Do you like creating and coordinating programs or doing community outreach? Do you like doing literacy & computer training? Are you a children’s librarian? Are you a cataloger or archivist? The skill and talent you each bring has a place within this vision.

      They’ve also countered that the public doesn’t want something like this and they’re dead wrong. What’s truer is their power users probably don’t want it. And their disadvantaged constituents don’t want it because they’re so caught up struggling to meet their basic needs that they don’t have time or energy to think about it. There are countless indicators that the public does want what I’ve described. Consider the deep engagement and support NPR and PBS cultivate across all their mediums. Take a look at the phenomenal success of TED talks where people turn for stimulation and inspration, in person and online. People want this and it’s something they’re not finding at their libraries. It’s also something Google et al are not and never can provide.

      This is the new Alexandria. It’s a way to motivate and re-energize the countless librarians who feel bored at their job and professionally devalued. It’s a way to get America building something incredible again which is what we so desperately need. It’s a way to bring people across a range of boundaries together for enrichment. It is a high-end vision of value and hope and promise, one that creates something amazing for those of us living today as well as for the next generation to inherit and build upon.

      We’ve got the need. We’ve got the material and financial resources. What we don’t yet have is the shared vision and the willingness to release our tight grasp on what we have today in order to build something better.

    • We have the “material and financial resources” – who is “we”? Jean, you throw out statements like this, and you generalize from your rather narrow public library experiences. I would also be curious to know how you come across to “library folk”. You’ve already said that you are not willing to pay for “entertainment” in libraries, and you assume it is only for “a small segment”.

      I’m not all that fond of “consultants” and “experts” in the field either, as they ought to have a better idea of what is really going on instead of castigating those of us (and there are plenty of us) working our butts off with increasingly limited resources to meet increasingly louder demand.

      Perhaps if it was less about what “you” (generic) want to see in libraries and more about what “we” want to see, there would be more room for agreement.

    • Randal Powell says:


      What would y’all (generic) like to see?

    • Hi Joneser – thanks for replying; I appreciate the prompt to clarify.

      When I say “we”, I truly do mean everyone in this country who funds public libraries. We spend billions each year on public library operating budgets. Foundations and corporations make significant donations. Add to that the monies raised by Friends and we’re talking about a huge amount of money spent year after year — on public libraries alone. Add in academic and special libraries and the number goes way up. Those are the financial resources I was referring to.

      In terms of material resources, we’ve got nearly 17,000 public libraries in the country and collectively they have lots of materials and systems. They employ hundreds of thousands of people. Many have incredible values, energy and talent as well as advanced degrees and specialized skills. Add in the academic libraries and the library schools and you’re talking about significant human resources. A veritable army, in fact.

      There are also human resources outside the library community that can be tapped. For example, the last decade has given rise to communities of software developers that work for free, through the open source movement as well as through concerted projects like Code for America (and others). These are bright people with specialized skills who want to contribute to something more important than what their day jobs pay them to do. Municipalities have begun leveraging this talent for things like building apps to provide transit data to commuters. In a few early cases, this was done after the municipalities had spent loads on bureaucratic processes and consultants and got nothing for it. By going outside the system, they got high quality product delivered rapidly. All this is what I mean by material resources.

      I’ve read histories on library funding from the 1930s and the 1970s and they’re eerily similar to the current state (see below for references). As best I can tell, we’re approaching the dilemmas the same way we always have — and while that’s arguably gotten us by, in my mind, three things make today’s situation more dire:
      1) The country has been awash in anti-government rhetoric for over three decades;
      2) We’re immersed in a deep recession borne of significant structural problems with our economy. Many forecast bad times for a really long time to come.
      3) There are now plenty of alternatives for most of the materials and services libraries offer, and new ones arise daily.

      My fear is that we will lose most of our public libraries by the end of this decade. My argument is that we can avoid this terrible national tragedy if we think differently about the dilemma. The kernel of my proposal is to:
      1) Think differently about our library ecosystem; begin thinkomg about it nationally & holistically versus locally & regionally, segmented into public, academic and special libraries. This shift in thinking enables mass leveraging of resources and “playing individual institutions to their strengths” that cannot be achieved today.
      2) Reach outside the library community for models and expertise to help with the dilemma.

      My library experience may be broader than you realize, Joneser. More info here. Since early 2009, I’ve been studying the library ecosystem – in part because it’s fascinating and also because I’ve wanted to educate myself on the issues. Through my advocacy work I’ve developed some strong connections with librarians across the country and Canada. We share information and debate the issues. Like you, they aren’t bashful about telling me when they think I’m “all wet” – and this helps inform my perspectives and refine my ideas.

      Professionally, I am a technical project manager and for decades have worked with companies large and small, across a broad array of industries. I have a particular talent for systems analysis: understanding an enterprise objective and then leading project teams through the process of delivering technical and human systems needed to achieve the desired result. This is most likely why I approach the library dilemma as a systems problem.

      Regarding how I come across to library folk, you may know better than I. My critiques are the same as those written every day on library blogs, and not nearly so harsh. I’m mindful that it’s always much harder to receive criticism from an outsider than someone “in the family” though and try to remember that when hate mail and unkind words come my way. If people check out my work, they’ll see the kudos and credible ideas I offer far outweigh my criticisms.

      Lastly, you may think I’m a nutcake. Guess what, I do too sometimes and wonder why I pour so much energy into this :) It’s because I deeply value our public libraries and don’t want to see them fade away.


      BTW – here are the references on library funding:
      R. Kathleen Molz. 1978. The Financial Setting of the Public Library. The Library Quarterly. 48(4), pp. 416-431.
      Carl Vitz, ed. 1933. Current Problems in Public Library Finance. Chicago: American Library Association.

  16. Children's librarian says:

    I’d like to know where this 60 percent or 40 percent are since we are swamped all the time. I think I can say with absolutely as much non data and non proof that most of us who work in public libraries, especially those who with kids, don’t visit this blog. Is that correct? It may be but I have no more proof than there is of this 60 percent or 40 percent. What studies were drawn from and what was the study size sample for this number? I honestly wonder when the last time was that some of the commentators spent some time in a public library? I can see devalued as describing those who work there, but not bored nor underutilized. Even at this time, people who don’t live in my district will gladly pay the small fee for a library card, because they can get access to a huge collection encompassing 16 libraries in a cooperative. A family of four can’t go out to dinner one time for what a library card costs, and that library card is good for the whole family for unlimited check-outs.

    As for what people like me provide to the community, I made a stab in my schedule to select a typical day. It settled onto last Tuesday, a typical Tuesday in a typical week. It started in the early morning checking some new books and displaying the latest hot reads, which was followed by preparing for and presenting a preschool storytime with interactive puppetry in which we teach parents about how to incorporate the six early literacy skills and love of reading into their time with their kids. Then I moved onto preparing a grant for a person we contract with (for another grant I wrote and am writing) who has a unique idea for mothers and babies and bookclubs, then I went into a school for an hour to present another interactive program that gives books to kindergartners who are poor, which was followed by phone calls to a school librarian to follow-up with a Reading with Dogs program and the setting up final arrangements for a series of booktalks for several hundred fifth graders in my region. Then I worked adult reference for two hours, and this was followed by a one hour rehearsal for three original shows puppet shows (that I wrote on my vacation) for Christmas. After that I coordinated an after school reading program, and then spent the end of my day (between helping parents and kids with their reference and homework needs), on weeding and collection mapping for the biography and space sections, while making sure that the after school homework program was running smoothly. I run a department in a mid size community, have one part time assistant, and have no off desk time and no office and so am also constantly doing children’s reference too between my other work. I have built a website for my department, which includes fixing problems with the coding and other tech issues when they occur. I’m in an area where there are many speakers of another language, so I’ve learned and became conversant in a second language in the last two years to assist me with my job. Eventually, I’ll be fluent in that second language. Also that Tuesday I worked on our library’s intercultural programming and extended collections (though we have a way to go in this area). I’ll never get a raise with the ongoing budget problems, but doubt I’ll be fired since the library would shut down first. Currently, that doesn’t appear likely at all. If necessary, I’ll take my skills to another field, but I really love what I do and love the impact I see in the lives in the familes in my community.

    I’m think I’m more typical than these people you say are regressive and bored and want to do nothing in public libraries.


      Here are numbers for library use. As for you being swamped, I’m guessing you have a very loyal 15% of users who you see over and over again.

      Think about it this way, if you are in a suburban area of 25,000, odds are 17,500 of those people have library cards. Now, that means, on average, that 2,625 people are regulars that you see often (every couple of weeks to every day depending.)

      So really, that’s 10% (+/-) of the overall population that uses your library on a regular basis (they also probably drive about 60% of your circ). Still, that- for a library of that size- would be enough to make them feel they are “swamped” while still only serving a minority of the population with any regularity.

      Does that make sense? You can see, then, how someone could argue that even though you are “swamped” it is not an indication that the library is actually serving the whole community.

      In fact, one could argue that the 15% of library card users perhaps take avantage and keep libraries from serving the entire population better.

      Also, I would like to paraphrase an article I read a while back that I don’t want to take the time to look up now. “Value that isn’t valued is not valuable.” Basically, all those great things you do amounts to nothing if your customers don’t agree they’re great things.

  17. Children's librarian says:

    And as for empty stacks, I think that if that is the case, the collection has not been well developed and is not being displayed in a way to encourage check outs. Our check outs are very high.

  18. Great conversation on this topic! Interestingly, Charlie Parker from Tampa Bay Library Consortium sent out this article today(November 6): Statistics show Floridians love their libraries! Bill Maxwell. St. Petersburg Times

  19. Today publishing experts weigh in on what size organizations will “win the future”. Here are some of the comments that resonated for me:

    Kent Anderson, CEO & Publisher of JBJS: I think the big organization that organizes itself, behaves, and seems to its audience to be a small, nimble organization will win the future.

    Ann Michael, Consultant: The organization that will win the future is the one that puts the user first, has a collaborative yet decisive culture, can execute on its aspirations, and can adjust appropriately as the market responds.

    Rick Anderson, Associate Dean for Scholarly Resources and Collections at the University of Utah’s Marriott Library: Speaking more specifically from a higher-education context, I think the slightly less glib version of my response is that the organizations that win will be of two categories: the first is those that are “too big to fail” (where “big” can be translated as “so deeply rooted in the culture and so richly endowed that their survival is functionally guaranteed”). The second category is those that are (pardon the cliche) nimble. That second category, I think, has two subcategories: those that are nimble in response to changing circumstance and flexible (where “flexibility” refers to a willingness and ability to question core assumptions and values) and those that are nimble and inflexible. Nimbleness alone characterizes a minority of institutions; the nimble-and-flexible group is even smaller. In libraries, which are fundementally conservative organizations, the challenge of nimbleness can be overwhelming–and true flexibility is very rarely manifest. I believe that this fact poses a potentially existential threat to the traditional research library, and I believe that size has little to do with it.

  20. Children's librarian says:

    Does that make sense? You can see, then, how someone could argue that even though you are “swamped” it is not an indication that the library is actually serving the whole community.

    Perhaps we don’t serve the whole community; it’s not possible to reach every single person, at all times within a community, but we partner heavily with organizations within the community to make the library’s boundaries more fluid. Between all these organizations and the library, together we are working to serve our whole community and continually try to improve our services. One of the newest trends for reading where I’ve seen promise are in the interactive books that work across media. Kids love those and I’ve found that many kids, who think they don’t like to read, can be turned onto reading and so can their parents. Maybe we won’t reach them all, but we reach many who spread the word to others and it becomes something like a snowball effect. Despite all the naysaying of how we’re dying, I don’t see it happening any time soon.

    • There’s a ton of space between reaching “every single person” and really only reaching 1 out of every 10 people. (while, keep in mind, you are getting money from those other 9 people as well- in massively disproportional amounts based on use).

      If we don’t start seeing that reaching 1 out of every 10 people that pay our salaries is a failure of epic proportions that does us great harm as institutions, then we have big problems.

    • Hi Spencer – interesting analysis. I try to guage public support by analyzing the size of friends groups and also how many people come out to protest library closures and budget cuts. The numbers are small.

      I’m on my lunch hour at work and don’t have access to all my records … but can cite a few examples. In mid-2009, I referenced two large libraries that quoted some numbers on their cardholders and Friends.

      For one, 71% of their population were cardholders and .3% were friends. For the other, the numbers were 45% and .4%.

      And this from memory: When I read about protests around the country, I compare the population served to the number of supporters that show up in person to lobby against cuts. (I realize people also write and phone their elected officials, but here too the numbers appear small.) In early 2010, the Boston Public library announced significant closures and cutbacks. I remember these stats because I live an hour away from Boston. The big protests at City Hall were covered on the news. 85 protesters were there one day, 130 the next day. The population served by the main branch alone is roughly 335,000.

      Another vivid memory is from 2009 when the library in my town faced closure. We have 7,000 residents and 2,500 properties that are assessed taxes. Appr 25 people showed up at the selectman’s office to protest library cuts. I know because I helped mount the “Save the Library” campaign and took the podium at that meeting in support of our library. The people with me were almost all women over 50 years old. We mounted a letter writing campaign that generated 40-50 letters (including those of us that went to the selectmen.) We also mounted a petition campaign at our annual booksale and local supermarkets and collected 400 signatures.

      The stats above are pretty consistent with reports I follow from around the country. They suggest deep public library support comes from a small segment of the population.

  21. Children's librarian says:

    If we don’t start seeing that reaching 1 out of every 10 people that pay our salaries is a failure of epic proportions that does us great harm as institutions, then we have big problems.

    You think we’re not reaching out to the people who pay our salaries? We are, and so are other public libraries. And as for partnering with professionals within the community to develop programs, professional applications… we do that too. I have associations with librarians all over the United States and my library is not that unusual. What exactly do you want us to us to do that we aren’t already doing and always working to improve in our partnerships with community groups, organizations, businesses and individuals?

    Our funding is actually pretty good with all the losses from job and home losses because people vote to fund the library. It’s not just libraries that have been hurt in the Great Recession, nor just libraries that have born funding cuts.

    • It’s not that we’re not reaching out, it’s that we’re not REACHING them. Whatever message we are sending, whatever types of reaching out we are doing, is NOT working. Ask 9 out of every 10 people in your city what it would take to get them to use the library twice a month.

      I can make a pitch to you about my services- I can show up at the homecoming parade/county fair/comic book convention and show you what I’ve got to offer. I can reach out to you that way. I can explain it a million times. Now, you might come to the library and start using it, you might come in once and figure it’s not really your thing and not come back until next year- like the vast majority of your cardholders- or you might come in and use the library every day.

      However, whatever we’ve been doing is only getting 1 out of every 10 people to do anything close to the last one. 3 out of every 10 people never come in at all. That leaves 6 that come in, but not in any regular way and not very often.

      That is NOT success. We need to re-evaluate what we classify as victories and acceptable numbers. We need to take a look at what we’ve been doing and why it HAS NOT been working.

      People keep voting to fund the library because they don’t think about it this way. Our lifeblood is nostalgia mixed with inertia. It’s so little money per person, hidden away as part of a larger tax they’re already paying, that it’s not that bad to them. Mostly they just don’t care and your loyal 10% of the population- urged on by the library staff they see on a regular basis- votes to give themselves more and more stuff for a cost that is carried by those who don’t notice/care.
      They are starting to notice.

      I don’t know how else to explain it, but I get the feeling you’re not going to understand my meaning.

  22. Children's librarian says:

    I honestly don’t know why I decided to spend some time on my day off to try to present an alternative perspective about public libraries because I won’t convince people who have already made up their minds. I’m also one of those who rarely visits this blog, perhaps because so many negative perspectives are given about public libraries/librarians. I like some of Jean’s ideas about virtual material collections — that is something we haven’t done. We’d have to find professionals to be willing to work for free to do something like this, and I think it’s a problem now that professionals are being asked to work for virtually nothing on stint work.

  23. Children's librarian says:

    Spencer, you haven’t heard what I had to say. The way you describe is ineffective on reaching out is NOT how what I do to reach out. There are more effective methods. It seems to be working in that if I go to a community event, a grocery store or whatever, people stop me to ask questions about upcoming programs, when I’m going to be back at their school, how this or that puppet is doing… I can’t go anywhere without people I don’t think I’ve ever met stopping me, and I live in a community of 50,000. But I’m not to convince you either. That’s okay.

    • How many people in your city have a library card? Of those, what percentage uses the library at least 2 times a month? I’m willing to bet you’ve got about 5000 people who use the library at least 2 times a month.

      If that’s the case- and your library isn’t a national anomoly- you are failing as an institution- IMO- regardless of how many people stop to ask you questions. If not and you’re techniques fly in the face of what the rest of the profession in general is doing- good for you. You should put on seminars on how to succeed, but realize you are NOT indicitive of libraries in general- YOU are a beacon on the hill.

  24. I have followed this discussion from the beginning and have learned a lot along the way. It seems to me that this entire thread is representative of the very basic divide that exists in “libraryland” (not a fan of that term): Those who believe libraries will continue to go on forever just as they are, and those who believe that radical change is necessary to ensure libraries’ survival. If a few respondents can’t agree on what’s wrong with libraries, if anything, then how can we ever hope to achieve a common, institutional vision for the future?

    Many of you have more answers than I, for sure. And I appreciate the different perspectives presented. But I wonder where that leaves us as a profession? And just how divided are we? My hope is that more and more conversations like these will be had in all the right places. Thanks for the education.

  25. How right you are, Bonnie. The biggest problem I see is that there are no “right places” to have the conversation.

    I’d like to invite you, Joneser, Oleg, TechServing, Randal, Spencer and Children’s Librarian up to Massachusetts for a few drinks. I’ll spring for a few icy cold pitchers and a few bottles of wine and we’ll figure this whole thing out!


  26. Here in MI we must be not in the know…our library millage just passed by 9,000 votes. We are suppose to be an upscale community too.
    Personally, even though I could afford to buy my books I do not. I do not need the clutter. I love getting my books from my library. I love getting some DVDs from my library. Less clutter, more money. Come talk to us, we love our public library.. and over 12,000 voters went to the polls to make sure the library lights stay on.

  27. Library Worker says:

    Jean Costello, I would love to hear you speak at a library conference. Please submit a proposal to ALA, PLA, CLA etc. You have a very rational, even-handed, non-inflammatory writing style – I’m guessing that you would be an engaging speaker. I have worked in public libraries for 25 years and my fellow librarians need a wake up call on the future of libraries. I don’t have the answer…I wish I did. I see a lot of desperation in some of the things we do to look “relevant”. I’m guilty of it myself. We desperately grab onto the latest fad that we think will be our salvation.

  28. Thanks Library Worker – I was a plenary panelist at Reference Renaissance 2010 and this Spring the iSchool at Univ of Toronto hosted me for 2 days of programming with students, faculty and administration.

    The organizations you mentioned respond best to inquiries from within the profession, so feel free to submit my name to one of the conferences you’ll be attending next year. I’ll be happy to join if I can. My best, Jean

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