Lost was my all-time, favorite show ever. It grabbed me from the minute Jack opened his eyes on that island until the moment he closed them for good. It had everything–a great cast, great location, great story, great music, great characters, great writing. It made you think and wonder and remember and question. It was smart and sexy and funny and endearing. It mixed philosophy with sci-fi and with action and with human drama. It was so good that I don’t even really want to find another show that I like as well, or the unthinkable, better.
This post started out as one big analogy between libraryland (still hate that term but it works well here) and Lost. It didn’t take long for me to figure out just how cheesy that would become, real fast. (Think the “Others” wanting to preserve the integrity of the island as those librarians who want to preserve the “integrity” of the institution known as the library, versus the survivors who wanted off the island just as those librarians that question the relevancy of libraries now and in the future want something different.) See? Cheesy.
Instead, Lost in Libraryland refers to a feeling that I have after following some furious blogging about ebooks and vendor deceit, library manipulation, and violation of privacy, etc. (See Librarian by Day, Librarian in Black, The Annoyed Librarian, Agnostic, Maybe, etc.) As Liz Lemon would say, what the what? Why are we wrapped up in the issues we’re wrapped up in? Should we be? Or should we be directing our efforts elsewhere? What’s in the hatch? (Ha. Kidding.)
Contrast the posts referenced above with posts by James Weinheimer, Seth Godin, Andy Woodworth, and 21st Century Library Blog which all basically address the same thing in different ways–a need to inject imagination, innovation, creativity, etc., into our profession and the need to restore luster to something that once had a glorious shine–the public library.
As I wrote about last month, I feel as if we are at a crucial juncture in determining the future of the public library. One of the commenters on my post referred to Jim Collins’ Good to Great Principles and his Hedgehog concept theory, which boils down to, “What can we do better than anybody else?” We need a Hedgehog. We need a way off the island.
I don’t know what that is, for sure. But I’m pretty sure it’s not cornering the market on ebooks, and as a cataloger I’m certain it’s not RDA (not a fan). I’m pretty sure it doesn’t have anything to do with programming or hours or even funding, per se. It has do to with mindset. What is a library now? What should it be? And I’m talking about public libraries only here because while academic libraries have their own issues (see this by Andy Woodworth about the rising cost of library journal subscriptions, among others), I’m pretty sure that their inherent value to their communities, which are colleges and universities, isn’t in quite as much question as is our inherent value to the public. I could be wrong about that, though. And school libraries, I know, are in some danger, too. But I don’t know enough about those details to include them in this discussion.
What aren’t public libraries? Well, we aren’t the fastest, easiest way to access the latest information, books, DVDs, CDs, or digital resources, that’s for sure. We aren’t cutting edge, and we aren’t very “cool” either. We use and offer technology, yes. But we aren’t exactly a bastion for technological innovation.
What does set us apart? Two things as I see it–our stuff is free (and stuff includes our collections, services, programs, etc.), and libraries have librarians.
So what’s wrong with our stuff? Well, nothing, in and of itself (aside from lack of resources to buy more stuff) but maybe there’s something wrong with where our stuff is housed. I’m incredulous when I hear librarians complaining about noisy children and unruly teenagers and not allowing food and/or drink; insisting that the library is “a special place” “different.” Why? Why is it special or different from any other public building? It is no longer a place where people go to just read or do research or study. It is not hallowed ground. Why is it necessary for the library as place to be quiet-ish? There should be quiet rooms, yes, if that’s possible, but why does the atmosphere have to be stuffy? People are there to use the computers, right? And they take our “stuff” home, for the most part. Nobody needs or wants quiet for that. Who needs quiet–the users or the librarians? Shouldn’t the atmosphere in a library reflect activity and life and enthusiasm and vigor? I’m sure there are noisy libraries out there–perhaps many–but I know of many that are indeed stuffy-ish.
If you can’t afford to put a coffee bar in your library (and how many small libraries can, really, or even have the space?) then maybe think about having a coffee pot or Urn, and offer styrofoam cups and powdered creamer (I know! Time and money!). Well then at least allow people to bring their own covered drinks into the library. Welcome that venti, skinny, decaf caramel macchiato, no whip with open arms, as long as it has a lid! Do you allow young children to have sippee cups? Same thing! Have one area at least where food is allowed, too. Let your patrons bring a muffin through the front door, people! I know many libraries are doing these things, but many still aren’t. And it’s true that some of our buildings (through no fault of our own) are just not pleasant places due to age, deterioration, lack of climate control, etc.
Okay, then what’s wrong with our librarians? I’m not about to get into some of the personality issues that some librarians have, which may very well be part of the problem with librarians. So instead, let’s look at the standard definition of “librarian.” According to Merriam-Webster, a librarian is a “specialist in the care or management of a library.” Really? Is that what we are? Just managers of libraries? ‘Cause if that’s what we are, then we are screwed (I feel I should use that word since it’s been used a lot recently.) I’d argue that’s not nearly all we are, though. We are professional information junkies. We live and breathe information access. We live and breathe finding answers to questions. We’re mostly curious, and open-minded, and value the democratic principles upon which we were founded. We are more than gatekeepers for our stuff!
So what should the library of today be? According to a recent OCLC study, most people (surveyed) believe that our brand is still books. I don’t think our brand can be books forever, and if our brand cannot be “books” forever, and I’m talking about books in any form, including ebooks, then what will our brand be? It’s not going to based on our stuff, I don’t think. It’s going to be us. Librarians will be our brand. We offer people not only free access to stuff, but free access to trained, educated, information professionals.
Jamie LaRue had it right when he said, librarians will not survive if they stay in the building (Mr. LaRue has so many good ideas, read on here). We are always looking for ways to market our “stuff.” Getting better deals on our stuff. Providing better access to our stuff. But do we ever really put any effort into marketing ourselves? WE are what’s unique to libraries.
Can’t we take this strength and carry it into our communities? Ask to speak at non-library events held by non-library organizations in order to showcase our talents and knowledge about information access in the 21st century and NOT ask for money and NOT tell people what they can do for us. But to ask instead, what can we, librarians, do for you? How can we best use our limited resources, limited staff, but unlimited potential to best serve your needs?
The people who come to our buildings want our stuff, mostly. Maybe the people who don’t come to our buildings, need US. They just don’t know it yet. Why should a business or a government entity or any organization pay a consultant tons of money to do research and find answers when quite possibly we, as librarians, could do that for them for free? It’s what we love to do! Find answers!
Maybe what’s really getting lost in libraryland are librarians. If we make our environments a bit more enticing in whatever ways are possible, keep buying as much stuff as we can with the best deals we can get, find managers for the “stuff”, and send librarians out and about to become integral to the community, then maybe when funding decision time comes around, people will say, “What? Don’t fund the library? Impossible! We need those librarians!”
A fantasy, like Lost? Maybe. But I think it’s our best bet.