16 January 2013

What Public Libraries Could Do: Besides Everything That They Are Already Doing

I always love a headline that presumes to inform an entire profession about what else it could be doing. Because librarians aren't doing much of anything out there--no programs, no reader's advisory, no stretching dollars, no research or reference requests, no accommodations of the public and community... This may get a little more ranty than I usually am on this blog, but reading the second part of this post from David Vinjamuri at Forbes ("Why Public Libraries Matter: And How They Can Do More") got my hackles up in so many ways.

The two-part article is a discussion of public libraries versus publishers, as that "conflict" is what the complicated dynamic of ebooks, digital publishing, and access has been boiled down to. Libraries cannot provide enough ebooks for their patrons or scrounge up the money for enough copies of Gone Girl to go around, and publishers are nickel-and-diming libraries and suggesting that if they do provide us with ebook access, our patrons will either pirate the copies or never buy another book again and the whole industry will go down in a blaze of un-glory.

I think I have that about right, right?

Yes, publishers and libraries do have problems, but we are working on solutions, even if it's not always visible. What I take issue with in Vinjamuri's article, however, are some of the "solutions" he suggests and overreaching assumptions that he has made about public libraries.

You Know What They Say About Assumptions

"[P]ublic libraries cost just $42 per citizen each year to maintain." As my colleague Katie Dunneback stated on Twitter, "I know libraries that would kill to have that much money." It's not clear how he arrived at this statistic. Plus, what does "maintain" mean? Does that cover the rising costs of staff, technology, costs for programs, building maintenance and upgrades and the very books that Vinjamuri states are so very important?

"Public libraries for their part have been slow to react to the dramatic changes in publishing and reading that threaten their ability to fulfill their core mission of promoting reading. By focusing too heavily on giving patrons access to bestsellers and popular movies, libraries risk missing the significant opportunity afforded by the explosion in the number of new books published each year."

Wait, what? We are "slow to react"? I think it is pretty clear that libraries, to the extent that they can be, are filled with innovators who provide information and entertainment to their communities and beyond. We have had format changes, technology booms, and a mashup of the two--think ereader lending programs--indicating that libraries are more than willing to adapt and stay current. 

I won't deny that a shift toward focusing mostly on "give the patron what they want" has happened in some libraries--but not all libraries. However, all libraries have space and budgetary limits on what they can provide within their walls, and it would be irresponsible to use that limited budget on items that patrons aren't requesting. Librarians augment their collections by doing outreach in-person and online.

New Book Discovery--Piece of Cake!

"Public libraries risk missing the opportunities of an important trend: the explosion of published books . . . The problem is that by focusing on books that patrons already wanted, libraries de-emphasized their important role in the discovery of new books."

I won't claim that this is completely untrue, however with reference to "give them what they want," every library needs a way to hook a patron. I think that always begins with this edict: if they aren't there to find what they want, we do not have a starting point to discover what else they need. This is the job of reference and reader's advisory. This is what libraries use as the building blocks for marketing, programming, and outreach.

"Current eBook providers are customer driven and if 3M and Overdrive begin hearing from multiple libraries that they want access to a broader selection of indie press and self-published titles they will most likely get it."

Right . . . yet in the preceding and next paragraph the author indicates that having access to these same titles is a problem because we have no way to find reviews about them. But wait! He has the answer to that too!

The Librarian Reviewing Machine

"If each library were to review just one unique book a month, as a group they would cover 192,000 titles in a year. That’s 58% of the total books published for 2010. Many of these books could be reviewed quickly: they are poorly written, unedited and lacking any redeeming virtues. Perhaps one in ten would be worthy of a detailed review. Yet if each library discovered just one interesting book a year – and shared that result with other libraries who could review and rate those interesting books there would be 16,000 interesting books for libraries to review. If we assume that just one in one hundred of those reviewed books are “great” libraries would still have discovered 160 great new books to recommend to library patrons each year."

See, most of these books aren't "great" anyway and not worth anyone's time, except someone should read them and tell everyone that. 

"None of this requires more work than libraries do today."

No? Why is that?

"Librarians routinely read books just for the purpose of deciding whether to recommend them to patrons."

This smacks a little bit of the "librarians just read all day" stereotype, even if there may be a glaze of truth. 

"...coordination would not be difficult to arrange, nor would it require a mandate or any significant funding. It would just require a website with a list of new titles and links accessible only to real people working in real libraries."

Since we spend all of our time reading anyway, we should just take each book we real librarians read and write a review about it, then put it up on this giant website that is accessible to all libraries and their staff, and that is just no problem at all!

What Can Be Done?

I understand that a lot of my reaction is just that, a reaction. I am not throwing out statistics from the latest Pew research stating what parts of Vinjamuri's article are correct and what parts are not. I am not even claiming that I am right. 

However, being confronted with a lot of ill-informed ideas on "how libraries should do it" is enough to frustrate anyone. There are definitely good points in the article about ebooks, publishers, and the role of libraries in literacy and their communities. Libraries are more than book warehouses, they are community hubs. Patrons expect to find what they need, or they will not come back. Whether it is critical information or a leisurely respite, libraries have become places that can provide aid in many different ways. It's true that there's always something more that "could" be done. I doubt that any library is doing 110% all day every day to make sure the needs of their patrons are being met, but honestly, with budgets and bureaucracy and public opinion, which one really can?