I’ve had yet another article on the future of libraries on my desk for weeks; yesterday as I was dusting around it for the zillionth time I glanced through it and saw a few phrases that sapped my will to re-hash this topic (“management practices of the creative economy,” “the scale of disruption,” using the right metrics”). In the “five ‘right’ approaches for libraries” section of the article the author, Steve Denning, suggests librarians must consider “What needs could libraries meet that users haven’t yet even thought of?” On my desk at work I have another article of about the same age (published a couple of months ago) noting that the reason so many new library services and programs flop is that librarians need to think more like start-up entrepreneurs by ensuring what we offer actually fills an existing need, otherwise our patrons won’t know they need it and won’t come or use the nifty new thing. Yep, they directly contradict each other. Lovely.
I admit being a little fatigued by the “do this and you’ll succeed in taking your library into the future” arguments. So instead, let’s talk about something I’ve noticed that might be a profession-wide response to all this business philosophy gobbeldygook: Adult Summer Reading programs. For some time, the Collaborative Summer Library Program has included an adult program, tied to the themes for the children’s and teen’s programs. Maybe people have been embracing it for years, but this is the first summer I seem to see it everywhere.
Libraries large and small are handing out prizes to adults for reading books during the summer. Yes, there is much more to these programs. South Brunswick Public Library in Monmouth Junction, New Jersey is creating a community mural and includes a service project in its program, inviting people to send care packages to military members. Chapel Hill Public Library in North Carolina includes adults in its teen program, a simple way to be inclusive — but the feedback from our teens has been that they don’t want adults at their programs and in the teen area.
Dozens more libraries seem to just be handing out prizes. In East Baton Rouge, Louisiana, adults who read three books this summer get a “prize pack” and qualify for weekly drawings. Seattle Public Library is one of many incorporating a bingo card into the fun, challenging readers to read outside their usual tastes — here in New Hampshire, Hooksett Public Library created one that includes some library services, which is a clever marketing idea. A few of us at my library are considering these ideas for next summer, mainly because one of our regular patrons suggested it was unfair not to have prizes for adults.
But is it? Somehow this all seems silly to me. Do we really have to bribe grownups to read? I like the idea of bringing the community together to create a mural or to get behind a service project (something we are in essence doing, since our children’s summer reading program this summer includes donating items the local S.P.C.A. needs, and the adults in the the family are the ones buying and bringing donations). But I feel a little grumpy about the notion that the only way to get people excited about summer reading is to make sure there’s something in it for them.
Maybe a bingo card or a challenge to read a certain number of books or attend a certain number of programs or try the library’s services is just fun and gets people in the doors. Certainly anything that increases circulation or cardholders is good. But what’s the world coming to that we can’t get people to come in unless we give something away, when the whole idea of a library is that it’s free and open to all in the first place?
Which brings me back to the same problem all these articles that pile up on my desks address: are libraries so preoccupied with offering new services and being maker spaces and tech hubs and “relevant” cultural institutions because people don’t get what our core mission is (connecting people with books and other reading material and information)? Or do people get our core mission until we start complicating it with all that other stuff? I’m not sure anyone knows.
My grandmother became a librarian thanks to the New Deal. I can hear her saying, “It sounds like nothing but bread and circuses.” She wasn’t a luddite — she admired technology and all it could do. But she believed fervently in the power of books to educate and entertain, and she also believed that a thing done well was its own reward. I think librarianship could use a little less bread and circuses and a lot more doing “our” thing well. It’s harder to evangelize about reading than it is to invest in tablets or 3D printers or streaming media services. But it might be the thing that sustains libaries into the future.