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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Do Libraries Sap Attention Spans?

My son’s freshman class at college read The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr this summer. My husband is reading it now. Last night he read aloud: “until recently the library was an oasis of bookish tranquility” but now, Carr dramatizes, “The predominant sound in the modern library is the tapping of keys, not the turning of pages.” The implication that by offering internet access, libraries are contributing to the “shallowing” of our minds struck me as fairly improbable.

At the public library where I work, I recently chatted with an English teacher looking for a good book to take her mind off work. She’s the second teacher to tell me this summer that her students can’t read as much as when she began teaching. She assigns shorter classics so they won’t get frustrated, and because she’s learned that they won’t finish longer works. But she says they are reading, and she noted that how and what is probably less important than she once thought. As she put it, she sees teaching English as helping  kids become competent, not cramming them full of particular titles.

The teacher and I agreed someone reading an entire New York Times article on a smart phone (like my son) is getting the same depth as someone reading the print edition (more if like me, that person is skimming over morning coffee before rushing off to start the day).  So aren’t libraries broadening access to reading by catering to both print and online readers?

As Carr notes, library internet service is very popular. But many of the same people using the computers at my library are checking out books. And those who don’t use the computers are probably not Luddites, who are really fairly rare, but rather people who can afford computers and internet service at home. According to the ALA’s 2012 State of America’s Libraries report, libraries across the country have seen circulation increase, as my library has. From what I can see, people who have nowhere else to use the internet are finding their way into the stacks while they’re at the library, and not the other way around.

As for that bookish tranquility? The “shushing” era of librarianship was over long before I was in library school, twenty years ago. Libraries are community centers, and we’ve always been places where information is freely available to all. If the internet and its keyboard clicks are a part of that open access, so be it. Reading, whether on a screen or a page, is still very much alive in our hopped-up, attention-challenged, 24 hour news cycle world. It has faced other challenges in its history, as have libraries, and I think both will adapt and survive.