Adult Summer Reading

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.

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Future libraries

Last week the Slate article “What Will Become of the Library” by Michael Agresta burned up bookish social media circles. Much of what Agresta discusses I’ve written about on Nocturnal Librarian as well; he even mentions “book mountain” in the Netherlands.

He posits that bookless libraries are “almost inevitable” and goes over all the ways libraries are “reinventing” themselves. He covers maker spaces and innovation stations, and the “interventionist” role public libraries have in serving the “dispossessed of the digital age” – namely the homeless. And like so many others he asks whether “patching the gaps of the fraying social safety net” is or should be libraries’ role. (Agresta wasn’t alone on that topic last week — several newspapers covered recent ordinances prohibiting bathing, anti-social behavior, and sleeping in libraries across the country. I can report that in my library’s case, very few homeless patrons actually engage in those activities. A few hard cases make bad law, and always have, but I digress).

Stop yawning.

Having recently read Alfie Kohn’s excellent book The Myth of the Spoiled ChildI’ve become hyper-aware of how some media outlets are a sort of echo chamber of unsupported theories. I don’t know about your public library, but mine is nowhere near, now or in the foreseeable future, becoming a bookless downloadable maker space. There are a few exceptions, but I would guess, having chatted with a broad cross-section of my fellow public librarians at PLA 2014 last month, that most American libraries are much as they were a generation or two ago, albeit with more technology for both staff and patrons and new material on their shelves.

While journalists crow about our impending demise, we are frequently welcoming more people than ever, and not just the homeless; we serve, as we always have, every demographic, rich and poor, old and young, recent immigrant and Mayflower descendant. Are some libraries experiencing lack of growth? Yes. Is that caused by the coming digital smiting of traditional library services? A classic error of assuming causation. Sure, some libraries are losing patrons, for any of the reasons any service oriented business loses “market share,” like poor management or inadequate marketing.

People do visit their libraries for social interaction, as Agresta notes, but they aren’t all printing 3D gadgets or collaborating in a computer lab. Lots of people are attending lectures and classes, story times and book discussions just as they always have, and checking out physical books. Very few library patrons (or any other readers) choose ebooks exculsively — just 4%, according to the Pew Research Center. Many folks still want a quiet space to read or study, and we have that too, just as we always have.

Why the endless chatter about how different we are and how much we’ll have to keep changing when we are in fact, in cities and towns across America, essentially the same? I will allow that I am speculating as well, but I do have the benefit of a network of professionals whose anecdotal evidence indicates that issuing library cards, lending materials, providing information, recommending good books, and putting on programs are still the bulk of their daily work. Just as they were when my grandmother was a librarian. Pew notes that the presence of a library (in the traditional sense I’ve described) is highly valued across generations all over America. Will some communities choose new and different library services? Sure, but I’d bet even those still check out books, every day.

As for Agresta’s “book-oriented library, where it survives in defiance of the digital shift, tends to take on the aspect of a temple for this sort of focused, old-fashioned study and contemplation?” My reaction ranges from “get over yourself ” to “temple, schmemple.” Come browse our romance novels, our large print westerns, our People Magazine and Mother Earth News, our dystopian YA, zombie and horror paperbacks, our Value Line and Cat Fancy and cozy mysteries and chicklit and Amish fiction and inspirational memoirs, our self-help and car repair guides, our cookbooks and comics, and DIY, and then we’ll talk.

Now hear this: Real people, of all kinds, read all kinds of stuff they checked out at their local public libraries. It’s not a catchy lede, but it’s reality.