Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Libraries Move Into the Present

Over at the Indianapolis Star this morning, columnist Ruth Halladay is lamenting the change in traditional libraries who are (gasp!) stocking more bestsellers and (no!) planning to open on Sundays! I don't know why I let this particular columnist get under my skin, but it may be that her opinions signify exactly what I think is wrong sometimes with Indiana and Indianapolis -- a fear of change.

Look, I'm all for tradition -- I think we have a lot to learn from traditional business practices. Customs like rice and bouquet throwing rank high in my book, but they're no way to run a business -- and the Marion County Library is a business. Yes, they're subsidized by taxpayers and donations, but they cater to a customer base just like anyone else. I think they're doing the right thing by determining what their customers want and re-focusing their resources on serving the community.

Recent changes announced by the Marion County Library Board have the chance to move what was once a great library (so I hear, the only times I went after I moved here revealed dated titles, poor cataloging systems and free computers hogged by homeless people) into a new phase supported by what will be their new facility at their main office. A few changes they're making that columnist Halladay thinks are a bad idea:

That includes the board's decision Thursday to eliminate overtime pay for staff working Sundays. Picking up on Mielke's headline, all 22 libraries will be open Sundays starting this fall, an increase from six currently.

But that decision is peanuts considering what else is coming. The library dramatically will increase its numbers of best-sellers, in an effort to give patrons the latest hot new books and eliminate long reserve lists.

Librarians are "weeding" out tomes that are not widely circulated -- an appalling thought for traditionalists, who count on the library to carry the obscure volume, too.
Librarians themselves will morph:

• A clerical worker with a college degree will answer reference questions -- basically taking over the role for which a librarian went to college to get a master's degree.
• Librarians with expertise in a particular field no longer will order books for their area.
• Users will do more self-service.
Some call it McLibrary. Everything is about volume and quick turnover. And money.

Please, she's complaining about more bestsellers and shorter waiting and reserved lists? What could possibly be wrong with giving readers -- the library's customers -- what they want? Getting more people to read and read the book everyone wants is exactly what Ben Franklin intended when he founded the first library. Sunday hours? It's about how people use time today. What other times do parents have to take children to the library to select treasured books? What could possibly be wrong with having a library open to serve students, adults doing research, the weekend novelist, the entrepreneur researching a business, families selecting a video, or people who use their free time differently than they did 20 or 50 years ago? Newsflash: Sundays in Indiana aren't all families going to church together then going home for Sunday dinner and a nap!

Is it difficult to have fewer well-educated library science professionals? Yes, of course. It's a tough choice to make, but it's just as unreasonable for the library to have more paid reference librarians on staff than are needed. In today's age of Google, online catalogs and the Internet, the public has different needs for research and the library must change to reflect those needs. A few well trained reference clerks are a good solution. When was the last time anyone under 45 called the library for the answer to an obscure question? Is it right that the library should have more highly paid and trained staff than they need in the name of tradition? Will we lose obscure titles? Obscure titles don't matter if they're so old they provide dated or inaccurate research information. If readers want obscure information, more often than not, they go to Amazon, but if they want lots of beautiful up-to-date cookbooks they can't afford, they go to the library.

Halladay cites excellent libraries in the country and how we'll suffer in comparison, but in reality, two of the nation's top library systems -- San Francisco and New York -- have completed capital campaigns and reorganizations in the past 10 years and have made some of the same choices our board is making. It sounds to me that our board understands the trends in their market and is making smart decisions. I applaud the Marion County Library Board on their choices. They're being smart about serving their customers and using their budgets wisely. Maybe Halladay's bio says it all: She has been with the Star since 1978. Wake up, baby. It's the future!


At Tue Apr 26, 01:07:00 PM, Blogger Doug said...

I don't have a lot of problem with the changes you cite, but I strongly disagree with the notion that a public library ought to be regarded as a business. It's a public resource devoted to the public good.

I don't have any problem with getting more of the best sellers in stock. Anything that gets the public to read more is probably worthwhile. And opening up on Sundays is a great idea. I've always been baffled by libraries being closed on Sunday. Personally, I'm much more likely to go to a library on a Sunday than other days of the week.

I think any first class city should have first class library resources available. Whether that's through a university or a city library doesn't seem to matter. The ability to dig through a mass of somewhat obscure texts seems like one of the advantages to a library over a bookstore. You can sort of feel out the mass of research and writing in an area until you are well enough versed to pinpoint specific texts.

But, as always, it's a matter of allocating limited resources among unlimited demands. I love my football, but I'm geeky enough to feel that libraries are more important than professional sports arenas.


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