Nov 3, 2011

The Local Library: Doomed or Just Acting a Little Bit Different?

Amazon Announces Plan to Wipe out 2/3 of Librarians

Take One Out for a Drink: She'll Need It After This

Some Libraries to Remain / Most Will Fade to Memory

Move over, movie rental stores and record shops: you're about to get some company. Public libraries are set to join you on the near-extinct species list as digital tech continues to run wild with its viscous stablemate, the rampaging beast commonly called Creative Destruction

The proverbial straw that will break this camel's back was unveiled today in Seattle, with Amazon announcing that it will start renting books. Pay $79 to join their Prime program, which acts as a sort of new wave library card where you can then download e-books to your Kindle on a "you don't own it, you're only using it for awhile" basis. Yes, the selection is limited at this time and it is limited to one title per month, but take our word for it: this will change.

We are likely looking here at the new standard of book publishing. Some free advice to library boards across the nation: start working on a shut down plan.

This will start (+/or accelerate) discussions of the role of a local library within a community. Founded on the most noble of intentions -- to offer up a substantial subset of the written word to the masses -- we are now at a point of asking whether "its time has passed."

In addressing that query, it is first necessary to analyze the ways in which the typical local library functions today. Is it still providing that initial mission? If not, what mission IS it fulfilling? Let's roll the tape...

Last week, I spent time in two distinctly different localities in upstate New York: Saratoga Springs and the Village of Lake George. The former is a small city with a busier-than average downtown area while the former is already a winter season ghost town. In both places, I spent time in the library.

One was big, the other was tiny in size. One was busy, one was empty. You can guess which is which. One had a fairly decent selection of new and legacy titles, the other had a small inventory of mostly long-forgotten titles. Ditto, ditto. A staff of 15+ manned Saratoga, while a single friendly individual was more than enough to (wo)man that ship in L-G. Those were the differences.

But what they had in common was this: most people coming thru the doors didn't go anywhere near the bookshelves. Those locations were dead zones. Similarly, few (if any) seemed involved in nose-to-the parchment research at the seating areas. What, then, were the patrons (as library folks tend to call their facility's users) doing in there? Here are some of the common observations:

1. Reading papers and magazines

2. Using broadband

3. Staying warm (homeless, bored, elderly or unemployed people)

4. Waiting for their parents to pick them up on their way home from work (doing homework or socializing with friends or playing video games in a special room designed for just that).

I'm sure the library industry (or their local membership) will deny my observation as being valid, but I would challenge them to show me the figures that say otherwise. Sure, you have a lot of books being borrowed, you counter? Maybe in Saratoga (because of its unique characteristics and facility), but not in a small one-room schoolhouse type of setting like Lake George or many thousands of others scattered in Smallburgh, USA. But even Saratoga would have a hard time convincing me that most people are in there hunting for books.

Assuming that my observations are, indeed, valid: we are faced with a Truth in Advertising dilemma here. Given that libraries are primarily funded thru their own local property tax assessment, are we sure of true transparency here? Are the taxpayers/voters aware that they are subsidizing not only book purchases and salaries, but are also funding certain aspects the city/town's off-the-books homeless services, net access and teenage daycare needs?

I watched a woman basically set up her virtual office and go about conducting a full plate of business (including a VoIp phone call to a customer!) while I was sitting beside her. All in a comfy chair in a private cubicle at 75 degrees with full access to power and WiFi. How does the 75yo homeowner on the other side of town feel about subsidizing this activity, or subsidizing the kids downstairs playing Guitar Hero?

The nut is this: the game has changed, so the library profession has needed to change the rules of engagement to justify its existence -- and staffing, salaries, facilities and operating budgets. With the "come check out our books" service offering now being met with a lack of demand (for a lot of reasons, not just Kindle and Amazon), the metric is now foot traffic. So, the kid coming in the door at 3PM to swap spit with his girlfriend in the corner is of value (two bodies counted right there). Same with our one-gal corp in the cubicle and the homeless guy taking a bath in the sink. They are contributing to the new numbers of merit.

Yes, the role of the library has changed. For good or bad, it has adapted to survive AND re-designed its own report card. Some of the more progressive ones (like Saratoga) have moved to fill the place with a full calendar of community meetings and events in its various public rooms. This changes its role to more of a community center than the original "words for the masses", but it is still of community value. But let's just be honest about it and face the new reality.

Meanwhile, the small outpost in Lake George doesn't have a chanceof succeeding in that new definition. It doesn't have the meeting space -- heck: it doesn't even have the local demand for those spaces. Nor does it have the space for the latchkey kids in the afternoon and those plugging in their notebooks to put in a day at the office are just running up their NiMo bill. It therefore remains stuck in the old paradigm of book lendng with Amazon today basically saying "thanks, but we'll take it from here".

Repeat for every similar library in begone communities on the map, and another piece of Americana has just been flushed downtown.



Raining Iguanas said...

I'm still grieving the loss of the,"Bookmobile." Another honest post of reality here.

Da Joker said...

Why did the librarian slip and fall on the library floor?

Because she was in the non-friction section.

Why is that library book you're trying to find always in the last place you look?

Because once you find it, you stop looking.

He's Back said...



We were lead to believe fudge would be served said...

The little library in my Ville has a staff on one and a half. One newspaper arrives daily. Books are outdated and of zero interest. Subscribes to maybe 10 mag's. Never see anyone using the place, except maybe to use the one PC that's actually working.

It's a rather sad place. But so is the whole town.