Home > American Culture, Librarianship, Society > Understanding What “Public Library” Actually Means

Understanding What “Public Library” Actually Means

There’s a news story causing considerable uproar and debate in the library community (thanks Stephen Colbert).  It all revolves around this 7 year old named Dominic.  His family was using the library closest to them, which just happens to not be in the family’s tax district.  Dominic was photographed at the library for the local paper and gave his town.  This alerted the librarians to the fact that Dominic’s family are not residents of the towns that pay the taxes that support that library.  They informed the family that the library card had been issued in error, and they would not be allowed to renew it come the end of the year.  (Full Story)

Colbert presented this story as “the big bad library forcing a kid who loves to read out.”  This is simply not the case, and I think the public perception being so negative really boils down to a misunderstanding of public libraries.  Not to mention a misunderstanding of democracy in general.

When the United States was founded, the vision was for mostly self-supporting communities to be united in such a way as to assist each other where they couldn’t and to help protect against large external threats.  Think of it as the communities supplying most things, but Vermont trading maple syrup for oranges from Florida.  Oh, and Vermont and Florida stand together against that whole Canadian and Cuban threat thing. 😉

So then came about the public library.  Each community pools together its resources and offers up a centralized place to educate their populace.  Now imagine that somebody who hadn’t contributed and lives on the outskirts of a neighboring community comes to use the place.  That’s a no go.  The original New England Puritan community saying is: He who does not work shall not eat.  Similarly, he who does not contribute to a service meant to serve everyone does not get to benefit from it.  Public libraries exist to serve the community that supports them, not every Tom Dick and Harry just passing through.

The fact of the matter is, Dominic’s district didn’t contribute anything to the public library he was using.  He doesn’t deserve to use it.  Yes, it’s unfortunate that the library his district does support is further away, but life isn’t always fair.  We would have a far better society if kids didn’t grow up experiencing everyone kow-towing to them, but that is another blog post.

Where I do find fault with the public library in question is the fact that somehow Dominic did wind up with a valid library card for that facility in the first place.  It’s possible that his parents knew what was going on and claimed to live in that district, but they should have had to produce evidence.  This shows me that the library isn’t being thorough enough in validating new patrons.  This is a problem that they need to fix.

I also find fault with how the library handled the situation when it arose.  They left a message on the family’s answering machine.  That is really not the best way to handle a delicate situation.  They should have at least talked to the family on the phone.  I think at best they should have attached a note to the patron record and discussed the issue in person the next time the family used the library.

It seems evident that Dominic’s family is not the only one that would like to use the library in question over their own.  The best way for the library to handle this situation would be to offer the people from Dominic’s district the option of paying for a library card.  Then they would be contributing to the service, and there would be no problem.  Families could decide if the time saved was worth the money.  Problem solved.

Essentially, the public library is right that Dominic doesn’t have the right to use their library.  However, they made a major snafu both in issuing the card and in handling the situation.  The general public doesn’t understand public libraries.  Sometimes librarians forget that not everyone is a librarian.  We speak using terms like “OPAC,” and expect patrons to just innately understand the system.  We must be diligent in presenting the friendly, helpful librarian to the public instead of the shushing angry one.  We can be friendly and helpful and still enforce the rules.

  1. August 3, 2009 at 9:33 am

    Such a sad and difficult situation – I think we are very lucky to have the consortia networks and Virtual Catalog in MA, to have access far beyond our municipal borders. But, not everyone does, and this story brings both sides of the facts to light.

    • Holly
      August 3, 2009 at 10:04 am

      I understand where the library is coming from–we are county property tax funded and our branch is located approx. 2 miles from the county border. I have to explain why people from the next county over have to pay to use our system (which is the closest for them) twenty times a day. 😦 But, the library certainly didn’t handle the situation very well and should have done better verification in the first place before issuing the card, so the poor kid would have known the deal from the get-go and not been so disappointed. We have pretty stringent policies to issue kids library cards, but it does keep situations like this from occurring.
      And for heaven’s sake, why not offer a non-resident card for a fee? Most libraries do something like this for folks outside the community.

  2. Madison
    August 3, 2009 at 10:15 am

    The public library I used to work at in Indiana had issues with this sort of thing. Often, people will have been going to the library for years and years before the fact that they don’t actually belong in the district is caught, which I saw happen to a number of very unhappy patrons. I think one reason it was such an issue is that even looking at a map of the area (though this might be getting better with Google maps), it was hard to tell where one township ended and another began. The other reason is that they had only made the switch to an ILS from the old card-based system… maybe in 2003? Presumably, there were several months there where the inrush of people applying for cards overwhelmed the ability of the staff to keep up, and no time to double-check that everyone with one of the old cards was in the right district. Even in 2008 there were still people from other library districts coming in, since they’d been coming to that library with no problems for ten years or more. But at least we informed them face to face when they tried to check out books, and provided them with the option of buying a card that would let them access any library in Indiana, or a reciprocal borrowing agreement if it was available for their library district.
    It’s hard in smaller, more rural communities to determine where the boundaries are, especially since two ends of the same road can be in different districts. You can’t always tell from the address which township/district people live in, and people don’t always know which township they live in themselves. When these are people who you will see out and about, shopping in the same stores, walking the same streets, you tend to be more inclined to be squishy with the rules.
    What bothered me was that the same librarians who decided to crack down on some of these out-of-district patrons were the ones who were some of the worst when it came to abusing the rules to help out people they knew.

  3. August 3, 2009 at 3:31 pm

    Kristi–I’m so grateful for the consortia, and that’s another way of dealing with access problems. It takes a lot of work on the libraries’ end, but it makes patrons soooo happy.

    Holly–I can sympathize with both the library and the patrons. Although I live in the city now, when I was a kid I lived in a rural county that had no library. We ended up working out a deal with the closest library of paying to use the facilities, but man was that children’s librarian nasty to us. She never let us forget that we weren’t “real” patrons, and we were paying for it!

    Madison–I’m glad you highlighted two additional issues here. One being how to handle patrons who have utilized the facilities for years (for whatever reason), and the other being favoritism. The first is admittedly difficult to handle and to know what is the best decision. The first simply should not exist. It leaves me wondering how best to eradicate favoritism in our own libraries.

  4. August 13, 2009 at 10:59 am

    What bothers me about the story is that someone from the library read the news story and took it upon himself/herself to track the kid down and take away his library card. I understand the boundary issues and I am sure there are those that take advantage of it, but to track a seven year old down and take away his library card like Eliot Ness taking down Capone is ridiculous.

    • August 17, 2009 at 10:03 pm

      Jeff–I think it’s clear from my post that I disagree with you. Though I do think the family should have been given the option of paying for the library services. Also, I doubt they physically took away his card. They probably just put an alert on his account and notified the family.

  5. Schatzi
    August 19, 2009 at 5:16 pm

    I am always fascinated and confused by differing library systems, like how easy it is to be so close to the wrong library, as was the case for Dominic’s family. Where I’m from (HI), it’s a state library system–so patrons can go to any library in the state. Then I moved to Oregon, which seems to be on a county system. And that makes sense to me, too. But boroughs versus towns? I can’t deal.

    More on topic, I understand that the library is in a certain position, and I think it would have been fair to offer an individual membership for a fee. And that contact by say, letter would have been more appropriate than a message on an answering machine. They’re really made themselves look like ogres.

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