Home > Librarianship > What Public Libraries Should Be

What Public Libraries Should Be

There is a debate going on about what public libraries should be.  So far, the librarians seem to be presenting a near united front, repackaging the library as a social place.  A place filled with programs such as speed-dating, Rock Band night, rent a person events, and more.  A place where you can rent newly released movies and videogames.  A place where, “Books are being pushed to the side figuratively and literally.” (source)  The few detractors from this mindset are generally portrayed as old, crotchety patrons who just don’t understand the times.

Well, I am a young librarian, and I don’t like where public libraries are headed.  To be clear, when I say young, I’m 23 years old.  Additionally, although I spent one summer working in a public library, most of my experience is in academic and medical libraries.  However, I think this puts me in the semi-unique position of understanding some of what public librarians deal with, but also being a member of the general populace they are seeking to serve.

I’ve made some rumblings about how I don’t agree with certain aspects of this modernization of the library.  The response from other librarians is generally a truly puzzled, “What’s wrong with it?”

What’s wrong with it?  When did public libraries turn into community centers instead of centers for life-long learning?  In a democracy, it is vitally important that the populace seeks to self-educate, to question, to delve into matters themselves.  A key element of that is literacy, and of course it is important to draw reluctant people into literacy in creative ways.  To this end, I’m supportive of libraries containing genre fiction, romance novels, graphic novels, etc…  However, whatever happened to the materials that truly make people think?  I used to frequent the public library, but last year, I just got sick of the junk I was seeing in the “nonfiction” section.  Autobiographies of the most recent reality star and not a single one of Albert Einstein, for instance.

Public libraries are not only supposed to encourage literacy but also thought and learning.  True, deep thought about serious issues.  I remember stumbling upon a book in high school in my public library about the controversy surrounding the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.  It presented a fair portrayal of multiple sides of the controversy, and I was floored to see such intelligent debate.  It made me think about the mores and ideals I was raised with, and questioning their own validity in much the same way.  This is the kind of experience literate patrons should be having at a public library, not digging through book after book about the last 20 years of pop culture and coming up empty-handed.  If I, a person trained in reference, can’t find thought-provoking books, what makes anyone think that untrained patrons will just happen to stumble upon them?

The public library is also supposed to be about equality.  Anyone who lives in the district can have a card and access the sources.  Now though we’re seeing libraries hosting various features that patrons must pay an additional fee to use.  An example of this is the Nevada libraries that now have Redbox vending machines.  Patrons must pay $1 a night, plus tax, to rent a DVD.  Some say this is fine, but I say, what about the homeless kids who come into this place that purports to support the idea that educating yourself is a right, only to see more things they can’t afford?  I’m sure it is disheartening, and it is contrary to the principles of a public library.

It sickens me to see the public library going from a place revered in the community as a place of literacy, learning, and equality to a bastion of the non-thinking, pop culture junk we’re fed by those who don’t want us to actually better ourselves.  You may as well be handing out Soma with the library cards, and if you don’t know what Soma is, try reading Brave New World.

  1. February 2, 2010 at 11:54 am

    I’m a young library who’s generally for *much* of what you say you’re against– I think if libraries are going to stay relevant, they do need to be more than book repositories, and making them a vibrant community asset is going to include branching out in social directions. That said, I also completely agree with you about the Redboxes AND the need for serious books, as well as “fun” ones. I think the library can be both a community center and a bastion of real learning– after all, Rock Band in the evenings doesn’t automatically prevent good collection development during the day.

    • February 2, 2010 at 2:32 pm

      Oh yes, I didn’t mean to imply that there should be zero library programs, and thank you for giving me the chance to point that out. Of course there should be library programs! (Although, I would say events such as speed-dating are taking it too far). What most concerns me is the increasing lack of attention to serious books.

  2. kimberlyloomis
    February 2, 2010 at 1:10 pm

    I have no qualms with a public library being a place of social interaction but I have a huge problem with how the budgets are run which grossly impacts the capabilities of such places. CT just put on a spending freeze for the libraries while further increasing other bureaucratic bloat. Nothing for nothing but I love the town I live in, love my library and am greatly annoyed the state and fed governments are so drastically impacting the community I pay hefty taxes to. On a similar note I would like to see my local library have more non-fiction but, as it’s a small town (hence the high mill rate), it keeps on hand the titles of most interest for the small area. If I want other books, more research, etc, I can go to the other town library near me and get them there (same goes with fiction my town doesn’t have).

    I would love to think of each institution as having the intellectual interests of the community at heart all the time but, unfortunately, in order to secure funding for much of what they do (again, only in my state) they actually have to give proof to the “higher ups” they’re being frequented and that means pandering to the popular or most massive market interested in books. Sorry to say but I don’t think that’s non-fiction readers. I think, perhaps, that is the bigger problem. If people in a community had direct control over what was going on fiscally then each area would have the ability to say what they wanted their library to have or not have.

    I do completely agree with the Red Box, however. Those things belong outside grocery stores or other similar establishments. At least imo.

    Great post!

    • February 2, 2010 at 2:38 pm

      You bring up a valid issue in that there is a lot of pressure on libraries to prove their worth to the government, and the only thing generally considered is door count/use count. I think this pressure is a large reason that many public libraries are losing their sense of purpose.

      You’re right that most of the general public isn’t reading good nonfiction and fiction alike, but isn’t that part of the point of the public library? To educate the masses, to expose them to new ideas, to encourage literacy beyond reading this week’s issue of US Weekly.

      Of course, this can only happen if the public perception, the political perception, of libraries changes from a disposable community center to an essential bastion of learning. Unfortunately, the impact of such a place is hard to measure in a short amount of time.

      Thank you for the complement and for taking the time to comment!

  3. February 2, 2010 at 1:57 pm

    In the UK all libraries that I’ve been to charge for DVD and CD rental. I’m sure that’s good for their incomes, but it frustrates me because it has to be hard for poor people to go there and see what they can’t really afford on the shelf. They also charge to reserve new books before they hit the shelf, in some cases, and to be honest I think that’s unfair too.

    Unfortunately I do think libraries need to change and innovate. I’m rather obviously not a librarian, but I use my library a lot, and I know a little about “book issues” from this whole blogging thing. Ebooks worry me because then what will libraries do? Give patrons Kindles and send them on their merry way? I don’t think so. As a result something has to change, and as one of the above commenters says, I don’t think activities in the evening should mean that libraries can’t also manage their purchases to provide books to both educate and entertain. I use two library systems and I vastly prefer the one that has a huge stock of non-fiction titles as well as the fiction I read for fun.

    • February 2, 2010 at 2:43 pm

      I’m glad we all seem to agree so far that charging extra fees to patrons is not fair or the way to go. Woohoo!

      I’m not saying libraries shouldn’t change and innovate. I am saying, don’t trash everything libraries started out as in your hurry and desperation to stay relevant. As I said to Margaret above, I didn’t mean to imply that there should be zero library programs, but I do think that they should at least be semi-educational. Some of these programs flying around are a bit ridiculous. Now as far as the what to do in the eBook future…..I think that’s something we need to keep our eye on, but isn’t something we can address quite yet. Not until it’s a bit more clear what way things are headed.

  4. readwhatyouknow
    February 14, 2010 at 12:49 am

    We talk about this a lot at my library, particularly because we are a low-income area where at least 50% of the population is below the poverty line. When we started our gaming nights, it was about access to us. Our kids couldn’t afford the game systems, so the library stepped in to provide equality. But when we started the programming, we made an effort to balance it with programming about books (like a Magic Tree House club and adding more storytimes).

    I agree that the library needs to focus on its primary focus — books and access — before becoming a community center. And I think balance is the most important thing a library can do to make sure that we don’t become the next Blockbuster.

    • February 16, 2010 at 5:26 pm

      Balance is definitely the key, and it’s something that sometimes gets lost in the fray of debate. I think libraries shouldn’t be afraid to innovate, but they shouldn’t innovate thoughtlessly or desperately.

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