1.20.2011

how to save the public library (a fry truck experience)

I have two papers due on the same day, and one of them is the most dreaded assignment for the most dreaded class of my entire degree. At least that will soon be over with! Unfortunately, though, this leaves me with little brain or time to blog.

I will use this as an opportunity to post one of my papers. The last time I posted a paper, it sparked some interesting discussion. At the very least, this will help me feel like my blog is not a total waste of pixels. Plus, this paper earned me fries! I got them yesterday. They were just the way I like them: super well-done, crispy.

This was my final paper for the course Foundations of Library and Information Science. From a choice of topics I chose this:
Select one type of library or information centre. Discuss the most serious challenges facing that institution today, paying particular attention to its foundational values, principles and assumptions. What kinds of activities (research, services, education, staffing, funding, etc) might turn these challenges into opportunities?
I've removed the citations or turned them into links where possible.

* * * *

Privatization, Digitization, and How the Public Library Can Survive:
the Four Rs

The most serious challenges facing the public library today are unchecked capitalism, the disintermediation brought by digital technologies, and the intersection of the two. This paper explores the present and potential effects of those challenges on the health and future of public libraries in North America. With a nod to the Canadian Library Association's President’s Council on the 8Rs, this paper proposes the 4Rs needed to turn these challenges into opportunities: relevancy, reinvention, raising awareness, and resistance.

The dominant economic model and social spending priorities

When discussing the challenges facing public libraries, funding generally tops the list. Funding, however, is a symptom of an underlying disease. First-world societies around the globe are suffering through drastic cutbacks of public-sector spending. In the United Kingdom, 500,000 workers will be jettisoned from public payrolls in the next four years. Widespread library closures are expected; as many as one out of every four librarians may lose her job over the next year. In the United States, cities and states cannot afford adequate public services; public libraries have resorted to charging fees, reducing hours and closing branches to survive. Although the situation is Canada is not as dire, Canadian municipalities have never recovered from the spending cuts of earlier decades. At the same time, in 2010 U.S. businesses earned profits at the highest rate since statistics have been kept, totaling $1.66 trillion in the third quarter alone. The tax structure ensures that the public coffers enjoy no corresponding rise in wealth, and a full 54% of the U.S. federal budget feeds a military-industrial complex that is largely privatized. Viewed through this lens, the public library suffers not from a mere lack of funds, but from an economic system that privileges private-sector profit over public welfare.

Digitization leading to a perception of obsolescence

The public library is also challenged by digitization and the disintermediation of the internet. In information school classes, professional journals and library blogs, one constantly encounters the question, "Can Google replace the library?". Titles such as "Where is the librarian in the digital library?" and "Competing with Google in a special library" abound. While many professions grapple with the encroachment of technology on jobs once thought to be immune to automation, librarians are unusual in the persistent gap between the librarian's understanding of her job and the public's understanding of it. Class discussions and student field reports demonstrate that library users underestimate and under-value the work of librarians, observations supported by research. While citizens may research medical or legal questions online, they still see a doctor when they are ill or hire a lawyer to represent them in court. After gathering information online, how many people consult a librarian? Indeed, our profession's core values may unintentionally contribute to our own demise, as we encourage independent information-seeking.

The perception that the internet has rendered librarians obsolete creates an easy, if mistaken, budget solution: their expensive professional salaries become a logical target for the budget axe. Without professional staff, the library becomes a mere book repository run by clerks. In several U.S. cities, human interaction has been eliminated entirely with the introduction of automated "book lockers," which resemble vending machines. The demise of the public library speaks to issues much larger than protecting our profession; it widens the digital divide. Many people depend upon the library for both computer use and internet access. Inadequate funding decreases public access to education and information – an injustice to the community, and a danger to democratic values. If we want a society that values education, inquiry, self-government and freedom of information for all citizens, regardless of socioeconomic status, then we must protect the public library as an essential service.

Four Rs: relevancy, reinvention, raising awareness, resistance

Public libraries can address this challenge with a four-pronged approach:
* relevancy – stay relevant to the community,
* reinvention – make the library an indispensable community centre,
* raising awareness – promote the reinvented library, and
* resistance – fight for a society that values public services.

Relevancy. If libraries are to continue to receive public funding, they must remain relevant to the communities they serve – a seemingly simple statement, but a complex, controversial, and sometimes contradictory mandate. Relevancy may focus on collection development, with a robust collection of popular novels and movies. Or relevancy may be framed in educational terms: Baldwin feels the "'give 'em what they want' philosophy" is a dangerous mistake, and proposes librarians become "knowledge provocateurs," helping users access "real information" through alternate news sources. For Birdi, Wilson and Tso, relevancy presupposes empathy – the human touch that distinguishes the library from an internet search engine. Not only will relevancy be defined differently by different libraries, that definition should evolve with each community's needs. Relevancy should be an ongoing conversation – a process more than a product – that includes input from users, gathered through surveys, usage tracking, focus groups, and other methods. In an era when the need for the public library is being questioned, librarians cannot afford to ignore or dismiss this discussion.

Reinvention. This paper proposes that the best way for libraries to remain relevant is to reinvent themselves as community centres – a one-stop shop, so to speak, for a variety of services tailored to the needs of its community. Free computer classes, high-speed internet access, resume workshops, education and career research, and space for book clubs are only a few obvious possibilities. McKenzie et. al study libraries that offer storytime for parents and toddlers, and a meeting space for a knitting group. Fisher, Durrance and Hinton describe the rich programs of New York City's Queens Borough Public Library (QBPL), aimed at the borough’s burgeoning and diverse immigrant population. The QBPL's workshops in language, literacy, employment, and cultural understanding offer tremendous potential for users, and position the library as an indispensable resource. In the Mississauga Library System, users can join an English conversation circle, research their ancestry, or borrow a pedometer as part of a program to encourage physical activity. The possibilities are limited only by imagination and budget, and creative programming may result in increased funding.

Raising awareness. Programs are useless if people don't know they exist. Libraries must exploit every means available to promote their programs – social networking media, community newspapers, outdoor signage, email alerts, public school visits, brochures. The QBPL, for example, distributes millions of multilingual brochures annually and taps into ethnic media outlets. We must be alert to new and creative ways to trumpet our services and present libraries as the essential service we believe they are. Combining the first three Rs – reinventing the public library as a community centre with an emphasis on relevancy, then promoting those programs in the community – will ultimately translate into more library users. More users help justify continued funding.

Resistance. The final "R" in the 4R plan is resistance, used in the political sense: actively opposing government policies that destroy public services. Rather than see ourselves in competition with other public-sector employees for a slice of a shrinking public-sector pie, we should strive to make a larger pie. Author Philip Pullman made this connection when speaking out against the massive cuts to library services announced in the U.K.:
Those who think that every expert can be replaced by a cheerful volunteer who can step in and do a complex task for nothing but a cup of tea are those who fundamentally want to see every single public service sold off, closed down, abolished. . . . [T]he delusion that has gripped every politician in the western world for 30 years or so now is that when you lower taxes, the commercial world will take care of everything. The destruction of the library service is part of a wider malaise.
This activism can take many forms – lobbying the government, working to elect representatives committed to the public sector, writing letters to newspapers, blogging, leafletting. Resistance should especially include supporting other municipal workers in their struggles – teachers, transit workers, nurses, sanitation workers. We must look beyond the issues of our own profession, and help create a society that is willing to support public services. If we want a world that values public libraries, we have to create it.

Conclusion

While it may appear that the greatest challenge facing public libraries today is a shortage of resources, the developed world has sufficient wealth to maintain stellar libraries. However, the dominant economic system impedes the adequate funding of libraries and other essential public services. If libraries are to survive and thrive, librarians must keep libraries relevant and must raise awareness of library programs within their communities. This paper proposes a reinvention of the public library as a multifaceted community centre. From a broader perspective, librarians must join the struggle to create a society that values and maintains healthy public services.

[references not linked above]

Abram, S. (2005). Competing with Google in a special library. Information Outlook, 9(11), 46-47.

Baldwin, M. (2006). Librarians as knowledge provocateurs. Verso, 11(4), 11-14.

Birdi, B., Wilson, K., & Tso, H. M. (2009). The nature and role of empathy in public librarianship. Journal of Librarianship and Information Science 41(2), 81-89.

Borgman, C. (2001). Where is the librarian in the digital library? Communications of the ACH, 44(5), 66-67.

Fisher, K., Durrance, J., & Hinton, M. (2004). Information grounds and the use of need-based services by immigrants in Queens, New York: A context based, outcome evaluation approach. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 55(8), 754-66.

Harris, R. (2008). Their little bit of ground slowly squashed into nothing: Technology, gender, and the vanishing librarian. In G. J. Leckie & J. E. Buschman (Ed.), Information Technology in Librarianship: New Critical Approaches. (pp. 165-180). Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.

McKenzie, P., Prigoda, E., Moffatt, K., & McKechnie, L. (2006). Behind the program-room door: The creation of parochial and private women’s realms in a Canadian public library. In J. E. Buschman & G. J. Leckie (Eds). The Library as place: History, community, and culture (pp. 117-134). Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.

29 comments:

Amy said...

Interesting paper, Laura. I do think that librarians do not do a good job of informing the general public about what they can do. I think most people, myself included, have a very limited idea about the skills and services provided by a librarian, especially in public libraries. I know that they have to acquire, catalog, check out and shelve books, but it would be helpful for people to know what other services they can provide. I would never have thought about asking a public librarian for research help, for example.

(I think this is less true for academic libraries, where faculty and students often rely on librarians to help with research projects, but even in those libraries, I think the skills and resources of the librarians are underutilized because people just don't know what they can expect.)

laura k said...

Amy, thanks for reading and for your comments.

I know that they have to acquire, catalog, check out and shelve books, but it would be helpful for people to know what other services they can provide. I would never have thought about asking a public librarian for research help, for example.

Allan said the same thing about research help. Librarians are highly skilled in that department. You'd be amazed at the resources they know about that you might never think of or come across.

But librarians don't check out or shelve books. I don't mean to pick on you - most library users look at everyone who works in the library as libarians. But the people who work in libraries checking out and/or shelving books are seldom (if ever) professional librarians.

Amy said...

I don't feel picked on--it's just another way that the public is misinformed about librarians! In our public library, I assume that all the people (almost all women) are "librarians." I have no clue as to who is and who isn't!

On the other hand, at my school library, I know who the research librarians are, though still have only a limited idea of what they can do. I continue to learn how much they can do and am amazed each time.

So like I said, the public needs to be educated! If Allan and I are so poorly informed, you can probably assume that is true for most people who use public libraries.

laura k said...

Yes, definitely! (I meant, I didn't mean to single you out.)

One of our projects for that class was to interview someone about their library use and reflect their responses. Almost everyone reported that their interviewees knew very little about what was available in the library and what librarians did.

When a person says they are in library school or getting a degree to become a librarian, the most common response appears to be: "You need a degree to shelve books??" Or "Do you know the alphabet? What else do they teach you in library school?"

laura k said...

On the other hand, at my school library, I know who the research librarians are, though still have only a limited idea of what they can do. I continue to learn how much they can do and am amazed each time.

For that project I mentioned, I interviewed Allan. He has done extensive research in libraries, yet also said he would not generally ask a librarian in a public library for research help. BUT he would in a "special library" (such as the Baseball Hall of Fame or Babe Ruth Museum) - just as you are more likely to in an academic library.

The public librarians are assumed to be less skilled or less knowledgeable. Yet... all librarians have the same training. It's interesting!

Amy said...

Yikes, that's awful! People really say those things???

So why is the public so ignorant? We all use libraries---we SHOULD know. We know what doctors and lawyers and engineers and teachers, etc. do---we need someone to educate the public so that we can all appreciate and take advantage of the skills of librarians!

allan said...

For that project I mentioned, I interviewed Allan. He has done extensive research in libraries, yet also said he would not generally ask a librarian in a public library for research help.

If you wanted to post some of that interview, you could.

impudent strumpet said...

I wonder though to what extent members of the general public need the full skill set of public librarians in everyday life? I use them occasionally in my job when I need to find something obscure or confirm the non-existence of something, but I've simply never needed that kind of assistance in my non-work, non-academic life. I use the actual library quite frequently, and I totally would ask the TPL reference librarians if I had an applicable question, it just...hasn't come up.

laura k said...

Yikes, that's awful! People really say those things???

Oh yeah! There wasn't a person in the class that hadn't heard some form of that.

So why is the public so ignorant? We all use libraries---we SHOULD know.

Possibly because we all use libraries on our own, so we don't see any mystery. Librarians teach people how to use the library - doctors, lawyers and engineers don't teach laypeople how to do their jobs. They preserve the mystery - the exclusivity. But that's contrary to the ethos of librarianship.

Possibly because it's traditionally women's work. There's an element of sexism involved, I think.

And probably partly because libraries haven't focused on marketing themselves - they're too busy trying to get funds to do their job. None of those other professions are publicly funded. (Health care is in most places, but doctors' exclusivity was established before those systems existed.)

laura k said...

If you wanted to post some of that interview, you could.

I'm not sure it's very interesting blog-reading. But it was fun to do.

laura k said...

I wonder though to what extent members of the general public need the full skill set of public librarians in everyday life?

The full skill set, probably pretty infrequently. I've needed research help in libraries for things I was writing, pre-internet. These days, hardly at all.

Apparently librarians do get asked for reference help, and for "reader's advisory" - as in, "Can you recommend a good book for me to read?" But the full skill set... probably very rarely, in public libraries. More so in special libraries and academic.

But that's based on my experience as a library user. Maybe when I'm a librarian I'll have a different answer.

laura k said...

wonder though to what extent members of the general public need the full skill set of public librarians in everyday life?

The full skill set, probably pretty infrequently.


....which is one reason the public library has reinvented itself as a community centre. A big part of librarians' jobs now are planning and directing programs - ESL, job-search, immigrant settlement, career and education research, literacy, etc.

Amy said...

Those explanations make sense to me. Maybe we need public schools to do a better job of teaching children. I know that we had "library" once a week in school, but no one ever really explained all the things that librarians could do, even when we started doing research papers in the higher grades. Somehow asking the librarian for help with research seemed like cheating. At most I would ask a librarian whether a book was in the collection and where it was.

laura k said...

Somehow asking the librarian for help with research seemed like cheating.

Seriously? Wow! I was definitely taught to go straight to the librarian and ask for direction and advice.

Amy said...

Yes, seriously. That's why it took me so long to get help from the librarians at school. I really didn't think I was supposed to have someone else find things for me. Silly me!

impudent strumpet said...

I know that we had "library" once a week in school, but no one ever really explained all the things that librarians could do

They must have been overcompensating for that by the time I was in school, because they felt the need to lecture us on research and resources every single time we had a library period. In elementary school, we'd get this speech on how you should use the index of an encyclopedia rather than going straight to the article, then we'd get assignments that could be easily researched by going straight to the article. Our high school librarian's mantra was "I'm a teacher-librarian, so I'm going to teach you how to use the library." Then we'd get a lecture on vertical files and periodicals and databases on CD-ROM (this was just before the internet) that would take up the whole library period, so we'd have to come back later to do our actual research. And she'd give the same lecture to every class - I'd conservatively estimate that I got that lecture 12 times in my high school career. In university, we got the same lecture on resources for translators once a year, which was at least on the right track, but it assumed that we wanted to find all available information on the subject matter. (We actually most often want to find the specific bit of information we need as quickly as possible, because we're on tight deadlines and being paid by the word. A macro view of the topic is interesting, but not the best use of our time in real-world conditions.)

Other aspects of my education that I've found similarly ridiculous seem to be swinging back to something more sensible, so hopefully the way they teach library use/research to students is doing so too.

Lorraine said...

The question as I see it is not "can Google replace the library?" but "can Google be trusted?" My undying admiration of the profession of librarianship is grounded in their centuries-old role as guardians of "the literature," by which I mean the body of knowledge achieved by humynkind at a particular moment in history. Combine this heritage of the librarians with the heritage of the academics with their tradition of preferring non-classified and non-proprietary research projects, and you have an engine of social development, economic and technological advancement, and self-correcting understanding of reality. To continue this mission into the future, libraries must be not only information centers, but meta-information centers. Think of meta-information as the 'relational' in 'relational database.' The trouble with Google is that the meta-information is inside a black box. Google deserves some credit, I'm sure, for discovering some facts about epidemiology by plotting the occurrence of searches containing "flu" in time and space. But the 'deliverables' come in the form of distilled reports or forecasts, or maybe some behind-the-scenes consultation with public health agencies. In any case, the meta-data (and of course the raw data) are strictly proprietary. Conscientious librarians are our last line of defense against a future history of technology that is a mixture of cargo-cult mystification and maybe a little reverse engineering or disinformation theory on the part of benevolent hackers.

Lorraine said...

Librarians teach people how to use the library - doctors, lawyers and engineers don't teach laypeople how to do their jobs. They preserve the mystery - the exclusivity. But that's contrary to the ethos of librarianship.

Well that's the crux of it all, isn't it? You're in a trade without trade secrets. Pretty inconvenient when living in the age of 'can you hang a business model on that?' But oh, what you would be turning your back on going that route.

Best of luck with your career. Clearly you possess guts.

Amy said...

IS, I am not sure which was worse: your weekly repetitive lecture or learning nothing at all. Of course, we did not have CD Roms or databases when I was in school. We just had books! Technology consisted of those machines we used to look at old newspapers and magazines on film--I can't even remember what they were called. We had card catalogs and the Index to Periodicals that came out monthly. I guess someone taught us how to use them, but it was pretty minimal exposure.

Times have changed!

laura k said...

Other aspects of my education that I've found similarly ridiculous seem to be swinging back to something more sensible, so hopefully the way they teach library use/research to students is doing so too.

I hope so, because what you describe is completely ridiculous - and a great way to make people hate the library.

laura k said...

The question as I see it is not "can Google replace the library?" but "can Google be trusted?"

Well yes, absolutely - but that only holds if people know to ask that question.


Well that's the crux of it all, isn't it? You're in a trade without trade secrets.

Although librarians have tons of "secrets" - tips and tricks - that the average researcher doesn't seem to know... if they would only ask. :)

Thanks, Lorraine. I do have guts, but perhaps not in the way you mean, as there are jobs for librarians in Canada.

There'd better be. Because I may have guts but I'm not going through all this for the fun of it!

laura k said...

We just had books! Technology consisted of those machines we used to look at old newspapers and magazines on film--I can't even remember what they were called. We had card catalogs and the Index to Periodicals that came out monthly.

Microfilm and microfiche. People still use them all the time. Allan's research for his book depended heavily on those.

The Periodical Index was a huge a part of my library experience. I was taught how to use them many times, then used them dozens of times for many different projects, both in school and for my own writing.

In my reference class now, I'm being exposed to so many different kinds of indexes and bibliographies and guides - and guides to guides - all in book format. Many of them are decades or centuries' old formats, still being updated, still in use.

So while there were "just books" in those days, there were still many, many different resources. Much of what CD-ROMs and databases do is make the same resources much easier to search.

Amy said...

Thanks---I was thinking micro--something, but could not retrieve the rest of the word. Good to know those old friends are still out there. I used to love scrolling through old newspapers and looking at the old advertisements while doing research. But today it is so much easier to find news articles, etc., through digital means. I haven't used one of those things in decades.

laura k said...

But today it is so much easier to find news articles, etc., through digital means. I haven't used one of those things in decades.

Absolutely easier - but depending on what you need, not everything is in a digital database.

Also, sometimes you want to see not only the article, but the context. Doing history research, for example, it's good to see articles' placement in a newspaper, their placement relative to each other - and also advertisements, or the cultural context. For some research, microfilm is still the way to go.

Amy said...

That makes sense for certain types of research. The type of research I do these days can be done almost all digitally---legal materials, whether cases, articles, statutes, etc.---are pretty much all on line through either public or limited access databases, even older materials. I cannot remember the last time I had to get an actual book from the library. And yet I am finding that the librarians are more important to me now because they know what databases are available and, more importantly, how to use them most effectively.

I wonder how high school kids do research papers these days. Do they just use Google? My daughters both graduated from high school when the internet was still pretty creaky, and they actually did little online research.

laura k said...

I wonder how high school kids do research papers these days. Do they just use Google?

That's the question you see repeated constantly, everywhere. The answer undoubtedly depends on where they go to school. Better schools will force them to use sources other than Google and Wikipedia. Impoverished schools won't even require papers.

In my own research for papers, I do everything online through the university's remote access. I'm using sources not available through Google, but I do 90% of my research at home and am very annoyed when I have to actually use the physical library!

laura k said...

And yet I am finding that the librarians are more important to me now because they know what databases are available and, more importantly, how to use them most effectively.

Yay!! :)

polou said...

I would have to defend the librarians even though I myself am not a librarian. I have a friend who is a librarian and a relative that went through school studied to be a librarian. They required a Masters in Library Science. Today librarians do take advantages of the Internet tools to help students to research for their papers or homeworks. Personally I also learned from a librarian that there are certain keywords from the Internet that you can eliminate to make your search more efficient. You can also use the official website of the library to see what services the library do provide.

laura k said...

I have a friend who is a librarian and a relative that went through school studied to be a librarian. They required a Masters in Library Science.

That's what I'm doing now, hence this post, which was a paper for a course.

I think we're all in defense of librarians here, but thanks for adding yours!