Ink Paper Words' Profile

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Pacific Northwest, United States
In elementary school, I desperately wanted my mother to order books for me from those flyers Scholastic hands out to kids. She refused, citing the "perfectly good library down the street." I exacted revenge by becoming a card-carrying ALA accredited reference librarian. Ha! Take that!

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Death of Libraries?

A recent series of articles on the funding crisis affecting public libraries (and indeed, all public agencies these days) examines their relevance in this age of apparently ubiquitous information and access. Comments to these articles reveal a variety of misconceptions, for example:

Libraries and Books are Outmoded

When I attended library school, back in the mists of ancient pre-history (that's 1987), I remember writing in one of my papers that it was essential for librarians to remain on the cutting edge of technology in order better provide students with a conceptual framework with which to access information.With the benefit of intervening years, I'd have to say that libraries have done admirably well for themselves in this regard. My local library currently offers texts, music and language instruction via e-book. Reference service is available via text message. They've had self-check for ages. And since the mid-80's, when I began working at the public library in Puddletown, I don't even think in terms of a "book\not-book" dichotomy. Things are just materials. Some are books, some are VHS, some DVD, etc. In view of this, I'd have to say that people who assert libraries are outmoded hasn't been in one for a good while.

Everything (and then some!) is already on the Internet

True, there is a lot of “information” on the web. Much of it is solid information from reliable and credible vendors. However, much of it is crap. How is the casual user to know the difference. I participate on various forums on the web and it's a bit ludicrous to see the links to screed\rant pages presented as “proof” of some ridiculous assertion. Clearly, people do not know how to evaluate information. At Stanislaus County, we frequently got patrons whose homework assignment indicated that no .com web sites could be used as sources. While I applaud the intent of the teacher\school who drew up this policy, it ignores the fact that lots screen can hide behind .org domains as well as any other.

Yes, technology continues to make access to information ubiquitous, but that does not mean it's available to everyone. Effective search strategy is key, and not a quality that is inherent. I don't know how many times people came to the reference desk looking for information and I would ask about the sources they had already checked. They'd say "oh I Googled it and didn't find anything." Then I would search and find all kinds of things from credible sources that answered their question. There may well be a lot more vessels on that ocean, but the navigator is still essential. Librarians more necessary than ever. There seems to be a misconception that information = knowledge and that simply is not the case. Knowledge has an intrinsic value-added quality that can only occur after accurate information has been synthesized.

Another issue is pay walls. If something is on the web but the user can't get to it because they lack the appropriate credentials, what good is it? In all probability, the local library subscribes to expensive databases and subject-specific reference sources that provide information you simply can't pull up without paying and authenticating. Libraries and database producers want you to use those. And believe it or not, everyone does not have cell service and a smart phone.

I see the greatest threats to libraries is funding. Budgets are being slashed everywhere and when faced with a choice between 911 service and libraries, I certainly understand a community opting for police and ambulances, if those are the only choices. Those who argue that librarians care only about funding their own jobs have no idea what motivates us. I made a pretty decent salary at my last library position, but it was certainly not exorbitant given the location and local cost of living. I don't know of anyone who goes into librarianship because it's a ticket to wealth. People who are driven my money tend not to go into public service.

Librarians do nothing but read – what are they good for?

Librarians have always had an image problem (one shared, BTW, with most other public service employees).  Laura Bush said in the school library she worked in she was happy to read gardening books all day. Way to support the profession, LB. Frankly I cannot imagine how she lucked into a job that allowed her the freedom to indulge her personal interests in this way. I spent my time reading book reviews (fun ;^) ) and boring emails from the county (not fun ;^\ ).

This misconception is only exacerbated by corporations such as LSSI, who claim to work for results and not allow librarians to “coast” until retirement age. Every library I've worked in was very heavily driven by quantified results and the dead wood was gotten rid of. Furthermore, I have a real issue with for-profit companies taking over. They've invested nothing into the enterprise except the time it took to wine and dine decision-makers. The burden of infrastructure and materials still resides with the funding source.

If there is money to be saved or made from a publicly-funded agency, shouldn’t it be cycled back to taxpayers as either a tax reduction [lulz] or at least put back in that agency's budget?

Libraries are nothing more than senior center, day care, homeless shelter and Blockbuster

Patrons who are part of those demographics certainly use do library facilities – what's wrong with that? I think it speaks to our ability to reach across social and cultural boundaries to bring potential users into the building. I wouldn't use that as a reason to avoid a resource with boundless benefit.

Comments on the HuffPo articles are quite revealing. While a majority of those commenting seem to be pro-library and pro-literacy, a vocal and uninformed minority continue to claim that “everything” is on the Internet. No, everything is not on the web and even if it were, how do users learn to evaluate it? Doesn't someone need to teach them? There seems to be a misconception that information = knowledge and that simply is not the case. Knowledge has an intrinsic value-added quality that can only occur after accurate information has been synthesized by the user.

Libraries take money away from critical services

Whenever I see an article about libraries and funding, some seem to think that library staff is arguing for funding them over critical services such as fire, police and EMT's. I certainly have not seen any library professionals making this argument, nor would any rational person. But it is bandied about as though it were a given. Obviously in times of financial crisis, hard choices have to be made. Systems such as Hood River and Josephine County, Oregon, have been compelled to make that choice. After being closed for a year or so, Hood River is back online with actual paid employees. Josephine County is back as well, but as a “member-based” library staffed only by volunteers. Their main branch is open only 19 hours per week.

Oh...and the coffee cart in the library? It's a way to get back some of the money that's been cut. I attended a workshop once in Sacramento on “entrepreneurial libraries.” It focused on identifying retail outlets that would complement the library's mission. I've heard it said that libraries with a coffee cart are nothing more than Barnes & Noble's red-haired stepchild, but the fact remains that leasing out space to local businesses not only brings in sorely needed revenue, it returns income to the community as well.

And bear in mind:
Bad information can kill you.

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