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Tuesday, February 25, 2014

What is a Library, and Why?

(This post is evolved and expanded from a comment I made on a friend's Facebook page).

The above photo is circulating on Facebook currently, with the following caption:

"You want to photograph me eating chicken?"
"Well, if I let you, I need you to help me deliver a message."
"What's that?"
"I work at this library. And before that, I was coming here for twenty years. It's my favorite place in the world. As many people know, the main reading room of this library is supported by seven floors of books, which contain one of the greatest research collections in the world. Recently, the library administration has decided to rip out this collection, send the books to New Jersey, and use the space for a lending library. As part of the consolidation, they are going to close down the Mid-Manhattan Library Branch as well as the Science, Industry, and Business Library. When everything is finished, one of the greatest research libraries in the world will become a glorified internet cafe. Now read that back to me."

I'm not sure whether the gentleman being quoted is a librarian or a part-time staff member. I'm not even certain whether this quote is real or just made up, though given that this guy appears to be in his 20's or early 30's, I'm inclined to believe it's fake. If the library in question is in fact a research library, he's been going there since he was in his early teens at the oldest? Somehow I doubt it.

But let's roll with it. What I am sure of is that regardless of whether it's true, the message is written by someone who really...really doesn't get it. 

So this research collection is being sent to another institution. Sad? Yes. Well, actually, really, it's not even that sad. It's not as though the collection is being mothballed or destroyed. It's just getting moved to a different library. So it may be sad for the residents of Manhattan, but change happens.

Now, it is very sad that a few branches look like they're going to close with whatever consolidation is going on. That makes my heart hurt and it is unfortunately something that's happening all too often, but is mostly happening to libraries that refuse to evolve, and/or in communities that are not supportive of their library systems.  When the Carnegie Library system here in Pittsburgh was in danger of closing branches because our financially-beleaguered City Council could not uphold their "in perpetuity" funding agreement to Andrew Carnegie when one accounted for inflation, the entire community rallied and went so far as to approve a 0.1 mil (miniscule and not even noticeable by the vast majority of Pittsburghers) property tax increase, which went on to generate well over a million dollars annually for the library system. Perhaps New York should look at a similar strategy (expanded possibly to a miniscule rental tax?). Think about how much money a meager 5 bucks a year (41 cents a month) from each New Yorker would raise for the New York public library system. 

But I digress.

Talking of change happening, and speaking as someone who is (I can finally and happily say) a career librarian, libraries are no longer buildings with books. If they remain solely buildings with books, they will ALL close down. Libraries MUST evolve and change to survive in this day and age--I would argue, in fact, that despite the etymology of the word, libraries have NEVER been "buildings with books." What a library is, and always has been, is a center of information exchange and information archiving. Equating that solely with books is a gross misunderstanding at best, a logical fallacy at worst. Electronic delivery of information is the "industry standard" in society, as it were. Libraries having something in common with Internet cafes is not necessarily a bad thing, all told.

"So, then," you ask, "Why bother with libraries at all, when I can just Google what I want?"

"Google can bring you back 100,000 answers," Neil Gaiman answers. "A librarian can bring you back the right one."

At one point in time, information was best delivered by books. Hence, libraries were repositories of books. Delivery of information has evolved; so must libraries, which now serve as community hubs, gathering places, meeting facilities, and facilitators of all manner of information exchange.

In addition, assuming (based largely, let's face it, on skewed statistics you get from a Google search) that everyone has easy access to the Internet is also a patent falsehood. Libraries are what provide this easy access to the Internet and the technology to access it (read: computers, tablets, and e-readers) for MANY people.

Also consider that what this gentleman's message is not saying is that, in all likelihood, this "unparalleled research collection" is probably 90% WAY out of date.

I also find it difficult to understand how "use the space for a lending library" equates to "will become a glorified Internet cafe."

In the same way that public libraries are no longer stuffy institutions where children are shushed and only the academic elite hold sway, libraries no longer are solely book-centric. Do we love books? Hell, yes! You'd be hard-pressed to find a librarian who isn't a bibliophile. But this message is just the disgruntled ravings of a grognard who doesn't get it and is afraid of change. If you take the time to do the research, what libraries are evolving into is extremely exciting and will ensure that, yes, you will actually have a repository for real books for many, many years to come.

As a final thought, converting the space to a lending library says to me that they're increasing accessibility to the public, rather than focusing on stuffy academic-types. After 15 years of working in Universities, I've about had it with stuffy academic types. Kudos to doing something that will attract the general public to a higher degree, and possibly ensure the survival of the institution for many years to come.

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