Really, libraries don’t need reinventing, thanks

Two stories have made their way to me from around the internet lately. A few weeks ago it seemed everywhere I looked people were sharing the story of a small, “DIY” library in Brooklyn at a work sharing space. LitHub’s Phillip Pantuso speaks with a number of people, including Heather Topcik, director of the library at Bard, who gush that this is a revolution in serendipity where people can actually browse bookshelves. She actually says, “I think there’s some nostalgia there, because people don’t use libraries, unless you’re a student.” Maybe she should drive a couple of hours south and visit some of the NYPL branches Jim Dwyer visited for his piece in the New York Times a few years ago.

Pantuso goes on to say, “Digital classification has abetted the evolution of the library. In the past, a librarian would be tasked with deciding whether to shelve a book about art nouveau metalwork in the art nouveau section or the metalwork section. Now, given that most people will first encounter the book via an online search, it can functionally exist in both places. But the act of browsing and its concomitant serendipitousness are less available.”

I can’t decide which I find more ridiculously elitist — that “people don’t use libraries” or that “the act of browsing and its concomitant serendipitousness are less available” because of digital cataloging. So, no, actually, the shelves are still there, and so are the people. Browsing is not less available than it ever was, just because you can also see a digital catalog. But I tried to ignore this article, because it’s really not reality for most people — a hipster invitation-only set of books in Brooklyn is not a threat to libraries as most of us know them, and if people want to experiment and play librarian in their private, privileged spaces, they can go for it. Have fun.

Then this weekend, my friend Paul and many other outraged people were sharing Panos Mourdoukoutas’ article for Forbes. His main point seems to be: we’ve all got Amazon and Netflix, and Starbucks to hang out in, we don’t need libraries, let’s close them and save taxpayers a bundle. He also makes several unsupported comments like “There’s no shortage of places to hold community events,” and “Technology has turned physical books into collector’s items, effectively eliminating the need for library borrowing services.” Both of which are mindbogglingly inaccurate. Libraries in my area are actually regularly turning people away who are looking for space because it’s hard to find places for community groups to meet. And as the American Booksellers Association regularly reports, independent bookstores are thriving — because people are buying what he flippantly calls “collector’s items” but the rest of us still call books.

Also, I was left wondering as I usually am when I read articles like this, have any of these tone deaf, privileged writers set foot in a public library lately? Try it and see your fellow citizens wandering in the stacks, looking at what’s new, what’s shelved beside their favorite authors, or just what’s on the shelf in the aisle they’ve wandered down or the display they’ve come across. Yes, there are patrons who look up what they want to read online, and come to the library for that very thing, or even download a copy on their tablet or phone, but that is not evidence that serendipity or browsing are dead. In fact, given the rate at which I used to have to replace display books when I worked in a public library, I’d say browsing is popular. Don’t take my word for it, look at Pew, which has been reporting for years that Americans value public libraries.  And also, something I’ve discussed here at Nocturnal Librarian before, people prefer print books over eReading.

And I’m sure that someone who thinks stockholder profit is more important than access to public libraries would not stop to consider this, but only 2/3 of American adults have broadband internet access at home. That means that 1 in 3 people do not — and guess what? Many of the have-nots are poor, older, rural, or minorities. Maybe Mourdoukoutas thinks poor people, the elderly, and anyone not living on a coast doesn’t deserve to read? Because you cant download an Amazon eBook without broadband. Nor can everyone afford Amazon Prime, which is the only way to access what Mourdoukoutas  calls Amazon’s “online library.” Which is not actually a library. It’s a marketing tool.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, people who think they don’t need libraries really have no business deciding for the rest of society that they aren’t important. Amazon doesn’t need libraries to die in order to thrive (in fact, they don’t need bookstores to die either, as bookstores are doing just fine and Amazon continues to grow). Americans don’t need a giant corporation deciding what we read. But above all, libraries are often the only egalitarian spaces in American communities, radically welcoming of everyone who comes through their doors, providing vital space, quiet, internet access, resources, community, and yes, print books, magazines and newspapers to people of all walks of life, who rely on their libraries and use them.

 

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Woes and whys of weeding

I started at my new library as director this week, and one of the first things my small staff wanted to discuss is weeding. A recent assessment of our print collection revealed it’s not very up to date, and since we’re serving a community college, we want to be sure our students have access to relevant, which often means newer, material. But, print books don’t check out very much. But, maybe they don’t check out very much because they’re not as recent as digital library materials. And so it goes. The perpetual woes and whys of weeding, which every library faces.

We made a decision in our first staff meeting at the end of the week to pull books that are in bad condition, use terminology that is either dated or no longer appropriate, or is older than ten years old in STEM and health fields. Then we’ll review everything, and ask faculty for input. Of course the biggest fear is that our materials budget won’t allow us to update everything we need to pull, and that our shelves will look too empty. So, we’ll take it slowly and see what we find, before actually withdrawing titles.

Fortunately, we’re part of a system of community colleges across our state, and we can also get books from other academic and public libraries easily. But even with resource sharing and a good collection of e-resources, print weeding still seems to be painful for many libraries and librarians, and can sometimes be a public relations nightmare. I think the key is to know our goals and communicate them, which means we need to understand what our priorities are, and what our vision is. We’ll be drafting a collection development and management policy and thinking carefully about the college’s programs and the needs of our students and faculty.

Should be fun!

The garbage man librarian

It’s been some time since my last post — I’ve completed my first year as assistant library director at a small university, and I admit that budget season, the end of the spring semester, performance management plans (I had to write 14) and writing the annual report have made me busier than I expected. It’s also the season for trying to go to annual meetings of regional library organizations, and my home life has also been occupying a fair bit of my time. I will try to blog more regularly

Today I saw this article about a Columbian man, Jose Alberto Gutierrez, who was not afforded a formal education and worked as a garbage collector. He began gathering books that other people threw out and over the years filled his house. He has thousands and thousands of books and shares them with his neighbors, especially kids.

He saves books and he helps people, and that’s what librarianship is about, in many ways. He’s even helping FARC fighters who now have to find a new way to live. HIs comment on that: ““Books transformed me, so I think books are a symbol of hope for those places,” Gutierrez said. “They are a symbol of peace.””

I leave you with that for now. Books as a symbol of hope and peace. A man with hardly any education who has become a librarian for children around his country.

Recreational reading in college

I am taking on something several people have told me is hopeless at my new library: celebrating, supporting, and encouraging recreational reading at a university. I’ve had numerous people tell me students don’t read anything they don’t have to, and very little of what they do have to. Professors, I’ve been told, like to read in the summer but won’t read a thing for fun during the academic year.

Maybe I’ll find this all out the hard way, but I’m convinced that this isn’t exactly true. Maybe most students aren’t reading War and Peace for fun, but I don’t know anyone who doesn’t consume any written words, in print, online, or in audio. Yes, I’m expanding my view of what reading is. I know a lot of voracious readers who also listen to audiobooks and no one questions whether that’s really reading. So aren’t podcasts like audiobooks? I think so. I know several (and am married to one) people who read magazine and newspaper articles, essays and short stories more frequently than books.So then, aren’t blogs like other short form writing? I think so.

Yes, I’m hoping people will read books, too, and I’m working on ways to promote our book collection, too. But even more importantly, I’m hoping to affirm this: whatever you have time for, whether it’s your favorite fashion blog or a true crime podcast or last night’s Red Sox scores, you are reading, and if you don’t have time for a book right now, the library will be here for you later when you do.

Stay tuned. And if you have ideas that have worked at your academic library to promote reading, leave a comment and tell me what worked.

 

Being countercultural

A few weeks ago I had a conversation that’s stayed with me. I was speaking with a group of people when someone pointed out that libraries are countercultural. I think what he was saying is that the existence of a place where everyone, for free, can enter and read and learn whatever he or she desires is really pretty mind-blowing if you think about it.

But is what we’re doing really counter to the prevailing culture? I guess libraries are sort of a part of the “slow” movement. Like cooking from scratch or making things by hand, reading and learning are time consuming, in a culture where many people prefer to do things as quickly as possible – although James Patterson is trying to make reading speedier by publishing books that can be read in one sitting. Regardless of the cultural preference for speed, the Pew Research Center reports that Americans have a very strong affinity for lifelong learning. And there wouldn’t be slow or maker movements if people weren’t willing to invest time in these pursuits, so maybe slowness isn’t all that at odds with the culture. Nor is learning.

What about reading? The media likes to report that no one reads, but again, looking to Pew, that just isn’t true. In their report on reading in America in 2013, the center notes that a large majority of adults read at least one book in the previous year, and not just rich well educated adults. Across their demographic measures, readers were in the majority.

So if taking one’s time to do something worthwhile, learning, and reading are more common than not, what is it that seems countercultural about libraries? Perhaps it’s that we’re open to absolutely everyone, and funded by all for the common good? That we seek to provide diverse materials to every community we serve? That we not only offer public space, but also quiet — there are very few places in the world where people can enjoy relative silence. That libraries do not just offer books and other materials but cherish their existence? That free access to information is libraries’ birthright and highest ideal?

There are many ways libraries are countercultural, and every person will probably have a slightly different take on how this is so. But it’s helpful and to me, comforting, to note that in important ways we are more in step with the culture around us than not.

Libraries: Clinics of the Soul?

First a shout out to Diane Mayr who posted the article I am about to swoon over on the NH Library Association Facebook page. If you’re a repeat visitor to Nocturnal Librarian you know one of the things I write about frequently here is my strong belief that libraries do not need to rebrand, reinvent, or repurpose. We don’t need to be called something else (I’m talking to you, “teaching and learning commons”) or asked to transform ourselves (sorry, ALA) because what we are is already awesome, and has been, and will be. If are just left alone to actually be libraries.

So when I read Alberto Manguel’s article “Reinventing the Library” in the New York Times, via the aforementioned NHLA post, I found myself nodding and saying, “yes, exactly.” Repeatedly. This should be required reading for people who make decisions about libraries’ continued existence and purpose the world over.

To give you a sense of why I loved every word, I will quote Manguel, although I also encourage you to read the whole beautiful article.

“It is in the nature of libraries to adapt to changing circumstances and threats, and all libraries exist in constant danger of being destroyed by war, vermin, fire, water or the idiocies of bureaucracy. But today, the principal danger facing libraries comes not from threats like these but from ill-considered changes that may cause libraries to lose their defining triple role: as preservers of the memory of our society, as providers of the accounts of our experience and the tools to navigate them — and as symbols of our identity.”

I’m with him, especially about ill-considered changes, but I’d urge Manguel and you, dear reader, to listen to this poignant piece on NPR about Benghazi (the place, not the political brouhaha) and hear a Libyan journalist remember how much he loves the library, now nearly inaccessible because of conflict. Anyway, back to Manguel’s point. We have a pretty bad-ass role already. Preserve, provide accounts of, and teach people to navigate our common human experience. He goes on:

“Most libraries today are used less to borrow books than to seek protection from harsh weather and to find jobs online, and it is admirable that librarians have lent themselves to these very necessary services that don’t traditionally belong to their job description. A new definition of the role of librarians could be drafted by diversifying their mandate, but such restructuring must also ensure that the librarians’ primary purpose is not forgotten: to guide readers to their books.”

In many places, Manguel may be right. I got so excited last week because TWICE at the service desk I actually got to recommend books to people. But libraries exist everywhere, and outside of cities, all over New Hampshire and wherever you live as well, libraries and their patrons are pretty much the same as they’ve ever been — people coming to check out books and to share what they’re reading, learning, and doing. When I talk with my colleagues around the state, it’s clear that the public hand wringing about the future of libraries is done by people who don’t go to small town libraries and are unaware that they are still serving a very important, highly valued, and dare I say, traditional role in their communities.

Back to Manguel:

“Librarians are not trained to act as social workers, caregivers, babysitters or medical advisers. All these extra tasks make it difficult, if not impossible, for librarians to work as librarians: to see that the collections remain coherent, to sift through catalogues, to help readers read, to read themselves. The new duties imposed on them are the obligations of civilized societies toward their citizens, and should not be dumped pell-mell onto the shoulders of librarians. If we change the role of libraries and librarians without preserving the centrality of the book, we risk losing something irretrievable.”

That phrase, “preserving the centrality of the book” is what really got me — no matter what else we’re called upon to provide, what makes a library a library? Books. You can’t have a library without books; if we were just computers  and wifi we’d be an internet cafe. Just a place to get warm, a shelter. Just a building for classes and mah jong and lectures and movies, a community center. But none of those other places have what we have. And most don’t even try to; yet paradoxically, we’re often expected by decision makers to offer a good bit of what those other places provide, as well as job searching, computer skills training, and sometimes even social services.

Manguel concludes, “If libraries are to be not only repositories of society’s memory and symbols of its identity but the heart of larger social centers, then these changes must be made consciously from an intellectually strong institution that recognizes its exemplary role, and teaches us what books can do: show us our responsibilities toward one another, help us question our values and undermine our prejudices, lend us courage and ingenuity to continue to live together, and give us illuminating words that might allow us to imagine better times. According to the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, one of the ancient libraries he saw in Egypt carried above its entrance the words: ‘Clinic of the Soul.'”

I love Manguel’s view of what books can do, for the mind and for the soul, and I stand by libraries’ central role as places where there is unfettered access to books. Long live the centrality of the book.

Free kids from reading lists and they thrive

A few summers ago here at Nocturnal Librarian I wrote about the tyranny of summer reading lists. I argued then that kids should be free to read whatever they want in the summer instead of being made to choose from a list, because reading is more appealing when we have the freedom to decide what we want to read. Turns out I was on to something. The Washington Post reports that a series of studies have shown that when it comes to countering “summer slide” — the loss of skills and knowledge during school vacation — the freedom to read anything they like is a tremendous boost for kids. Those granted this freedom performed better than kids who had to read what their teachers chose.

One paragraph from the story really caught my attention: “For one class, researchers ran a book fair, where each student picked 13 books to take home at the end of the school year. The fair featured a broad range of selections — fiction and nonfiction, classics and newer works — and students eagerly passed the books back and forth, reveling in the opportunity to pick those matching their personal interests while chattering with one another about familiar stories. (An adaptation of Disney’s “Frozen” was especially popular.) Many also chose works considerably above or below their reading levels so they could share with siblings.” The kids in this class were in second grade in Rochester, New York, and an eye-popping 96% of children from their school qualify for free or reduced lunch.

What struck me, besides the tragically high level of poverty? First, the scene: I can recall many a book fair when I was in elementary school, and how exciting it was to pick books knowing I could take them home and keep them. Second, the image of kids “chattering” and “reveling” not over tablets or computers or video games, but books. And third, that strong desire kids showed to “share with siblings.”

This affirmed for me everything I already know to be true about reading: it’s a joy, when it’s allowed to be. There was no book report or test looming after the fair, the kids just knew they could pick a whole armful of books to read. And they couldn’t wait to share their choices, with each other and with their families. Books are meant to be loved not just by one person, but many. The communal experience of hearing a story together, or reading aloud to other people, is a pleasure just about everyone in America experiences either in school or at their local library, if not in their homes. These kids were not only going to read to themselves over the summer, but to others.

I also wondered whether the researchers considered taking kids to get library cards? Or directing families to the summer reading program at their local public library?  Don’t get me wrong — I love that these kids got to own books, and I wish every kid could. But it seemed very obvious to me that libraries are schools’ best partner in helping low income families keep their kids reading during summer break.

Books on the Nightstand, one of my favorite podcasts, has a Summer Reading Bingo card on their site. I might try it. Or I might throw all suggestions to the wind and just read whatever strikes me this summer. What are your summer reading plans?

Fifty shades of furniture?

British media recently reported that charity shops (which, if my husband’s aunt and uncle’s town Hayward’s Heath is anything to go by, seem to be on nearly every street), which do a brisk trade in used popular books, cannot get rid of the glut of Fifty Shades of Grey. The books can’t be recycled because of the type of glue in the binding. And recently the library where I work discovered that the charity which used to take our unsold sale books and discards will no longer pick them up.

My friend Manda sent me this cool article today from WebEcoist, about ways books can be made into “furniture and functional decor.” Check out this bookstore counter. I think discards would make a very novel library service desk!

The piece also suggests making chairs and sofas, bookcases, and accessories (even planters!) from old books. This would seem to solve the “what to do with 5.3 million copies of Fifty Shades” problem, and also the trouble libraries have with both budget cuts and discards. Also with space issues: what library doesn’t occasionally wish they could re-arrange service desks? Built in sections, these counters could be re-fit when needed.

When I visited Austin, Texas a couple of springs ago I enjoyed the library system’s shop, Recycled Reads. They offer craft classes on upcycling and also sell recrafted books at the shop:

Imagine what you could charge for a book chair.  So maybe this is an untapped revenue stream as well. I wonder if we put out a call for crafty volunteers whether we could auction off a set of  book furniture to benefit the library?

I for one would bid!

Books via bike

Recently I’ve read about two library systems trying a new outreach tool: bikes rigged to pull mobile libraries. Denver Public Library’s DPL Connect is a “tricked-out trike” and wifi hotspot “designed in partnership with Joe Crennen, a local custom bike builder.”  According to their website, “The librarian riding DPL Connect, armed with a tablet and an internet connection, will provide traditional library services, helping customers with digital downloads (eBooks, audio books, and digital magazines), offering reading suggestions, assisting with research and registering new customers for library cards. Down the road, we’re working on DPL Connect’s ability to operate as a full-service library, complete with the ability to check out materials.”

Library Journal reported on Seattle Public Library’s Books on Bikes, which also provides free wifi and features biking librarians pulling a “trailer was developed and constructed by Colin Stevens, who runs Haulin’ Colin in Seattle” that can carry 500 pounds of materials and can hold an umbrella in case of rain.  Books on Bikes services include everything patrons can do at their library except paying fines and returning books. Books on Bikes librarians can check out books, making Seattle’s version a bit more like a traditional bookmobile. They’re even doing book talks and story times, and have a dedicated collection of 400 books to rotate on the trailer.

Living in a bike-friendly community, I love this idea. I think a bike-powered mobile library unit would work well in Concord for festivals, the weekly farmers’ market, parks, and perhaps even school visits to interest kids in the library’s summer programs. Our main branch is close enough to parks, community centers, and downtown festival and market sites, that we could easily pedal there. A unit based at the City’s recreation department for visiting nearby neighborhoods and sharing library services at city camps and other programs would also be cool. I hereby volunteer to pedal!

I like the full service version allowing people to check books out as well as sign up for library cards, but I wonder if we’d have trouble with materials being returned. Has your library taken services into the community by bike or other mobile units? How have you handled returns and other logistical issues? If you’ve done library marketing by bike, what has the reaction been in your town?

Coexist

A friend forwarded this infographic about e-books and print books complementing each other. Perhaps despite all the impassioned arguments for and against e-reading, and the debate about how libraries should respond, the dust will settle and we’ll find ourselves in a world not so different than the one we know, with both print and digital books.

At least since library school (twenty(!) years ago) I’ve been hearing both media and anecdotal reports about how few kids and teens read, and yet studies keep showing they are reading. The LA Times/USC poll cited in the infographic found that 84% of people 18-29 like to read. And according to the Pew report “The Rise of E-reading,” 58% of 18-24 year olds and 54% of 25-29 year olds use the library, and the average for all age groups over 18 was nearly 58%.

A Gallup poll in 2007 determined than only 45% of Americans are baseball fans. Libraries beat baseball by 13 percentage points? Maybe reading should be the national pastime? By the way, baseball games are great places to read.

But I digress. The point is, e-books are here to stay, but it’s pretty likely that instead of making print books go away, the two will coexist. And perhaps more people will have the experience someone I know has had: her Kindle was fine for awhile, but she missed regular books, and going to the library. She hasn’t used her Kindle in awhile. It’s not that she didn’t like it, just that the novelty wore off and she went back to “real” books.

I wonder if anyone has studied how long people use their e-readers before they get put in a drawer? Tablets change the dynamic a bit, but I know I’ve had an unopened e-book on my Ipad for a few months now. Out of sight, out of mind, unlike the piles of books beside my chair, sofa, and bed, which beckon to me nightly.