No, this isn’t my survey results post just yet. I think that will turn into a weekend endeavor. But in the meantime…
I’ve been following several interesting topics and/or discussions in the past couple of days. And I find myself wondering, as I always do, how these various threads fit together, or if they fit together. I guess I like to make connections, particularly when it comes to library-related posts because there’s such a wide variety of opinion out there regarding the direction in which libraries should be going and why.
The first post that caught my eye this week was this one from AL, aka Annoyed Librarian, and the discussion that ensued, which was revealing and somewhat disturbing, at least to me. The post in a nutshell (although you should read it for complete understanding) was that libraries should concentrate less on collecting and promoting popular material and more on building and promoting collections of material that people “should” (direct quote from the post) read or “[books containing] information that people really should have to be well-informed citizens” (a direct quote from a comment). The gist was that the library should return to its roots as The People’s University. And most people posting to the discussion agreed.
The next post that caught my eye was one from Dr. Steve Matthews over at 21st Century Library Blog. It was an excellent post (as always) but what it did mostly was remind me (in light of the AL post cited above) of something that Dr. Matthews has been saying for a long time, and what he pointed out in this comment to one of my posts:
“The problem arises when our wants become more important than those of our customers. Unfortunately, I’m reading more of that attitude toward ‘librarians know best’ type of service, which is a throwback to the 19th Century elitist librarian.“
Do libraries (or librarians) have an identity crisis? Should we be a cultural/educational haven for what I suppose would be the relatively few that would be interested in that, or should we be more inclusive and not make judgments about what people should be reading or why? Or why can’t we be both? And really, this just takes into consideration our collections. And libraries are supposed to be about more than their collections.
Jean Costello correctly points out that “Library funders maintain their support because they associate libraries with the aspirations you listed. A key finding of OCLC’s 2008 report, From Awareness to Funding, is that library funding support is only marginally related to library visitation. So, many funders have not visited a public library in a while. They probably do not realize how little daily operations of a contemporary library align with the aspirational values they associate with the institution.”
I remember this report very well because our System was lucky enough to have a personal presentation by an OCLC representative about this report since one of our member libraries’ directors–Herb Landau, then director of the Milanof-Schock Library in Mount Joy, Pennsylvania, Best Small Library in America, 2006 (now director of Lancaster Public Library) was involved in the preparation of this report.) And I remember quite clearly that the “Superfunders” were those who had idealistic visions for the library and what its aspirational values should be.
However, libraries are not funded by private, “Superfunders” alone. They are funded by local, state, and sometimes federal government money. And I’m not sure that a county commissioner would have the same lofty vision for libraries and take that into consideration at budget time when funding decisions are being made. I think local and state government entities want to see that libraries are directly helping the communities in which they reside and addressing customer needs. As Jean pointed out, Supefunders do not walk through our doors. Our customers do. So a library that meets the vision of its Superfunders may not be very well populated or well-used and then local and state funding would go down even more than it already has.
That said, I know that Jean is coming from a place of advocating for some form of a National Public Library, much like national public television or radio. And that’s another discussion entirely–one that I’m not necessarily opposed to, either.
It brought to my mind yet another post, this one from Will Manley over at Will Unwound, “Big and Little” in which Will asks the question, “Who is more important: Big (thinkers) or little (do-ers)? Most commenters aptly pointed out that we need both.
Is the whole debate about what libraries should be simply a division between the “big” thinkers and the “smaller-picture” thinkers? Are lofty idealism and practicality mutually exclusive? Or is this a false dichotomy?
As always, I like to ask the questions because it’s not for me to say. However, I believe it is something for all of us to think about. Should all public libraries be on the same page as an institution, or should each library decide its own mission based upon its communities’ needs? Or is there a middle ground where we can act as a “People’s University” that is not elitist but rather takes into account that user needs have in many ways fundamentally changed from days gone by. Can we not educate without dictating values or eliminating “popular” material from our collections?
And can we, please, have these kinds of discussions with respect for all viewpoints and a willingness to listen to each other? Because that’s where the best ideas come from–compromise, collaboration, and open minds.