Annoyed Librarian
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Inside Annoyed Librarian

Information Needs?

In last week’s discussion of library rental fees, someone commented:

It is about our customers. In many cases, the rentals aren’t available either, and then they go and buy the book or check another library system.  Yes patience is a virtue, and I can see that argument, but we also need to meet the informational needs of our community be it through, in this case, rental fiction or nonfiction.

This is in response to a line of thinking that argues people should just be willing to wait if they want to read the book for free, or even nearly free. This approach could be used to defend library rentals. Those who can’t afford the extra dollar could wait indefinitely, while the rich among us for whom the extra dollar makes no difference could read their Stephen King novels more quickly than the masses.

Though it could also be an argument against rental fees. Waiting for a best selling novel to be available to you for free could be seen as a character-building experience. The instant gratification culture that we have developed is deleterious to many areas of life, including the ability to read entire books. Giving them the choice of shelling out $30 or waiting several weeks to get a copy of the book that you would never want to spend money on teaches people that sometimes choices are hard.

But for now I want to focus on the comment, especially the suggestion that by providing quick, or even any, access to Stephen King novels or Fifty Shades of Grey, libraries are striving to meet the “informational needs” of their communities. Informational NEEDS? Really?

Since when is desiring to read the latest bestselling novel considered an information need? Is this one of those librarian shifts of meaning from the commonsensical to the nonsensical to justify themselves? You know, the way a book “challenge” somehow slips into “censorship,” because nobody gives a damn about book challenges but censorship sounds like the boogeyman is coming and only librarians can save us from him?

Yep, that sounds about right. Everything from the latest health care research to the latest bestselling thriller is “information.” If someone desires that information, it becomes a “need.” Only there’s a difference.

Let’s say someone is searching for information about a diagnosis they’ve received from a doctor. Are they really dying? Is major surgery the only option? Are they really going to have to give up chocolate frosted sugar bombs for breakfast?

These are things people might actually need to know so they don’t die. And there is a lot of “information” in this category. Business information? Important. Most people need to work to live. Tax information? Legal information? Anything can be a information need if the result of not meeting that need is some sort of hardship. Death, prison, bad investments, diabetes…it doesn’t really matter. Just that someone is worse off if they can’t find the information.

But popular novels? Has anyone ever died, gone to prison, contracted a disease, gone bankrupt, or had any remotely bad thing happen to them if they haven’t read the latest popular novel?

Seriously, what is the worst possible thing that could happen to someone if they haven’t read a popular novel? The worst thing might be that their friends who equate current popularity with literary worth might think them slightly out of date.

If the worst result of that is that you’re shunned by the shallow group of nitwits you think are your friends and are forced to realize you’ve been associating with people who lack souls, then that’s an argument for tossing popular novels out of libraries entirely.

Only in library-speak would a popular novel be considered “information” for which people would have a “need.” For everyone else, popular novels or DVDs or whatever are niceties, maybe even the sort of niceties that libraries should be providing.

However, librarians should gain some perspective on this issue. If you’re spending an inordinate amount of your budget supplying multiple copies of popular novels, you’re gathering less of whatever real information someone might have a real need for.

But why the strange metamorphosis where “information need” becomes corrupted to including “popular novel desire”? That one is pretty obvious, and explains a lot of the panicked doomsaying and ludicrous tough talk coming from some librarians, especially about ebooks.

“Publishers have to sell ebooks to libraries or libraries will go out of business!” “Publishers have to sell ebooks to libraries or librarians will gang up on them and sign petitions!”

It all comes down to defining public libraries as places to get current popular novels. That’s what people want, and what people want is somehow a need.

If that’s all libraries are really good for, then the next decade or so might really mean the end of libraries. If that’s not all they’re good for, then maybe librarians should start talking up the true information needs they fill.

If there are information needs that libraries truly fill, they won’t go away. If their entire rationale is to supply current bestsellers, then they probably will.



  1. “makes no difference could read their Stephen King novels more quickly than the masses.”

    “Seriously, what is the worst possible thing that could happen to someone if they haven’t read a popular novel?”

    Don’t knock the important value of learning how to deal with murderous psychokinetic teens, vampires, ghosts, werewolves, reanimated cats, clowns, and Plymouth Furies. If we don’t have the latest popular fiction on the shelves to tell us what to do then who are we going to call?

  2. Re: It all comes down to defining public libraries as places to get current popular novels. That’s what people want, and what people want is somehow a need.

    It’s more accurate to say library users want popular novels. The majority of people are non-users and the library community seems culturally unable to appreciate their wants or needs.

  3. But eating three boxes of chocolate frosted sugar bombs is the only way I’m going to get my beanie!

  4. For a librarian reading a pop novel is an information gathering task. It’s our job to know and understand what is popular and why it is popular. We are a society ruled by pop culture. Compared to Twitter and Facebook, pop literature is pretty high brow stuff.

    • Oh Will – this sounds like such a low bar.

      Is the notion of a library as an aspirational, transcendental Institution gone? What about timeless human needs …for connections with past and future generations, for experiencing beauty and justice, learning, dreaming beyond our current stations?

      Or is it all about what’s easy in the here and now … derivative content, health and beauty crazes, gadgets du jour?

    • Jean, I guess my irony flopped. I couldn’t agree with you more. I have fought the quality and balance vs. demand war for 4 decades and have the scars to prove it. Librarians are quick to throw out the word “elitist.” Next to the word “censor,” it is their favorite weapon.

    • Will – I’ve seen the argument made seriously by so many other library folk that I figured you were making it too. Thanks for clarifying.

    • Hi Will – an editorial in today’s NYT puts libraries’ “give the people what they want” mantra into broader context. David Brooks writes of our democratic institutions:

      But, over the years, this balanced wisdom was lost. Leaders today do not believe their job is to restrain popular will. Their job is to flatter and satisfy it. A gigantic polling apparatus has developed to help leaders anticipate and respond to popular whims. Democratic politicians adopt the mind-set of marketing executives. Give the customer what he wants. The customer is always right.

  5. not a hipster librarian says:

    Most librarians would agree that leisure reading is valuable for children and teens because youth who read for fun are more likely to become lifelong readers and learners. Leisure reading also helps youth perform better in school; for example, if you’re not struggling to decipher the words of a math story problem, you can concentrate on the math skills you’re developing. So why is it hard to believe that if adults have access to leisure reading they will be more likely to be lifelong readers and learners, perform better at work and be better citizens?

    • The notion that any reading aids skill development, awareness or curiosity in young people seems sound. Their brains are still developing; they are at the early stages of skill development and have so little life experience that just about everything is new to them.

      I’m having a harder time seeing the benefits you listed for adults. A correlation with work performance and citizenship seems like a reach. WRT learning, it could be argued that many adults partake of leisure reading as a buffer against it — consuming the latest derivative novel by an established author much as they do junk food or a reality-TV episode — as a low-impact way to pass the time.

    • BTW – I’m all in favor of low-impact ways to pass the time. For me, serialized TV does the trick: Twin Peaks, Grey’s Anatomy, Dexter, Downton Abbey…

    • not a hipster librarian says:

      93 million US adults have basic or below basic literacy skills: If adults who have low reading levels and don’t read on a regular basis get excited about reading when they hear the buzz about a Stephen King novel or 50 Shades of Gray and read that book, then they increase their reading skills. When they increase their reading skills, they are developing a skill that can help them in the workplace and at home. Imagine if that same patron showed up to the library to check out the books in question and were told, “The library does not carry that sort of book because it is not high quality.”

    • Hmmm … seems like a real stretch to suggest people without functional literacy skills are reading novels or asking for them at the local library.

      My understanding of people who are functionally illiterate is they move through the world largely immune to information conveyed via, or about, the written word. That is, ‘buzz’ about the novel Hunger Games is unlikely to reach them – though the same content in another form, like a movie, might.

    • not a hipster librarian says:

      Jean — Perhaps I overstated what leisure reading can accomplish, but do you not see any educational value in leisure reading? Here are the benefits I’ve personally experienced from leisure reading: expansion of vocabulary, knowledge of different cultures, knowledge of history, empathy towards other with different lifestyles from mine. Leisure reading often leads me to doing further research about something I learned about.

      On a lighter note, if you read the Savage Love column this week, at least one person’s horizons have expanded by reading 50 Shade. (Perhaps that horizon expansion has opened up a bigger can of worms for that woman than she expected.)

    • Hi NaH – Thanks for following up. I so agree with you about the benefits of reading fiction. The points you listed and your articulation helped broaden my thinking and appreciation.

      Interestingly, our exchange followed a pattern I’ve experienced a number of times. It goes something like this:
      1) Library person makes a claim that is overstated or superficial.
      2) I push back and we iterate a few times.
      3) Library person demonstrates depth of knowledge, critical thinking, commitment to high-value aspects of library mission.

  6. Ok, AL, I always look forward to reading your articles, but quoting my favorite Calvin & Hobbes comic (the sugar frosted chocolate bombs) made this one even better ;) Thanks!

  7. hipster not: How about balance? Buy some trash but in moderation so that you can put some money into quality. Does that work for you?

    • I’m glad to see the word “balance” used. It is a balance. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, yes? That said, if librarians can’t agree among themselves about the primary purpose of libraries and the direction we need to move toward, then it will be difficult to distinguish ourselves as an institution and it will come down to what works best for each library within their own community.

    • Re: One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.

      Where I live in central MA, free books are everywhere. People bring ’em to the recycling centers. In good weather, boxes of books are on the curbs. Some supermarkets and drug stores have bins where customers drop off so others can pick through ’em. Some companies, like mine, purchase bookshelves so employees can start their own lending libraries. The choices from these sources are strikingly similar to those at our local libraries. It’s conceivable to me that communities here might conclude we don’t need libraries much anymore.

      Re: it will come down to what works best for each library within their own community.

      This may be true, though I see the power of the library brand overwhelm it. Libraries today remind me of where General Motors was in the 1970s, maybe early 1980s. Though quality and value had declined, sales remained strong on the strength of brand perceptions. That changed during the 80s and it took decades for GM to recover — long after the company had improved product quality and value.

      I’d argue we’ve begun seeing the decline of the library brand. Stories in the NY Times about “library porn” hurt. Satire of the type we’ve seen from Jay Leno, Jon Stewart and The Onion hurt. Increasing public association between libraries and physical books (69% in 2005; 75% in 2010) hurts with so many new readers growing up on digital content. The profession and Institution’s release of aspirational goals is another harm (IMO).

      GM had a chance to recover because its product is a necessity for most of us and a highly desired item even for those who don’t need a car. GM’s direct and indirect workforce is perceived as male and worthy of federal government support. This is not true for libraries and I fear once the scale tips, we won’t see a comeback.

    • Joneser says:

      Maybe free books are so ubiquitous in Central MA because the libraries are supposedly so bad?

      Hey, one paperback with a blue cover is the same as another with a blue cover – right?

  8. R.E. Riker says:

    “Why fiction is good for you” by Jonathan Gottschall, from The Boston Globe, April 29, 2012, –

  9. Gnomadic says:

    To those who think popular novels and DVDs have no place in the library, what say you about patrons who use public computers for watching non-educational YouTube videos, playing World of Warcraft, accessing Facebook, writing personal emails? There’s nothing aspirational or transcendant about these activities; they are not cultural needs, yet that’s what I see the vast majority of computer users in my library doing. Should we have policies prohibiting such behavior? Should we have to constantly monitor patrons Internet use? Should we only whitelist websites we deem high-quality enough?(This isn’t an attack on your opinions, which I have total respect for, just taking this notion a step further and soliciting your thoughts)

  10. not a hipster librarian says:

    Will — Yes, balance is important. We meet the customer where he or she is at. Some patrons are at the 50 Shades reading level and interest level.

  11. Since this conversation seems to have devolved into a discussion about stocking highbrow versus lowbrow I’d just like to remind everyone that one generation’s populist dreck is often the next generation’s Great Work.

  12. Ned Ludd says:

    We need to bring back the Real Library. Just BOOKS. We choose. No more CDs, graphic novels, vampires, popular fiction, mass market, Ebooks, DVDs, public access computers, video games, audio books, comic books, celebrity bios, DIY-flavor-of-the-month, or pesky customers. I know we can do it!

  13. Overworked Librarian says:

    Oh Nedd as I read your comment I was thinking, there will be no patrons if you take away all of that! I am a Public Librarian and I would say 80% of the usage here is entertainment based. 20% is research related to actual needs like applying for jobs, financial aid, college applications, typing up letters, legal research and genealogical research.

    • I had two thoughts about Ned’s comment (and picked up on the irony this time):

      WRT pesky customers: many public librarians have told me their greatest challenge/stressor is dealing with unruly, unappreciate patrons. Makes me wonder about the correlation between the materials & services offered and the characteristics of the patrons who find them attractive.

      WRT returning to books only: taken literally the idea won’t work, of course. What would work, I believe, is a comprehensive vision based on its sentiment – to reposition the libary for contemporary needs in a manner that is true to its historic mission and differentiates it from other organizations. I’ve worked out such a vision and betcha it would drive usage, prestige and impact beyond anything libraries have seen for the past 30-40 years.

      This is a big claim, I know – but what makes it credible is the amazing potential of the Institution, its incredible heritage & brand, and new needs for quality librarianship arising from info abundance. There’s so much to work with here, which is why I’m so sad we’re settling for what our libraries are becoming.

  14. noutopianlibrarian says:

    Seems to my peabrain that no matter what library types think, the community that funds the library should have an expectation that it will provide the reading and informational materials that it wants. Twisting our undies in the wind about what is, and isn’t, an “informational need” is a paternal (or maternal as the case may be) distraction. In many communities, there are fairly broad tastes so that both Virginia Woolf and E.L. James are appropriate. At the same time, I walked into a community “library” one time that seemed to consist almost entirely of romance novels, westerns, and hunting books. Who are we to say that this was or was not appropriate?

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