More hand wringing and some hope

This was going to be a post about how good it was to meet colleagues at ALA Midwinter Meeting in Boston Monday, hearing what’s going on in their libraries and what they are doing to serve their communities. I didn’t spend as much time there as I did at PLA a couple of year’s ago, but I did meet some people and exchanged ideas and had a LOT of fun giving my Ignite talk. I also had the chance to hear a presentation fromLee Rainie, director of Internet, Science, and Technology at Pew Research Center, on their public library research (if you read Nocturnal Librarian regularly you know I’m a fangirl), which made me grateful to my fellow Americans who are life-long learners and library lovers in large majorities.

But then someone posted a strangely out of touch article from the Wall Street Journal on our state-wide librarians’ email list, “In the Age of Google, Librarians Get Shelved.” The author’s point is mainly that professional librarians are obsolete (because of Google? I can’t imagine this was really written by a librarian) and are being replaced with younger, techier, less skilled and less formally educated “assistants.” First of all, the issue of paraprofessional staffing in libraries where once there were many more people with masters degrees is as much about the general outcry against taxation that has gripped America in the past decades, the bursting of pubic pension funds and rising costs of health care, the slashing of municipal budgets, and the trend in both public and private sector to hire more part-time and lower wage hourly workers and fewer salaried full timers who cost their employers extra in benefits as well as pay. It’s also, dare I say, reflective of a lack of understanding of what we do on the part of people who read an article like this one and think they have an accurate picture of libraries today.

Second of all, I don’t know where or when the author got his own degree, or if he even has one, but clearly he missed any courses or training in research. As I’ve frequently written here, libraries may be evolving in terms of offering more technology and picking up the slack in providing jobs related assistance (resume writing, online training, search assistance, etc.), social service referrals and assistance (including a good bit of unofficial homeless shelter-ing and services for immigrants), and as I’ve heard more and more lately, offering meeting space for small groups when those spaces are disappearing.

But what we do — connecting people with information and resources and even more essentially, helping them navigate the tsunami of information that the author notes many find via Google. — is the same core mission libraries have always had, our materials just come in more formats. And yes we also provide important resources, increasingly, for entrepreneurs, freelancers, consultants, and telecommuters who prefer to work where the WiFi is free, they don’t feel compelled to buy coffees or meals, and they can spread out at a desk or table without being asked not to linger. Oh, and they can get expert research assistance, access to databases, newspapers, magazines, books, etc., anytime, for free.

Professional librarians and paraprofessionals alike are trained to provide information literacy (determining the reliability and/or bias of information, safely and securely navigating the Internet, etc.), a key component of being a self-sufficient adult in our society. We also provide early literacy for free to families — at a time when politicians can mostly only bicker about it. And programs for all ages (also free), and some of the only quiet spaces left in America that are open to all, as a benefit of citizenship. No, we don’t shush people anymore, but most libraries, save maybe the tiniest, offer some haven for those who need to study, read, or think in peace.

At any rate, librarians are not going away, and libraries offer so much more at our reference desks than looking up facts and figures (there isn’t much demand for those anymore anyway, just listen to what passes for public discourse). Yes we also make change, point out where the bathrooms are, and help people find their print jobs, and most of us have fewer physical reference books to refer to. But you know what? We can still find a lot more than the average person and so much more than Google to work with. I wonder if that writer has even heard of the deep web? No, it’s not some kind of spy game, it’s all the stuff that lurks below the www surface, that your local skilled librarian can help you find. Just ask. We’re still here for you, and we’re not going anywhere. Thankfully, since most people are interested in learning and admire libraries, I am hopeful that more people know that than don’t.

 

Supporting libraries

My husband sent me this great article from the New York Times, Denying New York Libraries the Fuel They Need.” Jim Dwyer provides some startling facts, like this: “The city’s libraries — the fusty old buildings, and a few spiffier modern ones, planted in all five boroughs — had 37 million visitors in the last fiscal year. . . . So the city’s libraries have more users than major professional sports, performing arts, museums, gardens and zoos — combined.”

Dwyer notes “No one who has set foot in the libraries — crowded at all hours with adults learning languages, using computers, borrowing books, hunting for jobs, and schoolchildren researching projects or discovering stories — can mistake them for anything other than power plants of intellect and opportunity. They are distributed without regard to wealth.” And yet, he goes on to explain, the city’s professional sports teams have enjoyed hundreds of millions of dollars in capital funding and tax incentives while the public library system faces a fight each year for adequate funding.

Here’s where I’d better remind you, dear readers, that my opinions are mine and not that of my employer, a public library.

That fight goes on in your town too — it’s known, in public sector parlance, as the budget process. In New York, it seems, libraries have to fight for their hours every year, as part of a carefully choreographed dance between elected officials who are haggling with each other for their preferred projects. I am guessing that process isn’t so different in your town, or mine, just on a smaller scale than New York’s.

Meanwhile it seems every year there’s some non-librarian academic expert who comes along and fuels the idea that libraries are obsolete. Public officials love this, and it does libraries a disservice during the budget process. The latest is John Palfrey. Palfrey’s book is called Bibliotech: Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google and the Washington Post review is provocatively titled, “Do We Still Need Libraries?” Palfrey’s main point seems to be that libraries as we remember them from  our childhoods — and as I’ve noted in this blog before, in most towns across the country, they are still very much the same — must transform themselves into highly connected digital hubs, or die.

Palfrey should ask Dwyer to show him around the libraries of New York (or any neighborhood in America, I’d wager) and talk to the patrons who are using what he rightly notes are the backbone of egalitarian society. In our public libraries, where information is free and available to all citizens, people are reading or making readers of their kids. Mostly in print, which is still a better deal for libraries and the taxpayers who support them, because physical books don’t expire after a certain number of checkouts or a certain amount of time, as many library e-books do. When they open these books, people are discovering all the things that make us human, and what that means to them. They’re getting to know their neighbors. They’re becoming informed citizens.

Nostalgic and old fashioned? Ok, if you say so, digital experts. But in a society where there is almost nowhere to be quiet, study, or think, libraries offer that space. In a society where it’s hard, on a limited income, for retired people to meet friends and chat over the day’s newspaper, libraries offer that community. In a society where after school enrichment for kids almost always costs more than the working poor or even the middle class can afford, libraries offer that opportunity. In a society where the under and unemployed have almost nowhere else to access the internet, learn computer skills, apply for jobs, or print important documents, libraries offer those resources. In a society where the mentally ill, the disabled, the homeless, and the recently imprisoned are often unwelcome, libraries offer radical hospitality — we are open to all.

From information and books to early literacy, education and support for marginalized adults and new Americans, community and small town (or big city) culture, public libraries’ work is not diminished by people claiming that Google can replace your local librarian, or that libraries should “hack” themselves into “‘nodes in a larger network’ of organizations and must move toward ‘the digital, networked, mobile, and cloud-based library'” Palfrey envisions. And imagines private philanthropy will fund.

Space. Community. Opportunity. Resources. Books. These are real life, everyday services of public libraries. That we fund vast caverns where millionaires play sports and then leave libraries to fend for themselves every budget cycle sounds crazy because it is. That we think placing our hopes in some hypothetical network of charitably funded digital collections will improve upon what’s already going on in library branches all over America is silly. Build your fancy networks, go ahead, but in the mean time, don’t patronize the vital role of public libraries as “nostalgic” when for many ordinary citizens, that so-called nostalgia is actually a vital service they rely on.

 

Yes, its another post about e-books

I’ve started working as a bookseller at my local independent bookstore part time as well as working at my town’s public library. I’ve sometimes griped here at Nocturnal Librarian that librarianship has become another form of IT help, with so much professional time spent troubleshooting. Well this week someone at the indie actually asked me how to troubleshoot her Kindle, and when I applied my reference skills by asking more about her problem she revealed that she was having trouble downloading books she bought at Amazon.

If you know anything about independent bookstores (and she may not have — we opened a new store this week, and along with our regular customers from the old store two blocks away, we welcomed a large number of new people who’d never heard of us before, even though at 113+ it’s the oldest independent store in New Hampshire and possibly in New England), you know that it’s unlikely a bookseller found teaching a customer how to download her Amazon purchases would have a job at the end of her shift. I clamped my mouth shut so as not to say anything rude, repeated in my head, “she doesn’t know what she’s saying,” and smiled.

I explained that I could not help her with her Kindle but asked if she knew she could get other e-books at our store and that hardcover fiction, which she was looking at, is always on sale at Gibson’s. Later as she was leaving I pointed out she may very well be able to get e-books, including Kindle e-books, at her library. She had no idea about that either.

Part of me wished I’d explained to her why I couldn’t help her, part of me felt like there were lots of people in the store and I needed to move on to another customer. But I attended training today at my library with our statewide library e-book consortium director, and she made some good points about why educating our customers is important. She said we need to be telling patrons and ourselves why and how publishers are making it hard for libraries to buy and lend e-books with higher prices and restrictive lending rules.

She compared what e-book lending is doing to libraries to what Google did to reference: reference book use has plummeted (and reference librarians are becoming adult service or public service librarians who do more troubleshooting and less reference work) so we buy fewer and have smaller reference collections. We’re putting ourselves out of the reference business unless we stand up and say, “Google’s secret algorithm shows you what IT, a giant corporation, says is relevant, including paid ads. A human reference librarian can give you information that YOU can decide is relevant.”

Unless we explain why e-books are less available in libraries and also negotiate for better terms, libraries will seem to have fewer choices for readers, who will decide they can find what they want, along with what they want to know, online. Libraries have put ourselves in this position by accepting what publishers have demanded: an unsustainable model that could cause us to lack content down the road — and without content, we aren’t libraries.