Monday, January 25, 2010

Making Libraries Relevant in the Future

You’re not going to like this post, even if you think I’m part of the “echo chamber” (not sure I qualify - I’m not one of the “cool kids” I follow – you know the ones who do presentations at all of the library conferences).
First, Seth Godin committed no “sins” in his posting on the future of the library when he wrote the following:

What should libraries do to become relevant in the digital age?
They can't survive as community-funded repositories for books that individuals don't want to own (or for reference books we can't afford to own.) More librarians are telling me (unhappily) that the number one thing they deliver to their patrons is free DVD rentals. That's not a long-term strategy, nor is it particularly an uplifting use of our tax dollars.

Though I know a lot of my fellow librarians took him to task for saying that libraries need to become relevant (see:, I don’t think they should’ve. I think they should’ve realized that this is how many people feel (those outside of the echo chamber of librarians and highly supportive library patrons).

Honestly, Seth spoke for America. We’ve known since the OCLC 2005 perceptions of libraries survey that the library’s “brand” = books.
But if that’s the case, libraries ARE irrelevant, because In this day and age, most of the people I talk to (who aren’t librarians or related to librarians) see Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or bookmooch-type sites as better places to find books online and more locally, they usually get their books from friends, colleagues, book/tag sales, or bricks-and-mortar book stores. (With the rise of the ebook readers that grab content directly from retailers like Amazon, we are growing even less relevant...)

Among my in-laws, for example, (though most of them really like to read) not one of them regularly goes to the public library or uses the library as their primary source for books.
Many Americans don’t have that much time or will to read a huge collection of books anyway. So maybe they get in a dozen or two books per year, best case scenario. They can usually afford to purchase or borrow those books themselves without using the library. They’re more liable to consume information and entertainment through the internet, television offerings, radio, or movies.

I’m going to confess something right now -- I don’t read. At least not the way you’d imagine a librarian would read. I laugh when anyone asks me to recommend a book, simply because I’m a librarian. I hardly ever read books. At least, rarely for pleasure, and rarely in full. I usually read magazines, online postings/articles, or segments of books (ebooks included in this) for reference purposes. I don’t have either the time or the energy to do much more. I’d say that I read complete books probably about 6 times a year. Maybe half of those times I’m reading something fictional and entertaining. Mostly for entertainment, I (gasp!) watch television or movies.

So, books... Not a good brand for libraries if they want to be sustainable. I'm guessing that’s not something that even most of the great folks I'm fans of in the Library2.0 echo chamber would admit. I feel badly about saying this -- I’m not saying this to make my colleagues feel badly or to say that we don’t need to support books at all, but rather I say it because we all need to understand the world from a non-librarian perspective in order to understand where we fit into the lives of most people.

I asked two people close to me why they don’t go to the library. Neither of these people were librarians.

The first person was my husband. He’s not a voracious reader, but he likes to read on occasion and – more importantly – often needs reference materials for his projects. But two problems with that: (1) things like the wiring diagram for our ’69 Charger are needed long-term so it’s better to buy the service manual than to seek it at the library; (2) his recent interest in learning how to become a gunsmith was completely unsupported, not only by our local library’s collection, but by the library network’s collection. All of which brought to mind (for me) how many stereotypically male hobbies and interests are not well-represented in our library collections.

How about a voracious reader with more mainstream needs? I talked with a good friend of mine, who’s extremely bright and interested in array of titles and topics. She seemed a perfect fit for the uber-patron. But when I asked her about using the library and she said that no, she never went to her local library any more. I asked her why (over coffee at a Barnes & Noble) and she responded that she didn’t like going there. Besides the library not offering the positive experience of a bookstore like the one we were in at the time (ambience-wise), she felt like she was putting the librarians out – like the library was their private club and that they didn’t care for people “borrowing their precious books”. While that might be a commentary on a specific public library, she had an even better insight about the problematic business model of the public library. She had so many interests, she told me, that she would start several books simultaneously. Sometimes she’d get through them, start to finish, other times she’d put them aside (or one aside) for a while. She wouldn’t be able to finish up in the limited loan period of the library book. She couldn’t predict how and when she’d be able to finish a book. Work stress, family obligations, and life in general sometimes got in the way. I know, I know, it's possible her library might've allowed for online renewals to help deal with that, but it's one more thing for her to remember and deal with (not to mention that it might not allow the renewal if the title was wanted for another patron or it was a new book or the library's system just didn't support online renewal).

So, instead of going to the library, she gets her books by buying them or through an informal network of acquaintances who hand them on when they’re through with them. The informal book exchange has the added benefit of making her feel more connected to the people involved in the exchange. Plus, it provides her with reader’s advisory from people who know her personally.
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thewikiman said...

Hey Sharon, maybe I shouldn't have used the word 'sins'! But I did say: "And not only is he influential, he represents the views of a massive amount of potential library users – people *do* think libraries are not relevant in the digital age, they *do* think all information is free, and so on and so on." - ie the reason the whole thing was so important is that, as you say, the majority of people don't think libraries are relevant, whether they actually ARE or not...

I think there's a sort of curve of interest - starting with people who are anti-library, and finishing with people who absolutely love them. The point of the #echolib dicussions is to try and work out how to better reach those in the middle, the ones who are indifferent to libraries but would use them if they knew what (the good ones) are really like these days. No point in wasting enegery on the the really hostile people, we don't want to *force* people through the doors! And as it is we spend too much time working on the already-won-over people. So it's the middle ones that interest me.

Sharon c. said...

Thanks for your comments. Well put. We do need to reach those folks who are just not aware of the great things we do/ways we can be of help, even in the post-Google world.

Then again, as one of my colleagues noted in a meeting this AM, maybe we've always stayed under the radar because we're less likely to get hit that way. (on the other hand, how's that working for us?) Our supposition is that once the world knows about what we do, they'll become better supporters.

thewikiman said...

I have to admit, that really is my supposition...

I'm coming from the point of view that the stereotypes which form the basis of many people's default options on us are SO outmoded now (in a lot of cases; not all) that we have to at least tell them what we really do now so they can have an informed opinion.

If they *still* don't like, want, or need us, then that's a far more insurmountable problem.

Bobbi Newman said...

Sharon - I agree with what you wrote. We (libraries) do have a problem and you're right about what it is. That said my issue with Godin's post were 1. he said information is free 2. I was insulted as if we didn't already know we need to stay relevant. It felt like someone who has no idea what I do showing up & telling me how to do my job.

That doesn't mean he was wrong about the need to stay relevant.

I don't think he gave us any insight we didn't already have. He gave real suggestions for approval.

You can read my full response on Toby's post