Wednesday, April 13, 2011

No, Thank You!

As you may have noticed from the enormous sign behind our circulation desk, this week is National Library Week. From April 10 to the 16, librarians will be cheer leading about libraries to let non-librarians know how vital librarians and libraries are to their lib... uh, lives. In simplified terms: "WOO-HOO! WE ARE AWESOME! YOU SHOULD LOVE US!"

And that's entirely true. Libraries are awesome. And many of you already love us (you must to be reading a library oriented blog... or you are a librarian yourself) and for that we are extremely grateful. But the flip side of National Library Week is a large number of articles which say something to the effect of "Libraries: Remember them?" or "They aren't just for books anymore!" Inevitably these articles will talk of 3 things:

1) Childhood memories of dusty books and matronly ladies with cat glasses. Continuously using these outdated reference points to speak of libraries is like opening every conversation about a Prius with a description of a Model T. They aren't relevant anymore. The card catalog became a source of scratch paper well over a decade ago. If you consider the speed of change in modern society, that might as well be a century. Contrary to popular belief, libraries aren't decrepit relics reaching their ghastly hands out to catch the tail end of the future. We exist firmly in the present (or perhaps a year or two behind it). Which leads to point #2.

2) They have computers! Ugh. It's 2011. Of course we have computers. In related news, we have indoor plumbing and electricity as well. Again this "shock" comes from an old notion that libraries are for books. Books are old fashioned, therefore computers are anathema to libraries, right? Wrong. This is a problematic assumption. Libraries are not "for books". We are "for information." And more to the point, we are for "community access to information."

Books are excellent things. I love them to pieces. But in the world of information, books are only one continent. And even then, a single library could only be a tiny country of that continent (to extend the metaphor too far). If our mission is to provide access to information, we'd be rather myopic to limit it just to books. So yes, we have computers to help you get to all those other lands of data and entertainment. And we've had them since the days of Netscape Navigator and Yahoo as the #1 search engine. You know... like a decade/century ago.

[Before we move on, the other variation of "They have computers!" is "They have DVDs!" This too should not be shocking since we've had movies and music for most every format that's come out. Except for laser discs because those were just silly.]

And finally the trifecta occurs when the author brings up-

3) Are libraries relevant in a digital world? After all, isn't a reference librarian just like a google search? And can't people download our collection to their Kindles and Nooks and iPhones, etc? To answer that respectively, sort of if that librarian cared little of quality and accuracy, and yes if you can afford such nifty devices and the content to put on them.

And this is the heart of National Library Week and the well intentioned (though somewhat stereotypical) articles that come out during it. Libraries don't exist in order to hoard books. We don't open our doors to allow you to use computers. We don't live or die by format choices. Those things are part of our services, but not our purpose. Our purpose is to serve our communities in the best way possible.

Libraries are nothing without the people who use them. And not just because you pay to keep us open with your tax dollars (though it is a bit cliche to remind us of that if engaged in a dispute). If our community values us, we thrive and do great things together. If they don't, we wither. National Library Week should be less about us telling you what we can do for you or how high our circ rates are and more of a dialog about what you want from us. Because that's who we're here for. You.

So let me conclude by saying "WOO-HOO. YOU ARE AWESOME. WE LOVE YOU."

posted by jw