I’m pro-library, but only for those, public or private, that try to meet the future even if they’re the variety that only presents us the stories of the past.
There are general libraries and niche libraries. There are libraries inside of cafes and cafes inside of libraries. Businesses offer libraries, some public libraries operate, in the worst ways, like a business subsidized by the government. There’s a potential for much experimentation in the stewardship of information for the public as digital and print continue to mix. This will grow in private and public places.
Public money growing minds is important, especially if a town’s private resources are not doing the job. Library is a concept, not an essential government department.
The hard question we’ll have to consider is whether we still need a separate library building? Carnegie would not be opposed if his buildings become centers for all types of community learning. Library buildings are less quiet these days, they behave more like social neighborhood centers. Go ahead and work with that evolution, take it further and see what happens. Meanwhile, most of the many government departments in a city, county, and state have generous space to house their services and workers, but no obvious space dedicated to a small library of topical information for the public dropping by. Isn’t that a problem? It’s not for the public employees who would rather tell everyone that walks in to get serviced on a website.
I’ve probably sampled hundreds of community library spaces over the years as I have traveled. Thankfully, somebody came up with that blue street sign of a figure holding up a book. Sometimes I have to chase it through several turns and often the library is only open for three midday hours so the old-timers can stop by. But when I find one that’s actually open, stepping in a library is the most efficient way to use the restroom, stretch in a place where people will ignore you, read something that might matter, and size up the priorities of the town I rolled through.
I think we should evolve the concept of a public library in a different way than I typically see. Today’s community librarians are deluded that they are acting in the community’s public interest by serving up what the public checks out most. When this happens to an extreme it creates problems that knocks the library off focus from its mission.
I once donated a classic Ansel Adams black and white photography collection to a library I knew didn’t have much photography. A month later I found it while rummaging through their book sale items priced at $1. Now I know why they didn’t have much photography. Someone decided no one wanted to check those books out and cleared the shelves. This library had tons of empty shelf space. How many times have you browsed through a photography book without buying or checking it out for loan? Did you learn anything despite not wanting to bother with the bar code scanner?
Public libraries not tied to universities typically fail to offer the periodicals more thoughtfully constructed around public policy matters. It shouldn’t be so tough to find the many serious pages written with the pertinent idea phrasings that are getting bandied about in this month’s news. I know that these magazines are more expensive, that’s why I’m at the library. I know that library budgets are tight, but I also see many expensive DVDs and many hundreds of expensive twenty page children’s books stacked over there too. Perhaps the libraries could have more funds for content purchasing if they spent less money driving books all around town for everyone. The metric they are chasing to show their city managers is a circulation number, so our tax dollars buy plastic DVD covers and crates to haul multiple copies of every bestseller made.
Some neighborhoods have a great periodical section. 95% don’t. Most libraries, it’s demoralizing to see, only offer the same magazines you can purchase at the end of a supermarket aisle.
In my opinion, the community library should focus on our new readers (young, recently illiterate, or those new to English), the youth study section (some students don’t have quiet homes) and on the periodicals. Suburban libraries are good at the first two options. Good urban libraries are best at presenting the professional press’s collection of this month’s ideas that matter. They’ll dedicate whole floors to periodicals in all kinds of languages. They understand that their residents get ideas from their old homes too.
Libraries using gross circulation as their primary driving metric are simply subsidizing people who don’t want to buy DVDs and bestsellers. I’m as much for learning from videos as words, but this popular circulation maximizing strategy creates libraries devoid of good books, but loud with all those plastic covers getting stacked by the staff all morning. We should probably fold most public neighborhood libraries into the community center model where I have mentioned those USPS employees can hand off casework to neighborhood public servants of both amateur and professional varieties.
Or a city with a fine community center could go the opposite way and make its library more like an art museum. What if library buildings distinguished themselves from bookstores this way? What if authors raved about which libraries selected their book for circulation rather than gloat about best seller lists? What if best seller lists were replaced by Atlanta, Chicago, New York, Ivanhoe Library Curated This lists. If these lists were made, the bookstores would feature those books and maybe mark them down by 30% if the publishers made enough of them. Recursion would help make the curated books best sellers.
Curation is the opposite of banning we’re promoting books that set themselves apart in some excellent way. That will make the stacks as educational to browse through as when printed paper was valuable. Let the staff point patrons to computer terminals with online databases if you’re worried some frivolous entertainment might seem ‘banned’. I’m sure authors and Amazon can work something out to make digital access at libraries easier and free. Make the physical books an honor to hold again. At a minimum make walking down the aisles of any library an experience to behold. Put the photography books back on the shelves please.
I still hope to “graduate” through the themed shelves at Barnes & Noble. Despite all the popular genres offered, it’s still easier to find a richer, more contemporary batch of reading options than our Dewey Decimal systems offer.