Joining in the praise

You may have seen the article, “In Praise of Libraries,” published in the Rotarian Magazine, making the internet rounds this week. Naturally I agree with much of what author Joe Queenan has to say about the importance and role of libraries. I thought I’d take a look at how my own public library holds up to his praise:

1. “The public library is the only civic institution in my community that is uncompromisingly successful. . . . Nobody in my town ever stands up and says he dislikes the public library. Nobody in your town does, either.”  In our town I’d have to say this isn’t true. I’ve had people tell me they don’t like using the library, and there are thousands of people who are quietly saying it by never getting a card.

2. “The public library is an indispensable institution that somehow manages to get taken completely for granted.” Yes, I’d venture that if we closed tomorrow, the public would be up in arms that there was no library, even those who have never use it.

3. “The public library serves many functions in a community. It is an adjunct to the public schools, a place where kids can do their homework. It is a day care center of sorts, where small children gather for story hour. It is a safe haven where senior citizens can pass the time in the company of others, where the unemployed can look for work. It is a place where the lonely can be less lonely, the bored less bored, the dejected less dejected, and the ignorant more enlightened. It is the one place in a small town where teenagers cannot possibly get into serious trouble.”  I’d agree with the majority of this paragraph. Save the last sentence.

4. “The public library has features that make it different from any other institution. It is public, in the true democratic sense of the word, and it is free. . . . The library’s philosophy is simple: Come one, come all.”  Yes. As you’ve read here at Nocturnal Librarian this is one of the things that keeps me going, as a librarian. Unfortunately, the fact that it’s open to all is one reason not everyone likes coming to the library. And it’s also one reason I contend that teenagers — or anyone — could conceivably find trouble if they wanted to in many public libraries around the country, including my own.

5. “The wide array of things that libraries offer means that they reach all levels of society. They make society better than it would be if left to its own devices. Libraries are a subtle, almost cunning, bulwark against the racial and socioeconomic segregation that society naturally gravitates toward, even when it does not do so out of malice. People congregate in libraries in a way that they do not congregate elsewhere. Because they are not bound by narrow class or economic or cultural strictures, libraries can cater to everyone.” I agree that we cater to everyone, and should do so. I agree in theory that we make society better by serving as an antidote to cultural, economic, social, and racial segregation. In practice, I think the same people who avoid each other’s company, or more likely, simply do not even truly realize each other’s presence, outside the library do so inside it as well.

6. “Libraries are both aspirational and inspirational.” Yes. Ideally, we are. When we try to live up to our mission, “to connect individuals with resources in order to enhance lives and build community,” anything can happen, anything is possible. This is the other thing that makes me happy to go to work every day.

7. “Public libraries are not judgmental in the way that other institutions are. They offer good books, but they also offer bad books. Lots and lots and lots of bad books. If you want wheat, they will lend you wheat. If you want chaff, they’ve got plenty in stock. Inside the library, it’s a free-for-all, culturally speaking.” Yes. You can find what you want to read, what you didn’t know you wanted to read, what you will be better for having read, and everything in between (and all combinations thereof).

8. “But the most valuable thing that libraries offer us is a path through the looking glass, a sense of wonder. American life is all about planning and regimentation and scheduling and efficiency. The public library is where serendipity reigns. It is the place where you throw out all the rules and wing it. I personally never go into the library and come out with what I went in for. . . .When I wander into the library, I might bring home anything.” Amen. Which is why I always recommend people browse our shelves rather than just looking at the online catalog and then finding specific books. But with roughly half our adult books in storage, that serendipity is not maximized at the moment.

9. Queenan quotes his hometown librarian, Maureen Petry: “We are a community center, yes, so we offer help with doing your taxes and applying for jobs and improving your English. But we can’t just be that. We can’t just be a service organization. We can’t lose sight of our identity as a cultural center.”  Preach it, sister. As I’ve written here at Nocturnal Librarian many times before, we can’t lose sight of what makes libraries libraries even as we try to meet all those other needs Petry mentions. We are a freely accessible place to be thoughtful and quiet and studious, to read, to learn, to discover. Books are at the heart of what we do. Championing reading, lifelong learning, and the value of culture is what makes us more than a community center.

10. And he adds, “Petry says you cannot underestimate the role of the library as a community adhesive. She believes that people become more appreciative of libraries as they mature.” I’d say that the first statement is one we should aspire to but I’m not sure my library is accomplishing; we’re not exactly an adhesive if a majority of our community are not library users. And her second statement is possibly true, and is one reason we serve so many older citizens. But I know many younger patrons, young families, young adults and teens, but also kids, for whom my library is a haven. They count on us for a physical place to be, for internet connectivity, for reading material, for human contact. And I believe they appreciate us.

11. Again from Petry, “It makes you feel that you are part of a community . . . . In the library, you get to feel that you are part of something bigger than yourself. It’s life.”  Yes. I certainly feel that way, and I think both our staff and patrons do too.

12. “The library is thus both the ultimate backstage pass and the rabbit hole we can follow Alice down. The library is not just the House of Knowledge. It is the House of Dreams.” Queenan is specifically referring to the fact that kids aren’t told what to read at the library. Which should be the case. But I think the point applies to everyone. At its best the library opens the door to knowledge and brings dreams within reach. But again I return to point 1 — people have to want to come use the library first.

We have the potential to be all of the things Queenan praises about libraries. We’re already some of those things, at least to the subset of citizens who come through our doors (or our virtual doors, but they have to come in and get a card first). We can be all of this, and we’re working towards that.

Oh how we fret about tech

Three articles related to libraries, technology and e-books caught my eye this week. Taken together, they paint a picture of how much the library and book world collectively fret about whether we’re offering enough technology services to the public.

First there is the Nielsen report about teens’ preference for print versus e-books. I’m not sure how surprising this is, but I know it’s something many librarians and booksellers worry about — will anyone be reading print in the future? I check books out to teens all the time at my library and I am the parents of a teen who has never read an e-book for pleasure and regularly shops for regular books, so my view of this might be skewed by daily experience, but I was happy to read a report that backs up my optimism about print. If young people are not developing an affinity for e-books growing up, it seems unlikely that will be their preference as adults. I was also heartened to read that a solid number — about 45% — of teens are influenced by social media in making reading choicesm which is good news for libraries like mine trying to ramp up our social media presence. I’m hopeful that as The Teen Zone, Concord Public Library’s teen tumblr, and its sibling the CPL Reading-Rumblr, gain more followers, we’ll be helping people find good reads.

Next came a report from Britain on the state of public libraries. I was appalled to read a) only 35% of people in England use the library regularly (the closest stat I could find for the US is 54% who went to a library sometime in the previous 12 months, from a 2013 Pew report), b) one of the major recommendations, according to the Independent‘s story, is to offer Wi-Fi and “a comfortable, retail-standard environment, with the usual amenities of coffee, sofas and toilets,” and c) “The Government should secure changes in European and UK copyright law to enable library users to borrow e-books remotely in the next legislative term, the report recommended.” Whoa. I had no idea that only about a third of British citizens use libraries, that 1/3 of British libraries lack Wi-Fi, nor that in the UK readers can’t check out e-books outside of libraries. Two things really disturbed me:  the suggestion regarding making libraries more like cafes, and this bit about recruiting and training staff: “21st century librarian(s) will need… digital and commercial expertise.” Sounds like the British government believes that if they turn libraries into Starbucks and librarians into cafe managers they’ll have solved their problems! Wi-Fi is important, but focusing on hot drinks rather than recognizing — and educating the public –that librarians’ information skills trump random internet searching seems incredibly short-sighted and, frankly, daft! If the British government doesn’t appreciate librarians’ primary role in supporting the development of a literate and well-read citizenry, I don’t see how any of the other recommendations will do much good.

And about that digital expertise — I hosted the NH State Library’s Technology Resources Librarian Bobbi Slossar recently to talk to our staff about “customer service in the digital age.” I’d heard her speak at the NHLA Reference and Adult Services fall conference, and what really resonated with me about her approach is this point: Bobbi noted that libraries have always had car repair manuals but no one ever expected librarians to go out and do an oil change for a patron, so why should we approach tech. customer service any differently? Her solution is that staff need to focus on being librarians — teaching people how to find the information they need to solve their own tech problems — rather than trying to be help desk staff. And she notes that to teach others, we have to be comfortable with and knowledgeable about tech but even more importantly, we have to use our reference interview skills to get to the heart of what a patron needs. I couldn’t agree more (maybe British librarians should fly Bobbi over to address Parliament?), so I appreciated “The Art of Sweet Talking Or How to Talk Tech to Patrons.” Jason Pinshower, like Bobbi, notes that how we talk to patrons is just as important as what we say. His advice? “Our patrons need to be able to confide in us and feel comfortable being embarrassed about their technology need. Nobody enjoys asking for help.”  I love that. I tell patrons all the time that I personally find printers really frustrating, and it truly does make someone feel better if you admit you struggle with technology.

Thanks for reading Nocturnal Librarian and best wishes for a happy and healthful holiday season. See you in 2015!

 

 

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.

 

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.

All Hallow’s Read

It’s strange to me what a big deal Halloween has become. It’s now a major holiday for retailers, with a 2011 survey by the National Retail Federation estimating Americans spend $7 billion on the holiday (we’re not the only ones; this Ottawa Sun article notes Canadians spend about $300 each on Halloween).

I’m not that into it myself. But I like Neil Gaiman‘s idea, which he first posted on his blog in 2010: “I propose that, on Hallowe’en or during the week of Hallowe’en, we give each other scary books. Give children scary books they’ll like and can handle. Give adults scary books they’ll enjoy.”

This “modest proposal” has grown into All Hallow’s Read, a movement to give and read books for Halloween. If you’re not sure you like scary stories, widen your horizon a bit and read something that scares you but might not be filed under horror (political ads are certainly both plentiful and scary this year). For fans of teen dystopia, why not share Shirley Jackson‘s short fiction, including “The Lottery,” published in 1948. In 2010 The New Yorker called it  “perhaps the most controversial short story” the magazine has published. It won’t scare you in the slasher-film way; it’s thought-provokingly disturbing and something Hunger Games fans might appreciate.

Gaiman has posted lists of suggested books from various sources and for various ages as well as printables for celebrating All Hallow’s Read’s. One cool link:  print a mini book version of The Raven to fold and share. Which brings me to New Hampshire’s Big Read, organized by the NH Center for the Book as part of the National Endowment for the Arts Big Read program, and focused on the works of Edgar Allan Poe this fall. Find out more about Poe programming at libraries around the state here.

Movies and books

Last week’s Shelf Renewal web crush of the week is “Based on the Book” — a terrific project of the Mid-continent Public Library in Missouri. Last year when I worked in a college library I lamented the number of students who came to the reference desk asking for the movie versions of books they’d been assigned. I love movies, but I worried students were seriously missing out by not reading the books.

I still believe that, but of course it works the other way too — people read things they might not have because of interest in the adaptation.  I picked up Cloud Atlas like many other people after the film’s previews caused a buzz and a boost in the book’s sales. Both my teens are very excited about The Hobbit film and one of them is reading the book now. Both my husband and my daughter have read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories as a result of enjoying adaptations of Sherlock Holmes on television or at the movies.

Sometimes I’ve sought out a book I hadn’t read before because I’ve enjoyed the Masterpiece version — for example, The Cranford Chronicles by Elizabeth Gaskell. I hope lots of people tuning in to Half the Sky on PBS this week will also read that very interesting, shocking, and uplifting book.

Even younger kids can enjoy the film-book connection and sometimes, a movie might be a fun incentive for encouraging a reluctant reader to finish a book. Kidsread.com’s “Books on Screen” is a good resource for the younger set.  For film buffs, arguing the merits of movies based on books is endless fun; this blog post by Beth Carswell at AbeBooks is a starting point for a discussion.

My town’s community wide read and our state Center for the Book’s “Big Read” based on the NEA program both incorporate films related to the book selection. I’ve often thought a summer program inviting teens to create short films (book trailers? 15 min. versions of classics? ) might be fun. Younger kids might like to make book/movie posters.

How does your library use films to drive interest in books? Do you create displays related to popular films? Host film/book discussions?

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.

A traveler’s tales

My family visited England and France with our son, who’d been in England on a Gap Year. Our 11 day whirlwind tour included London, Milton Keynes/Bletchley Park, Paris, Bath, Hayward’s Heath (West Sussex), and Brighton. Two days after we returned, my daughter and I headed to Washington, D.C. for a homeschool version of the 8th grade pilgrimmage to our nation’s capital, plus a visit with her young cousins, aunt, and uncle.

Along the way, I tried to note what people are reading and how. American and British readers have embraced Ipads and Kindles, although many are playing games rather than reading. I saw roughly 50% e-readers versus books.

In Paris, people were reading actual books. The parks were of French and international readers. An afternoon event at Shakespeare and Company drew a small crowd. I didn’t see a single e-reader all day.

In both the London Underground and the Paris Metro, poster-size ads for books were as prevalent as those for shows or films. Many of the London ads were for literary fiction. Fiction was the top choice of readers on trains and planes; people on e-readers are harder to spy on. I saw lots of adults reading The Hunger Games.

Train station and airport shops are heavily promoting the Fifty Shades of Grey books. In England, Diamond Jubilee titles celebrating Queen Elizabeth and books about the Olympics are also prominent. In Holland Park, where we stayed, Daunt Books had an enticing window filled with books I recognized and some I didn’t, and inside, one of the best selections of travel titles I’ve ever seen.

I visited a Waterstones, England’s biggest chain (which just agreed to carry Kindles). The staff there was knowledgeable and the display included some local authors and staff picks. Everything was clearly designed to feel like an independent store.

I also enjoyed popping into some of the ubiquitous charity shops selling used books (Oxfam, for example) and a half-price remainders bookshop in Bath. I wish I’d had time to check out libraries as well. In fact, I could plan an entire trip around libraries and bookstores . . . .