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Inside Annoyed Librarian

Sensationalism and Outrage and Libraries

Goodness, it’s been an exciting week in libraryland, with someone calling himself the “Angriest Librarian” swearing on Twitter at an uninformed reporter who thought public libraries should be closed because nobody uses them. Nobody.

As many readers know, mocking journalists for babbling nonsense about libraries is fun sport for me, although I don’t resort to foul language. Regardless, the comment was stupid and manifestly false.

The “Angriest Librarian” wrote about the encounter and his few minutes of Twitter fame. He claims to be interested in librarianship because he believes “in reducing barriers to better outcomes for marginalized and underserved populations.”

That’s probably at least as good a reason as believing in literacy and education for all, or the incredible importance that everyone be able to play videogames and 3D print for free.

The problem with all the rah-rahing on behalf of public libraries is that the entire encounter seems to have been misunderstood by all involved.

The reporter, who is based in Britain, wrote that “Nobody goes to libraries anymore. Close the public ones and put the books in schools.”

It’s not clear that he’s talking about American public libraries, and as I’ve mentioned over the years British public libraries are poorly used and closing at a rapid rate compared to America. If he’s talking about British public libraries, it’s still a ridiculous claim, but ever so slightly less ridiculous.

The “Angriest Librarian” jumped in to correct the reporter, which is great because the reporter is full of nonsense.

Except he posted this: “Hang tight folks, because I am about to drop some necessary knowledge on you. First off, library usage is on the RISE [etc.].”

If we’re talking about British public libraries, that statement is just plain false. But let’s say we’re talking about American public libraries. In that case, the statement is just plain questionable.

There’s some older data quoted in this Wikipedia article about trends in library usage that suggests library usage is up, but the data and time frame involved are several years old and even the article admits that “recent growth in public library usage is likely driven by the Great Recession,” which has been over for a few years.

Librarians should jump in and edit that article, because I could find nothing cited later than January 2014.

However, we know from the Pew poll about library usage conducted last year that, at least as of last year, public library usage has been declining slightly, even though people continue to love libraries.

The ALA’s State of America’s Libraries 2017 report is out, which one might hope would tell us something about library usage. Alas, no.

There’s a lot about diversity and challenged books and all the ways libraries are expanding their services to help people, but I could find no mention of how many people are taking advantage of these glorious services.

If library usage was on the RISE, that seems like the kind of thing the ALA might want to highlight. The absence of any discussion suggests that the ALA doesn’t know or doesn’t care whether more or fewer people are actually using libraries.

The ALA is a great place to get numbers on how many libraries there are, and how well they’re funded, but not how well they’re used. There’s probably a reason for that.

Regardless, the best information I could find is that public library usage, while not declining precipitously, is definitely not on the rise.

The diversification of services in public libraries over the past 20 years has been remarked upon by everyone touting public libraries. It’s not your grandfather’s library, at least if you don’t know much about the history of public libraries and how they’ve been diversifying relative to the technology available for decades.

But anyway. The “Angriest Librarian” mentions this, saying that:

In addition to meeting a community’s need for educational and recreational materials, PARTICULARLY FOR YOUNG FAMILIES…

public libraries are evolving to meet the demands of the 21st Century, unlike the neanderthal who sparked this thread.

Public libraries are definitely evolving to the 21st century, as they did to the 20th, but this statement is also questionable. The key word is “demands.”

As we also know from the Pew Survey, libraries have developed an array of new services, including E-book borrowing, Online career and job-related resources, Online GED or high school equivalency classes, Programs on starting a new business, and Online programs that certify that people have mastered new skills.

The problem is that “Notable shares of Americans do not know that libraries offer learning-related programs and materials.”

Lots of new library services aren’t created to meet an actual demand, but a perceived demand. It’s wishful thinking. Sometimes these services are successful, and sometimes you get a dusty, unused makerspace in the corner of the library.

Libraries are changing, but there’s not necessarily a bunch of people demanding the change. People like libraries for doing library-like things, especially the majority of the population who never actually uses them.

There have been a lot of articles on this episode, but none that I’ve seen looked past the “nobody uses libraries – people do use libraries” debate, which isn’t much of a debate.

Claiming “nobody uses libraries” is just a stupid claim with absolutely no evidence or logic behind it. It’s not hard to refute. Just walk into a library. Yet somehow there’s rebellious glory in saying, “oh yeah, well people DO use libraries, so there!”

If the reporter had made a less stupid statement, he might have tweeted, “public library use is down in the UK and fluctuates with no large increases in the US. Therefore maybe we could examine their usefulness to their populations while considering the needs of school libraries. Also, I know nothing about libraries but read something provocative by another ignorant reporter.”

But nobody goes “viral” responding to that sort of comment.

With this episode, we have in microcosm what passes for discourse on the contemporary internet: sensationalistic statements and manufactured outrage. We’ve reached the end of the “information superhighway,” and it turned out to be a highway to nowhere.

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