A Response to Seth Godin's Post on Libraries

Seth Godin's "The Future of the Library" post, short as it was, certainly threw out some broad generalities and judgments. It ruffled quite a few librarian feathers ("ORLY? Information is free? That's not what all my INVOICES say!"), and made us question ourselves. If Seth (if I may call him by his first name), who is all about info and a friend to many librarians, doesn't get what it is that we do, who will? Obviously the message is not getting out. It would help if we had scantily-clad bosomy girls like GoDaddy. (Actually, even boring commercials might do to raise awareness, but who has the budget for that?)

In any case, I thought I'd add my voice to those responding to Godin's post. (Why not, right?) I've excerpted and bolded a few of Seth's comments, and follow those with my commentary. I'll preface all of this with the statement that I think (this is me projecting, here) that Seth is very much for libraries and is challenging - and encouraging - us to remain relevant. So the kerfluffle is really from those librarians who are taking on this challenge, and feel their efforts aren't recognized, avalanched and buried instead under misconceptions and benign ignorance of how libraries work and what libraries do.

"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.)" Well, to be quite honest, this is what the library has been for a long time. Particularly in economic times like these, when folks can't afford to buy what they put in their Amazon.com cart, the library does come in handy as a repository of materials (not just books). In fact, my public library (the Eva Perry branch of the Wake County Public Libraries) actually advertises how their circulation translates to taxpayers savings compared to the cost if taxpayers had bought all the copies that folks were checking out of the library, and it comes in way under what the taxpayer contribution is. It's not a matter of not *wanting* to own the books in the library. Librarians don't buy books for the collection that are expected to never circulate (unless you're at an ARL *grin*). In fact, a lot of the public librarians I speak with lament that their collections budget is far outstripped by the requests they receive from patrons. And no, it's not just books. It's ebooks, audio books, DVDs, CDs, other media formats, database subscriptions and even devices like e-readers, cameras, and voice recorders that are circulated.

Aside from the materials the library provides, have you thought about the programming? Libraries are community-funded community centers. I imagine you would be hard pressed to find a similar community-funded venue that provides programming for groups of all ages (including infants, young children, teens, young adults, senior citizens) and all interests (technology, reading, arts and crafts, writing), mostly for free (aside from occasionally the cost of materials).

(I suppose my short answer could have been "If your library is buying books you don't want, and that's ALL they're offering, yes, you're right, they're doing it wrong. They should look at the 95% of other public libraries in the country and take a lesson.")

"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." Erm, Seth? Maybe you should make some new librarian friends. Are these same librarians also telling you that print circ is up along with DVDs, audiobooks, ebooks and everything else? (That's the case in my library here in NC. And my home library back in NY where I grew up. And the Kentucky library that kept me in trashy romances for nearly 10 years while I schooled and worked there.) Well, probably not, if they're complainers. Sounds like these folks are unhappy with being public librarians and serving the wants of the, um, public. And if their "number one thing" they're delivering is DVDs, and they're not telling you about the programming they're doing to help people update their resumes, learn or update technology skills, or various other workshops that interest folks (like genealogy, bringing in local authors for booktalks or writing workshops, and more), then I would ask you to please tell the librarians you're talking to to get the hell out of the library, because they're exactly what we don't need.

"Here's my proposal: train people to take intellectual initiative. Seth, here I agree with you wholeheartedly. Your proposal was (and is) accepted by the majority of librarians doing an excellent job with shite for a budget. Agree with you here, and call for any librarian who doesn't see this as part of the library's mission anyway to step down and make room. The library has long been the poor man's university, the librarian the one who can enhance that experience. Most of the librarians I know hold this near and dear to their hearts.

"Once again, the net turns things upside down. The information is free now. No need to pool tax money to buy reference books." Hrm. Given that I read Seth's blog, and that he seems to be more in touch with the info world than most, I was surprised by this statement. I think Sarah Glassmeyer's response is the best for this one, but I'll add my incredulity to the mix. Libraries are going to be THRILLED to find out all info is free. Imagine how much more they could spend on programming and technology if they didn't have those pesky collections budgets to worry about! And the vendors will be happy to quit wasting their time and resources printing invoices. All around win!

"What we need to spend the money on are leaders, sherpas and teachers who will push everyone from kids to seniors to get very aggressive in finding and using information and in connecting with and leading others." Totally agreed, here, Seth. I would, of course, qualify that by saying "to get very aggressive in finding, *evaluating*, and using information", but I imagine we could agree on that. After all, librarians (the good ones that we should be keeping, anyway) *are* teachers. I don't know if we could get funding for sherpa lines, though ;) This is largely a matter of focusing on programming - and marketing. We can offer this sort of learning experience all day every day, but unless we get asses in the building (or tuned in to the webcast), it doesn't help much. That's the challenge most librarians are facing - how to effectively market their offerings and get people interested enough to show up after a long day of work, between errands, amid family obligations.

Also, while we should certainly spend our money on good teachers and leaders, I hope you'll allow us to keep some money aside for bodice rippers and trashy vampire romance novels. At the rate I'm going with my public library goodies, I'm reading about a book a day. And the library doesn't judge me for reading those books. They bought them for people like me. And the books are dog-eared, so they've been through more than one set of hands, and I'm sure each of us has praised the library for owning whatever book it is, so that we didn't have to buy it ourselves.

In their response, schoolingdotus points out that the library is the last truly democratic place, and highlights the importance of the library as community space. I imagine other folks (and perhaps Seth) would argue that the internet is the most truly democratic place - but then I'd have to point out the access discrepancies based on income, race, rural vs. urban location, etc. Public libraries don't require you pay a subscription. Even the local Y can't really compete, since there's a monthly fee there too. At your public library, most times, you don't even have to have a card to access the collection in-house. Everyone is free to come in off the street, grab a book, and make themselves comfortable.

I sincerely hope that Seth's post reflects his experience with his own local public library, and that he doesn't purport to think that experience with lackluster librarianship is generalizable. On the upside, he does seem to be interested in libraries (if not their materials), and that's always a good thing. It's up to the rest of us to show him - and everyone else - that libraries remain relevant and are working in areas other than book collection.

For those interested, other responses to read include those by Jill Hurst-Wahl, Dr. Joyce Valenza, Jenny Luca, and Scott McLeod.


The Hog said…
Well said Colleen. Seth seems to have stirred up quite a little hornet's nest with his recent post on the relevance of public libraries. That's what we love about him - he seems to have the knack of doing a "drive by" with some stinging comments and moving on to the next target leaving a mischievous trail of debris in his wake. But, as always, his motives do seem to be well intentioned. I think you have recognized that with a really balanced response. Only good can come out of this sort of debate.

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