Back in 2011, Seth Godin published a blog post titled, “The Future of the Library,” in which he wrote: “The library is no longer a warehouse for dead books.” Godin hit a nerve with librarians. While the post generated some pushback, just weeks after it was published, library leaders were already declaring their intent not to let libraries become warehouses.
Who could blame them? The library-as-warehouse metaphor conjures up images of rows of shelves packed with books, no users, and a library employee on a ladder shelving a dusty old tome. Not a place most people would want to visit, and one that even fewer would want to fund. And why would you, when, according to Godin, books are, or will shortly be, dirt cheap and available on your cell phone?
For Godin, the warehouse is the ghost of libraries past. The library of the future is the make-it-happen library, full of coworking and invention, where we read digitally, librarians teach kids how to use a soldering iron, and the community comes together to learn from one another.
But the reality is quite different. Except for major research libraries, like the New York Public Library, few public libraries are warehouses. We have collections—books, music CDs, and a whole lot of DVDs—but those materials are selected and purchased with our communities in mind.
When I visit the collections in my library, I’ll typically find as many as 60 people browsing at a time, more than most library programs ever attract, soldering iron or not. One browser might be consulting a hand-scribbled note full of titles. Another will be fishing in his backpack for a course syllabus. Others are on their phones searching for the release date of season three of Spartacus: War of the Damned (it was Sept. 17!). But many others seem to be in freefall, browsing happily, without purpose, seeking that wonderful human experience we call discovery.
What Godin got right was the need for the make-it-happen library. Although it can be argued that libraries have long facilitated sharing information and allowing communities to create together, this push toward finding new ways for collaboration and learning is a healthy one. But what he got so wrong was denigrating our role as content providers.
Could most library collections be tighter? Probably. Nearly everyone’s attic needs a cleaning. But librarians who buy Godin’s line and begin to dismantle their physical collections, or plan facilities with radically limited book stock, are forgetting their users.
It’s the job of futurists to predict the future. Librarians have the tougher job: responding to the present. And the present includes patrons who are still pissed off that we got rid of the VHS collection. The challenges libraries face are numerous, but as a library director, here are four issues I’m following closely.
Dumb Weeding Decisions
The past six months have seen a spate of stories in the media about libraries making foolish decisions in weeding their collections. For those of you not up on your library lingo, weeding is the systematic removal of items from the library’s collection. Other people call this “throwing things out.”
The most infamous recent weeding report came from the Urbana Free Library in Illinois, where purportedly all nonfiction titles over 10 years old were removed to facilitate RFID tagging. Understandably, the story generated a public outcry.
Weeding requires the same care as acquiring materials. Libraries need a solid weeding policy that is available to the public, and the work has to be conducted by librarians who know both their collections and their communities. The typical targets are materials that are out-of-date (pre-2008 investment guides), worn out or dog-eared, or have outlived their usefulness (Touch Me: the Poems of Suzanne Somers, 1980). Libraries with healthy budgets have to deal with multiple copies of older bestsellers.
I’m not concerned about the few libraries that are making dumb weeding decisions. It’s unfortunate for their communities, but it’s hardly an epidemic. What worries me is the chilling effect these stories are having on the rest of us. Already, bowing to the occasional outcry in the media about libraries throwing away books, librarians on social media are reporting that they are backing off from weeding.
But not weeding a collection is the fastest way to bring Godin’s dismal warehouse metaphor to life.
Cramming shelves so tight that books can’t be removed doesn’t facilitate use, it encourages giving up. Keeping every mystery novel the library has purchased—abdicating our role in shaping a collection—impedes browsing. Classics, whose bindings split in half when you open them, along with CDs that skip, need to be replaced.
Today, more than ever, library users expect collections to be in good physical shape and responsive to their interests and needs. If they aren’t engaged by what we have to offer, it’s likely they will never return.
The Not-Quite-Digital Age
If you follow the hype, the digital revolution in reading has been as inexorable as it has been rapid. Some libraries have responded by investing heavily in e-books—no matter the cost per title. The result is that these libraries often end up purchasing fewer titles overall—with less popular but still-valuable material getting short shrift—as well as fewer copies per title. Who loses here? Authors and readers.
Other libraries have begun to reinvent their physical spaces in expectation of contracting print collections. But throughout this digital revolution, libraries have seen significant growth in the circulation of their physical media, especially books and DVDs. And that growth isn’t abating. How do we explain this?
It’s hard to say, in part because we know so little about how and why readers choose the formats they do. It could be that many library users are willing to move between print and digital based on availability—there is certainly plenty of anecdotal evidence to back this up. Or, perhaps they choose digital for certain activities, like traveling, just as some readers select audiobooks for their commutes. It may well be that many readers, given the choice, prefer print—a preference that isn’t likely tied to age.
Of course we need e-books in our collection. To meet digital readers at least part way, to let our community know we’re in the game, or to gauge how our public is responding to the format. But why are some libraries drastically rescoping their print collections based on a future that may never arrive—or, at least, not as we imagine it?
For my library, I’m willing to hedge my bets and play catch-up when, and if, the time comes.
It would be great if adult books could get a boost from our national organization, the American Library Association (ALA). But that doesn’t look like it is going to happen any time soon.
God knows ALA has plenty of opportunities. Its membership produces both the Notable Books list of the 25 best books of the year and the Reading List, which highlights the best genre titles. But I believe that ALA puts too little muscle behind either list, and its influence remains locked in libraryland.
It’s no secret that many librarians—especially library managers and leaders—have long been conflicted about the library’s role in distributing books and supporting readers. Yes, these are our bread-and-butter activities. And yes, they pay the bills. “But aren’t we more than this?” has been the barely suppressed cry.
In the past few years, ALA has taken up civic engagement as its “more than” cause. Two presidents have made it their theme, numerous grants have been secured, and yet another initiative, the ALA Center for Civic Life, was founded—it’s currently starting a national conversation about mental health.
No doubt Americans need to talk about these pressing, serious, and—let’s face it—pretty dull issues. And creating civic engagement is no walk in the park. ALA provides four webinars to get you up to speed as a moderator. But how do you develop audiences for these discussions? It’s easy to generate involvement when the issue is schools, or zoning—everyone wants in. But getting people to put down the remote and join a community forum on mental health is a whole lot harder.
In a time when library staff levels have declined and resources are limited, I want more support for programming that builds on the activities we’re invested in and have expertise in: the creation of collections and the discussion of books and other media.
The best forum for civic engagement I have ever witnessed was the series of “One Book, One Community” events, begun by Nancy Pearl back in 1998 with “If All Seattle Reads the Same Book,” and still going strong throughout the country. The genius of these programs, which were initially well supported by ALA, is the way they bring together folk from across the community to discuss serious issues—under the guise of a book discussion—while demonstrating that those books in the warehouse are anything but dead.
In fact, it’s amazing how a supposedly dead book can come down from the shelf and change lives.
Often, users will tell me how much they love the library I work in. For a long time I thought people were just being polite—I’m the library director, after all. But while I’m proud of our library, and especially the work of my colleagues, I’ve stopped taking these remarks for granted. Now I ask, “Why?”
This is messy, qualitative data—and you don’t have to believe me—but one theme keeps emerging: how unique we are.
It’s really no surprise. Public libraries, with their quasi-utopian vision, have always offered the world something different. But today, when so many public spaces have become commodified, free learning opportunities have dwindled, and there are fewer chances to meet your neighbors, what we offer really is unique.
But what users return to again and again is our collections. Just the other day a teen—who sadly enough had never been in a bookstore—told me he didn’t know there were so many graphic novels in the world until he saw our collection. Not everyone shares his eye-bugging level of enthusiasm. But users of all ages return to browsing, searching, and interacting with our books and media as the key reason they love the library.
In a world dominated by Amazon, and where retail outlets continue to contract, the chance to physically interact with books and media is becoming too rare. But as we construct the make-it-happen library, with digital media labs and community spaces, let’s not forget the pleasure and learning that comes from interacting with the books and media we already have.
We can all share the road.