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.

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Shushing

Much has been made lately, including here at Nocturnal Librarian, about the future of library services. From internet access to unusual lending items to maker spaces and even bookless libraries, our profession is innovating to stay relevant.  But two articles recently caught my eye that made me wonder if a) we don’t have an image problem after all, we’ve just fallen off the radar of too many people and b) we should remember what we already do best before we go reinventing libraries.

First I saw Brian Kenney’s Publishers Weekly piece “Libraries: Good Value, Lousy Marketing,” about the Pew report Library Services in the Digital Age. His take is that libraries are doing fine with the people who are already using our multiplying services and programming, but that we aren’t marketing ourselves to the rest of America. If only they knew that we were offering snacks, classes, supervised after school activities, invention workshops, and places to hang out, they’d come, goes this line of thinking. Which on the surface, makes sense. If we’re in the midst of revolutionizing library services for the “digital age” then we have to tell people we’re not their grandmother’s library.

One of the first comments I read pointed out the chicken-and-egg problem this presents: funding and staffing is often contingent on demonstrated library use, and all those amazing programs and services require funds and staff. Libraries often have minuscule marketing budgets. In many cases even our websites are not entirely in our control, because city or county IT departments are managing them. But even assuming shoestring PR tools like public service announcements on TV and radio, community bulletins in newspapers, and social media tools, it takes staff to do marketing, and staff to create and provide all the whiz-bang new offerings. We might get budget increases if we prove people are coming, and they won’t come without our letting them know, so  . . . .

Then I read something which struck me as equally important, maybe even more so: at Salon.com, Laura Miller writes that what she noticed in the Pew study is that percentage wise, almost the same high number of respondents — 76% —  mentioned quiet spaces as an important library service, which is, as Miller notes: “only one percentage point less than the value given to computer and Internet access. A relatively silent place to read is almost exactly as valuable to these people as the Internet!” (emphasis Miller’s)

One of the first things people ask me if they haven’t been in the library for awhile is where to find a quiet spot. There’s almost nowhere else to go in most communities to have quiet space to read, write, imagine, think, in short, to be still.  Most librarians don’t actually “shush” anymore, but Miller is right, if we allow ourselves to be as busy and boisterous as any old Starbucks, we’ve lost one of the most unique things we have to offer.