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Understanding What “Public Library” Actually Means

August 3, 2009 7 comments

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.

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