I'm Down On The Future Of Public Libraries

The Marathon County Situation got me thinking all is not well in libraryland. Here's 4 other random posts that did the same.

My 4 Year Old Told Me To “Google It”

Can you connect This Story By Mat Siltala to libraries?

He turned to me and said: “Why don’t you just Google it Dad, because you use it to find everything else”. I guess he does hear me (more then I realize) say stuff like “find it on Google”, or “look it up on Google” with everyday interactions with my wife, friends or clients! It was so funny, cute and genuine that I was speechless.

Cowboy Junkies Paradox

Can you connect This Story By Seth Godin to libraries?

Marketers of all stripes face the same challenge. Your current customers want nothing but the old stuff, but the new customers don't know you exist, so they can't speak up.

Cat teeth: search trumps experience

Can you connect This Story By Stephen Baker to libraries?

Search is replacing the knowledge we gain from experience: the tactile, slightly risky, scratched fingers variety. We can learn more facts this way, but do they mean as much to us?

"The Expectation Economy"

I know you can connect This Post By George Needham over at OCLC:

One of the hardest changes for librarians to face seems to be that people have choices today. When we had a semi-monopoly on required readings, encyclopedias, back issue magazines, and 16mm films, we could pretty much make and enforce any rules we wanted. Those days are gone forever.

Search is replacing the knowledge we gain from experience: the tactile, slightly risky, scratched fingers variety. That search is being done via the web, without any assistance, and without any payment by the searcher.

Seeing this post reminded me I had started to write about 2 recent experiences I had that help reinforce my pessimism about the future of libraries. If you haven't read my old posts on this here's a quick summary: I fear libraries, especially public libraries, are doomed because enough people have enough different reasons to think they're useless now. Enough people won't use them, think of them, or support them when the time comes and this will spell big trouble for our profession in the future. I'm not predicting this, but rather admitting my fears.

So my latest experience from real life. Every Sunday night everyone in my family heads over to my father in law's house for dinner. There's anywhere between 10 and 25 people there every Sunday night. So last week my father in law needed a phone number. In a room full of 8 adults not a single person thought to open the phone book that was 3 feet away. Everyone though of Google. Everyone recommended I go get my laptop and look up a number on The Google. My laptop was on the other side of the house, and turned off, it would have taken me at least 5 minutes, if not longer, to find the number. The phone book would've take me about 45 seconds. Even after I pointed this out someone still said "it's just easier" to look it up on the internet. It didn't matter it would've been more work, what mattered was someone thought the internet was easier than a book.

I took away a few things from all of this doom and gloom.
1. People think of the web first now. These are not stupid people. They are well educated, upper middle class folk who are interested in world events. They even read books. But when faced with a question that involves any kind of information seeking behavior, none of them will think about a library. When they want a book they think of Amazon or Borders first. Soon, they will think of their ebook reader first.

2. People think The Web is easier, even if it's not. They all think it's easier to do things on The Web. Even it takes 3 times as long, it still seems easier. It doesn't matter what is actually easier, people will always do what they think is easier. Getting in the car and driving to the library for anything is more work that sitting down in the den and typing a few words into a search engine.

3. How people think influence what they do with their time and money. If they think libraries are more work than all the other options they have, then we are. If they think what libraries have on the shelves is old and dusty books, then that's what we have. And if they think librarians are useless, well then we are.

More and more smart people no longer think of the library. People with money (The people that pay taxes and vote) don't need the library for books. More and more people don't see any advantage to having libraries any more. People have more choices than ever when it comes to all the services we provide in the library, if we are seen as the worst choice, then we're in trouble.

So what is the solution?

Comments

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.

Define The Problem

If public libraries are, in fact, the worst choice, then they should not be supported. This is unfortunate for people who would like to have jobs in public libraries, but it's not a tragedy for society at large. I think we have to start at that point -- too much of the worrying about the future of libraries seems to me to conflate worries about the continuation of the jobs that we would like to be doing with what this changing society actually needs. If it actually doesn't need the services provided by public libraries, then there isn't a societal problem.

That being said, there are numerous examples (including in the suburbs of Birmingham, AL where I live) of public libraries that have constantly crowded parking lots, very effective websites and a wide variety of programs that reach out to numerous segments of the population. In many, many cities new public libraries are being built and older ones are being renovated. Clearly, in these cases, these libraries are providing services that are effectively competing with the other choices out there.

What I think separates the librarians in those places from libraries that are struggling is that they've been thinking creatively about what their communities really need that they have the skills, talents and resources to supply. As I'm constantly telling my own staff, when you do that you'll find that you'll keep doing some things that you've always done, but you'll quit doing some things that librarians have traditionally done, because they're really not necessary anymore. And you'll also find yourself taking on new roles that nobody ever thought to ask librarians about before, but that we may in fact be uniquely qualified to provide.

Way off

Blake,

I think you are way off on this one. The information that you are speaking of SHOULD be easier to get by using the internet. Frankly, it is a waste of a librarians time to look up the capital of California or finding a phone number locally. Libraries are only growing and only going to get bigger because we provide assistance in areas private industries don't want to touch. We also have an endless supply of reading materials and free internet. When people stop reading and stop needing the internet they will stop needing us. Predicting that any time soon?

Areas private industries don't want to touch

Areas private industries don't want to touch? Like what? I'm not sure there's such a thing now.

"When people stop reading and stop needing the internet they will stop needing us. Predicting that any time soon?"
No, not at all, just afraid they're going to go elsewhere to get that.

I HOPE I'm way off. I just like to share things like this to see if anyone can change my mind.

a few bones

"People with money (The people that pay taxes and vote) don't need the library for books..."

"People with money" NEVER HAVE needed the library for books, or internet access.
Gentlemen of old took pride in their privately owned library of books. Getting books into the hands of common rubes was the library's revolutionary mission. Still is.

"People with money" aren't the only ones who "pay taxes and vote"...working stiffs still pay their payroll and sales taxes, even if their low earnings usually translate into refunds on their income taxes. Pensioners on social security still pay sales taxes and vote. People on disability vote. Children don't pay taxes nor vote--so no libraries for them, then?

The body of public library users consist of more than those who are "are well educated, upper middle class folk who are interested in world events."; That descriptor does describe me (minus the "upper" and add "middle-middle or lower middle" vis a vis income, though I guess I'm upper middle if you're talking fuzzy socio-educational "capital")--but such persons always seemed a distinct minority of total users I might encounter on any random visit to the big central branch of the Houston Public Library when I lived inside the Houston city limits.

Anyway, sure, for quick facts, figures, etc, my first impulse is the web. But if there's an up-to-date phone book within reach, versus a laptop packed away in another room, I'm still grabbing that, howls of protest from my peers notwithstanding.

All of the doom saying around public libraries these days is part and parcel of the whole neoliberal assault on ALL public institutions great and small in favor of private interests and creeping privatization.

Loss of public libraries WOULD be a tragedy for the society at large, no question.

Public libraries are hardly a cure-all for social inequalities and economic injustices, and trying to "close the digital divide" is but the tip of the iceberg of a much larger (though unacknowledged and quite taboo, i.e. class) struggle; but they still have an important role to play in amelioration of the worst excesses of the market system and anomalies our imperfect capitalistic, ostensibly democratic Republic.

A few bones with the bones

>>"People with money" NEVER HAVE needed the library for books.
good point.

>>"People with money" aren't the only ones who "pay taxes and vote"
Another good point. Maybe I should've said "people with money are the only ones who count because they bribe, er I mean make contributions, to the politicians who make decisions. But yes, good point.

>>"Children don't pay taxes nor vote--so no libraries for them, then?"
Well, no, but maybe it's a decision their parents make?

>>"The body of public library users consist of more than those who are "are well educated, upper middle class folk who are interested in world events."
But do those people "count" more? Do they vote more? Do they have more influence? Seems like they do, but maybe not?

>>neoliberal assault... Huh?

>>an important role to play in amelioration of the worst excesses of the market system and anomalies our imperfect capitalistic, ostensibly democratic Republic.
That's great, you see it, I see it, we both care. Is there enough of us? Is our team growing or shrinking?

Value Over Money

The challenge libraries face is not a rich/poor economic one, but a value perception. The online world provides not only valuable ready reference but a lot of additional value (government forms, e-books, news and periodicals in full text) that libraries also often provide. Libraries are competing against time constraints and the "good enough" plateau. At some point, even if the library has collected and organized and added value to resources (print or electronic, internal or remotely accessible), the Internet search engines provide access to resources that are "good enough". Libraries become the source for things that can't be gotten online (and I am a voracious borrower of public library print materials) or resources for which a person needs more than "good enough". Children's story time and reading programs. Expensive genealogical databases. Weird / esoteric books or books that are out of print. That CD you haven't heard in 10 years, don't own, won't buy, but that has a track you can't get out of your head.

Libraries have a number of challenges. They have to battle the reality that they don't have everything, and therefore it's more of a crap shoot to use the library than the Internet, because the perception is that "everything's online"; that much of what they have is invisible, because we still struggle to promote our resources and services; and that other resources are "good enough" (no matter how inadequate librarians might find them). When I balance a trip to my library to browse for materials against using the Internet, I'm balancing saving a car trip, avoiding parking hassles, risking not finding anything, but still getting AN answer or SOME information. Sometimes that 10% of an answer is enough, and the library loses out.

That area beyond "good enough" is huge but it's still a niche. Libraries will continue to exist where they make the case that they create value in that last mile, where they market it, and where they measure it. Libraries that can't make that case to the bean counters are engaging in a "he said, she said" that the library provides a value that no-one holding the purse strings can see.

a value perception

>>The challenge libraries face is not a rich/poor economic one, but a value perception.
Ah, very good point. I think that summarizes much of my argument.

>>the "good enough" plateau
And that summarizes just about all the rest!

I don't get it

Fact: Public library use in the U.S. continues to grow.

Fact: Most people continue to support their public libraries--even those who don't use them.

Fact: A few public libraries have problems.

Hey, two out of three new restaurants go out of business within 18 months. That means restaurants are doomed? Eighty percent of new products fail. That means business is doomed?

I agree, Blake: The glass is indeed one-eighth empty. While public libraries provide more service to more people than they ever have in the past, they don't (and never did, and never will) meet everyone's needs--and, like any tax-supported service, they come under attack from libertarians and a few others, including some from within the field.

I fail to see that each and every problem in one library out of the nation's 9,000-odd public libraries is new cause to believe that public libraries are failing--unless, of course, you also post an essay each time a new bond measure is approved or a new public library is built or a new circulation record is set, suggesting that public libraries are succeeding.

I don't remember: Did the passage of Measure V, assuring funding for Salinas libraries for the next decade, receive anything like the coverage of the closure of Salinas libraries before it was passed?

Playing Devils Advocate

>>>Fact: Public library use in the U.S. continues to grow.
Yes, they circulate more videos and DVDs than ever.

>>>Fact: Most people continue to support their public libraries--even those who don't use them.
Most people SAY they support

>>>Fact: A few public libraries have problems.
My fear is this is growing. Is it? Hell, I dunno.

>>>unless, of course, you also post an essay each time a new bond measure
>>>is approved or a new public library is built or a new circulation record is set,
>>>suggesting that public libraries are succeeding.
I'd be willing to bet there's few people in the world who read more headlines and intros to articles about libraries than me. I *should* keep track of that stuff better. Out of the hundreds I read every day I should be able to spot trends.

>>>Did the passage of Measure V receive anything like the coverage of the closure of Salinas libraries before it was passed?
I posted at least a few stories on it. But like everything else no one wants to read boring good news. Maybe that's why I'm so down?

Kind of with Walt on This

It's kind of hard to dispair of the future of public libraries -- the moment you step into one.

If it were tumbleweed blowing past the Reference Desk that would be one thing but it's not like the libraries are suffering from a dearth of patrons.

Libraries have competition -- but when wasn't that the case?

P.S. That said, I like the quote by Seth Goldin.

Ah, the plight of the journalist

Well, there it is: You tend to focus on the negative. As do most real journalists.

(My wife pointed out a long review of a new book by an 85-year-old woman--noting that this, ahem, book review was on the front page of the entertainment section of our paper. Anyway, the woman's an optimist, which drives her husband nuts (our family is similar, but I'm the optimist)--and gives as one reason for being an optimist that she's a Methodist. I grew up Methodist. I never thought about it, but she may have a point...)

As for your first refutation: Care to cite actual statistics saying that book circulation is down? If so, down from when?

And, for that matter, what's wrong with nonbook materials?

Syndicate content