Much has been made lately, including here at Nocturnal Librarian, about the future of library services. From internet access to unusual lending items to maker spaces and even bookless libraries, our profession is innovating to stay relevant. But two articles recently caught my eye that made me wonder if a) we don’t have an image problem after all, we’ve just fallen off the radar of too many people and b) we should remember what we already do best before we go reinventing libraries.
First I saw Brian Kenney’s Publishers Weekly piece “Libraries: Good Value, Lousy Marketing,” about the Pew report Library Services in the Digital Age. His take is that libraries are doing fine with the people who are already using our multiplying services and programming, but that we aren’t marketing ourselves to the rest of America. If only they knew that we were offering snacks, classes, supervised after school activities, invention workshops, and places to hang out, they’d come, goes this line of thinking. Which on the surface, makes sense. If we’re in the midst of revolutionizing library services for the “digital age” then we have to tell people we’re not their grandmother’s library.
One of the first comments I read pointed out the chicken-and-egg problem this presents: funding and staffing is often contingent on demonstrated library use, and all those amazing programs and services require funds and staff. Libraries often have minuscule marketing budgets. In many cases even our websites are not entirely in our control, because city or county IT departments are managing them. But even assuming shoestring PR tools like public service announcements on TV and radio, community bulletins in newspapers, and social media tools, it takes staff to do marketing, and staff to create and provide all the whiz-bang new offerings. We might get budget increases if we prove people are coming, and they won’t come without our letting them know, so . . . .
Then I read something which struck me as equally important, maybe even more so: at Salon.com, Laura Miller writes that what she noticed in the Pew study is that percentage wise, almost the same high number of respondents — 76% — mentioned quiet spaces as an important library service, which is, as Miller notes: “only one percentage point less than the value given to computer and Internet access. A relatively silent place to read is almost exactly as valuable to these people as the Internet!” (emphasis Miller’s)
One of the first things people ask me if they haven’t been in the library for awhile is where to find a quiet spot. There’s almost nowhere else to go in most communities to have quiet space to read, write, imagine, think, in short, to be still. Most librarians don’t actually “shush” anymore, but Miller is right, if we allow ourselves to be as busy and boisterous as any old Starbucks, we’ve lost one of the most unique things we have to offer.