My Response to Shimon’s Thoughts on Improving Libraries

A few days ago, Shimon posted “What Good Is a Library?” I want to comment on his points. I’ve reposted a bunch of his text here to make it easier for me to respond to his points. I hope he doesn’t mind.

I like what he said. I think he has some excellent points, with most of which I agree. It’s nice to read frank words of a library user. It’s not every day a librarian can read what kinds of things a customer would genuinely want in a library. Implementing them all, as Shimon mentions, will be a challenge. For one, I’m not about to make coffee for my coworkers or clients. (Damn it, Shim. I’m a librarian, not a barrista.) (ha ha ha)

One of the things that struck me is how Shimon recognizes the value of librarians. Often, people focus too much on the library’s physical qualities (the place, the collection, etc.) and not enough on the people who work there. It’s like the collection is what’s key and the people who work there are interchangeable (another disgression for another time). Shimon’s idea of marketing the librarians as much as the libraries is quite interesting. Many solo librarians and special librarians talk about the value of marketing themselves along with the library. They know that they are as integral a part of the library as the resources in it. Many times an information professional’s expertise or experience is what makes her valuable, gets her the job. Do public librarians talk about marketing themselves? Do library users talk about which local libraries have excellent reader’s advisor (like RKO) or a fantastic children’s librarian?

Another emphasis Shimon places on the library is its value as a place to meet people, make social connections, and have meetings. I guess all those rumors about College Library being a hot dating place could really be true if people like Shimon are roaming the stacks looking for people to meet. Again, it puts another emphasis on the library as being more than just a building housing a physical collection.

I appreciate Shimon’s interest and enjoyment in using the library as a place to “hang out and think about things at leisure away from the bustle of everyday life.” I have always had a difficult time studying and reading in libraries. Where I did my graduate work, the department’s library was on the fourth floor overlooking a beautiful lake. Some smart person put a bunch of upholstered chairs near the windows so that it was easy to stare out at the lake instead of doing any productive reading or homework. I spent a lot of time in that area of the library. (It was also the best birds-eye view of hockey in the area.) I kept thinking they should make a poster of the view from those windows so students like me could hang them on their walls when they graduate and go through serene scene withdrawl. It was also very convenient to flop there between classes or while waiting for a meeting. I used to bring people to the library for the view.

Shimon asks: What would a library more tightly focused on [his list for making libraries better] need?

  • a number of small, reservable, soundproofed conference rooms
    • Some libraries have facilities like this. The library where I went to college had small rooms in the lower level for group meetings. They weren’t soundproof, though, and they certainly didn’t have whiteboards and wifi. I think if librarians knew their customers valued these things, there would be an interest in getting them. Many libraries seem to be structured in such a way that’s conducive to the person who’s coming in briefly to pick up some material or look something up quickly. When I think about my local public library, it certainly doesn’t entice me to stay in the library to read or spend a lot of time doing research.
  • a cafe that serves coffee and snacks
    • Some libraries are beginning to experiment with this, like the Mary Baker Eddy Library, which has a nice cafe downstairs. Generally, food and drinks in libraries are bad ideas because of the damage they can do to library materials and computers and how food attracts insects and rodents that can damage collections. Libraries look to bookstores with coffee shop and cafe components to see how successful they are.
    • One point often made is what is the difference between a person borrowing a book from a library and eating or drinking while reading it at home versus being able to eat and drink in the library. Some of the libraries where I did my graduate work allowed drinks, but not food. I don’t remember hearing any horror stories from the librarians about fiascoes caused by someone spilling a drink in the library.
    • I wonder what the trend of food and drinks in archives in special collections is.
  • specialized browsing-oriented catalogs
    • You mean besides what used to be the subject card catalog, but is now online in some form of keyword or subject heading search? Or like the bookmarks/guides/pathfinders/Web pages librarians sometimes make for patrons? One of my local librarians put together a few of these on topics related to women at the request of a city commission. I’m sure librarians c/would do more if they thought there was a need (and if they had the time). Some libraries are happy to let library users and book groups put lists like this together, too.
  • I’m going to harp on that last one a little; can you imagine how great it would be to go to the library to see an exhibit on the greatest information in an area of interest to you, curated by experts? Not only would you find new, stimulating material, but you’d also be guaranteed to bump into experts and other hobbyists
    • Some libraries do have exhibition spaces. My local library almost always has an exhibit of artwork in the large room they call an auditorium and has several display cases throughout the building. Sometimes artists have gatherings to celebrate the opening of their show at the library. I’ve worked on library displays twice in the last year. Some branches are very flexible about who can put up displays and welcome members of the public and community organizations to do so.
  • The library would have to prominently feature (and even market) the reputation of its librarians and patrons
    • Fantastic idea! In some ways, specialized libraries do this by being divided by subject. On a college campus with multiple libraries, for example, libraries might be divided by subjects, like agriculture, mathematics, hard science, and humanities. If you’re doing research in agriculture, it makes more sense to go to the agriculture library and/or consult with a librarian there because s/he might know more about sources in agriculture than a librarian at the humanities library. But taking this one step further and saying that a specific librarian at a specific library is really good at something is probably what Shimon means. The someone who wants to consult a librarian for that something could know where to go to get good assistance. Sometimes word about collections leaks out (like the Somerville Public Library’s Central Branch has a good selection of graphic novels or so my reader’s advisory librarian tells me) but not necessarily librarians.
    • Marketing a library based on its customers is trickier. It can have some adverse effects: “I’m not rich or smart, so I can’t use that library.” “If the library is emphasizing that young people in their twenties like to go there, it must be a dating scence kinda thing and I don’t want to be part of that.” If one branch library in a community chooses to market its clients, another community branch might feel slighted because the other library’s marketing scheme could indirectly indicate things about its own customers ’cause there’s always that “richer than whom,” “more intelligent than whom,” etc. And no library wants to market its clients if they aren’t worth marketing: “Come visit our branch where the high school truants hang out.”
    • In some ways, this kind of marketing can happen on its own. Someone might learn that a librarian at a particular branch speaks Portuguese and spread the word among her friends. Some woman might tell her friends that the guy who works reference at the SPL on Tuesday nights is really intelligent. It’s different when a library does it in an official capacity, though. (Why libraries around here don’t make a point of advertising the language specialities of their librarians confuses me. What a way to reach out to underserved populations!)
  • The library must be located near businesses and restaurants so that it can be easily utilized
    • Yes, a convenient location is also part of marketing and attracting people to use the facilities. Some of Madison, Wisconsin’s libraries moved into vacant stores in strip malls thinking that people going to the other stores would also use the library. They often considered proximity to bus stops when choosing locations, too.

Shimon continues: And what’s wrong with current libraries that prevents them from realizing these goals?

  • They are overly focused on books. …
    • Books and paper formats and microfilm are still considered the standard for preservation of much information, which is why libraries are still overly focused on books. Electronic information hasn’t proved itself yet and it can be more complicated and/or expensive for a library to deal with than a book or paper format. More about this is somewhere else on my blog, so I’m not repeating myself here. Many librarians seem to be conservative about acquiring other formats.
  • They are excessively tied to government or educational institutions. …
    • True, true, true. Not all public libraries receive government funding. A public library in New Hampshire in an incredibly supportive community ditched its federal funding, which wasn’t much, in order to continue having unfiltered Internet access. I don’t know what other local or state government funds that library might receive. There are private libraries, too. Some college and university libraries are open to the public and have memberships or other means of giving the public total access to the collections. At least one of Harvard’s academic libraries is open to the public, but does not give the public borrowing privileges. Many community members frequented the college library where I did my undergraduate work, even though the small public library was a few blocks away.
    • Libraries that are federal depositories are legally obligated to let people access their collections–at least in theory. Many large university libraries are federal depositories.
  • Because they are tied to multi-purpose institutions, libraries are too general. …
    • Some libraries try hard to strike a balance between having a collection made up of all the wonderful materials in the world and gathering materials of specific interest or use to their local community. Librarians often acquire items based on how well they think they will circulate. If clients aren’t going to use something, why spend money on it?
    • Many public libraries collect things of historical value to the local community, like high school yearbooks and local newspapers. Many times, they might be the only collections with those materials.
    • Programs like interlibrary loan are particularly valuable because they allow library users to borrow materials from other collections, especially materials their local library may not own. Of course, then, library patrons must know about the program in order to take advantage of it.
    • Shimon seems to focus on public and acadmic libraries here, not collections like the Mary Baker Eddy Library.
    • Shimon, I’m not sure what you mean by “… the average patron does not feel his potential to rearrange the place, leaving his imprint.” Could you explain this please? What do you mean that someone would leave his imprint on the library?
  • Libraries are too large. This is a one cause of their generality, because the sheer physical size of libraries makes it difficult for them to assume an understandable identity. …
    • I don’t really understand what you’re getting at here, either, Shimon. Large libraries must collect a lot of materials to fill their space, so their collections tend to be general in nature to better fill that space? I don’t agree with that idea. I think there can be a large library with a very specific, narrow collection. The size of specialized libraries often depends on the amount of material available to them.
    • Or are you only talking about architecture and the physical space? The larger a library is, the more it just seems like endless corridors of bookshelves and less like a space with features that make it distinct from other libraries, like a prairie view and a fireplace surrounded by living room furniture?
  • Libraries enforce an overly strict distinction between patron and librarian. The flow of information isn’t just librarian-to-patron anymore, but the other way around and inter-patron. Individuals should be able to contribute to the structure of the library’s physical space and information systems.
    • Some libraries enforce a strict distinction between patrons and librarians. Some don’t. I learn many things from my clients and recognize that. I also know that my clients know much more about some matters than I do and I completely respect that. There must be a way librarians can communicate that to patrons better. But also, in settings like a large public library, many librarians have one-time encounters with many people. Librarians may recognize the two-way information flow and respect it better among repeat customers, customers with whom they’ve developed a rapport. It’s difficult to establish who’s intelligent, insane, and just plain wrong in brief, one-time encounters. Many librarians develop a defense mechanism that makes them skeptical of information clients share until they know their clients better.
    • Also, there’s that whole librarian-image thing that many librarians try to protect: the librarian knows all. If a customer knows more than the librarian, there goes that stereotype. It’s like how the woman in the confessional can’t be holier than the priest. Some people get very upset when they learn librarians don’t actually know everything. (Don’t worry: some librarians really do know everything.) Many information professionals try hard to hold onto that image and refuse to admit that they’re wrong or they don’t know the answer. (Many people can’t admit they don’t know the answer.)
  • Libraries don’t serve coffee. This is especially assinine. By comparison, Starbucks serves information (via wireless internet access).
    • I really like this analogy, Shimon. = ) Some libraries do serve beverages and some serve food. I guess you have to live in the right community or visit the right library. (Would library patrons complain about paying $5 for a cup of library coffee?)
  • Libraries underserve groups.
    • Some libraries have meeting spaces for community and other groups. A local library makes its meeting room available to groups, but only on a limited basis (like once a year per group). I think that has to do with the demand placed on that room. There are many benefits to having groups meet at the library. It can be a great way to bring people into the library who otherwise may not be there. One of the big drawbacks is that sometimes no one cleans up after the group, then it is up to the library staff or custodians to take care of any messes. This area definitely could use improvement. By supporting the community like this, libraries could garner support for themselves and draw themselves close to the center of the community.
  • Libraries discourage talking. Instead, libraries should set up a physical environment that encourages going up to someone who is browsing and making suggestions out loud, using your voice, and making connections with people.
    • Yes, yes, yes! I’ve worked in several environments where there have been quiet spaces and loud spaces. Not everyone likes a quiet library and in many situations, quiet studying is not conducive to studying, especially groupwork.

Shimon ends, “The next question, which I don’t have time to think through right now: can you make money doing this? I am skeptical that current library systems will be flexible enough to try out these kinds of ideas, but perhaps we can entice some entrepreneurs to build a ‘mall for smarties’?”

  • Shimon, they’re called bookstores, like Borders and Barnes and Noble. ha ha ha
  • People don’t have to be smart to use a library.
  • No, really, librarians and libraries can make money doing these things. It’s a question of return on investment. If they increase the use of the library, especially. If people in the community like and use the library, they’re more likely to support it, maybe by joining the friends organization or by being more willing to pay taxes to better the library. (Don’t keep materials out late. Fine money goes back to the city, not the library.) Some library funding is based on usage statistic. If those numbers increase, so does funding. When libraries apply for grant money, they often have to provide statistics in their application. Some library grants seem to go to libraries and collections that are well-used.
  • I think money and knowing what their users want and need are big obstacles to libraries getting any of this stuff done. Some of my local libraries are going through staff layoffs right now because of the poor economy. I doubt that diverting money to install a wireless network or buy comfy furniture to entice people to stay in the library would be readily accepted by many people.

Addendum 3/25: Kevin, a public librarian, chimes in.

Addendum 3/26: A special collections librarian has commented on the blog post for this story. Others might place comments there as well.

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