Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Rethinking the Library

One of the venerable New York Public Library lions
A couple of years back our county was struggling (like all others) with trying to do the same number of things (or more) with less money.  Tax revenues were down, federal and state allocations were down, and the cost of services to the residents was up.  Despite the library representing less than 1% of the entire county budget (schools get 54%), the library and parks & recreation were hit disproportionately.  This led to some interesting conversations and interesting accommodations.

I was on the board of directors for the Friends of our local branch at the time and one of our main arguments in favor of fully funding the libraries (an argument led by the Library administration) was that libraries provide a great meeting place for people to read, visit, learn, etc.

Since that time I have finished my service to the board and started thinking about why the arguments in favor of saving libraries seem to go unheard.  It isn't simply a matter of priorities.  Everyone thinks literacy is a good idea and reading books is the way to gain a foothold in the American dream.

However, I think the libraries (across the country) have shot themselves in the bookshelf.  Instead of focusing on what the libraries provide -- that NO OTHER AGENCY provides -- the libraries tried to diversify.  As if the mission of providing reading materials for free to the community wasn't enough of a mission!  Libraries marketed themselves as meeting places, concert halls, art galleries and museums and minimized their main mission.  But there are many places in each community that can provide those other activities and venues.  ONLY the library provides access to books.  Even competing with the schools over early literacy access might have been a mistake.  In fact, in our county, the school libraries and county libraries only began to talk to each other about working together in the last couple of years.  And why?  Because there are limited available funds and they are both suffering the same problem -- what is the mission of the library and how can we make people care about it?  My kids report that at their high school, no one actually checks out books at the library -- they just use the area to study.  And by the way -- it isn't even CALLED a library anymore. It's a "media center."

Now we are moving away from bricks and mortar library buildings and into digital books.  The writing is on the (ahem) ether that physical library locations will be less and less important.  Our local branch is a regional library and thus has LOTS of room.  It is also next door to the mental health clinic/homeless shelter and across the street from the county municipal center for our area.  That means people with a LOT of time on their hands (i.e. homeless and mentally ill) spend the majority of their day inside the library building.  This has led to fewer and fewer people of means wanting to go into the building and stay for any length of time, much less take their children for programs.  Statistics show the libraries are busy, but very little of the business involves using books.  People come in for English classes, to use the public access computers, to use the meeting rooms, and to get cool/warm depending on the season.

As digital books flourish, publishers will find it less and less cost effective to print physical books.  I predict that in 20 years, the vast majority of libraries will no longer need all their space for physical books.  If I were in the administration end of the library business, I'd be crunching numbers to figure out how I could pour all my money into support of the digital media hunger that is out there.  I'd be taking a hard look at staff as well.  In our county a lot of jobs that we used to pay staff members for are now done by volunteers (shelving, processing books in and out, etc.)  The paid staff may end up coming down to just a few people who are trained to use the many databases for research.  And at some point, people will be able to access a "personal researcher" via the internet from home -- and will not have to go to the library at all.

It breaks my heart to say this out loud.  I grew up in libraries and raised my kids in them.  However, since we got Kindles, we only go there about once every couple of months.  My kids' kids probably won't even do that.  I don't see libraries disappearing entirely, but cutting way back on physical space and need for staff? Yep.

My friends who live outside the Washington DC area always tell me that we don't really understand what's going on in the rest of the country.  Is what we're experiencing here unique?  What do you think?  Is it twilight for our libraries?

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