Pop Goes the Library

Using Pop Culture to Make Libraries Better.

by Sophie Brookover, Liz Burns, Melissa Rabey, Susan Quinn, John Klima, Carlie Webber, Karen Corday, and Eli Neiburger. We're librarians. We're pop culture mavens. We're Pop Culture Librarians.

2005-11-13

Bookstore Or Library?

Rochelle over at LISnews pointed out this letter to an editor in a newspaper, "For-profit bookstores should be our libraries." The letter writer argues "In this age of information, giant bookstores with coffee shops and reading areas, why do we need public libraries that suck up taxes instead of paying them?"

Other highlights: "They have lots of books, they could put in a bank of computers for public use, expand their reading areas and they certainly already are able to access any reading material the public libraries can;" "All we have to do is examine what it is that makes our public libraries valuable. Put that in a contracted mandate to a profit-driven firm that is already more proficient at economically providing books, magazines and other information services -- Yes, they could provide a book- lending service. They would be no less convenient, plenty of parking spaces, serve better coffee and since profit is their goal would undoubtedly achieve and surpass the performance of our current library system."

Rochelle replies by pointing out the services libraries offer beyond books, librarians have advanced degrees, and that those unable to pay would be most hard hit. Other comments at LISnews include that price-wise, what someone pays in taxes for their library is probably less than the cost of a book. (I imagine if that contract truly included all that public libraries do, the bookstores would either declare bankruptcy or change much more for their services than what people pay in taxes already.)

David Rothman over at Teleread: Bring the E-Books Home sees the issue as one of using technology to give customers and taxpayers even more bang for their buck so they keep the funding coming.

Have I made the confession before that between college and going back to get my MLIS, I never used a public library? And chances are I wouldn't currently be a user if I weren't a public librarian?

So based on living years without seeing a need for public libraries, here's my take on the bookstores v. public libraries debate. Part of what is happening is that people don't know what libraries truly offer. Just look at the letter-writer: he only mentions borrowing books, coffee, and parking. Throw in a few computers and a bookstore becomes a library. And -- like Rochelle -- we could go on and on about what else libraries offer. Out of print books, databases, search experts, etc.

But if a tree falls in a forest, and there's no one there, does anyone hear it? And for most library services we offer --- there's no-one around to hear. We tell each other, we tell ourselves, we tell the people who are coming in the door anyway. Whose fault is it that the letter writer doesn't know what libraries offer?

I say its not his fault. It's our fault.

Recently, I've heard people say that within 20 years there will be no more public libraries. My yes is qualified; because I don't believe that public libraries are "dinosaurs" that will die off if they don't change dramatically in mission and services. Rather, I think public libraries will die off if they continue to be "the best kept secret." And I'm not talking about doing a poor job of advertising a storytime or a film festival. I'm talking about the failure of the public library to communicate its core values and mission to the majority of the public.

The other part of the problem? The failure to convince those with enough money to always use the bookstore that the government needs to maintain libraries for the benefit of those who cannot afford a computer, database access, or books.

Our professional organizations should be getting that message out to the public -- what are libraries have and offer. Why it's important. Tell the public why public libraries matter -- what public libraries offer -- instead of assuming that the public should know, that the public should value the institution just because we do. A real advertising campaign is needed, on a national level, at the same professional level of advertising as for-profit companies.

3 Comments:

  • At 11:55 AM, Anonymous rochelle said…

    I agree with much of what you said, including the fact that librarians do a lousy job of promoting what libraries are about. However, I think the letter writer is just a shill for privatization. His last sentence reads: "'m working on the park districts, school systems, prison systems, police and fire departments with similar proposals." I suspect he's letter-bombed dozens of newspapers with the same letter, as his signature indicates that he lives at least 90 minutes from our community.

     
  • At 4:54 PM, Blogger Chris said…

    Maybe I'm feeling a bit defensive, but I am tired of us blaming ourselves. Here's my take on this (or screed, if you see it that way). Libraries serve the people. The vast majority of the people we serve are Nixon's famous "silent majority" - the little people, the people without access to a lot of money or power. People who can't afford to buy all the books they need online or at the local Barnes & Noble. (Heck, we don't even have a B&N near where I am!) Thus, they do not have access to Main Stream Media outlets like well-educated journalists do. They don't get heard. We are also one of the few (maybe only) government entities that treat kids as "patrons", who should be listened to and "served", on their own terms. (Schools are more driven by parents, I think.) I see it as a class issue - the privileged class no longer sees the "need" for something they can now afford themselves. They may only comprise 2-5% of the population, but they have the loudest voice.

     
  • At 2:23 PM, Blogger Chris said…

    This post touches a nerve for me. I think it's kind of an emotional issue for me, so I hope I make coherent points here.
    1. A lot of people DO know about us and use our services - they just tend to be what Nixon called the "silent majority" - not prone to journalism and letter writing.
    2. Bookstores can send back to the publishers books that do not sell. Libraries can't. What would these commercial entities do with all those books that don't sell?
    3. More and more poeple are coming to the library to use the Internet because their home computers are virus-ridden or their printers are broken. (I also suspect in these economic times that some would rather pay us 50 cents to print 5 copies of their resume than shell out $30 for a new print cartridge).
    4. We are also one of the few govt entities out there who treat kids like real customers with legitimate needs. I grew up in a family that moved a lot, didn't have a lot of money. My dad was in sales, my mom barely graduated high school. Her idea of great literature is Danielle Steel. Yet somehow in every town we lived, one of the first things we would do is get a library card. Libraries saved me, and they save lots of other kids too. Kids don't vote. They also don't write columns or letters to newspapers.

    I think libraries will last much longer than the doomsayers predict because we serve the middle to lower middle class of people.
    We should stop beating ourselves up about "getting the word out". The fact a lot of people know about us - they just don't have access to political and media power, which is more and more the province of the "elite" (i.e., the rich). Our "problem", if there is one, is that we are truly democratic.

     

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