Monday, January 11, 2010

Thinking about library futures

While I have a lot of respect for business/marketing guru Seth Godin, he misses the mark in his blog posting on the future of libraries. While concern for the future is right, he's off-base in two respects:
  1. Godin seems to assume that libraries are now irrelevant, that books are passe or that people can afford all the books they want and all other information is available free online. He writes...
    What should libraries do to become relevant in the digital age?
    ... and thus begins with the preconception that we're already irrelevant.
    They can't survive as community-funded repositories for books that individuals don't want to own (or for reference books we can't afford to own.) More librarians are telling me (unhappily) that the number one thing they deliver to their patrons is free DVD rentals. That's not a long-term strategy, nor is it particularly an uplifting use of our tax dollars.
    Let's break that down: our library circulates a lot of books that people either don't want to own or can't afford -- and that's not just reference books. DVDs are hardly the number one thing our library does: most of what we circulate is books and the number of books we circulate has been growing every year, and holding steady as a percentage of circulation for several years. It's also true that our library's DVDs are targeted toward a different market than video stores or Red Box, but books are still our number one.
  2. Godin suggests our focus should be "train people to take intellectual initiative."
    ... the net turns things upside down. The information is free now. No need to pool tax money to buy reference books. What we need to spend the money on are leaders, sherpas and teachers who will push everyone from kids to seniors to get very aggressive in finding and using information and in connecting with and leading others.
    Even assuming he's recommending that librarians become his sherpas, it's not realistic to assume that our best efforts could turn everyone into aggressive leaders. By implication, this marginalizes those who may never fall, or grow, into that group. This smacks of an elitist perspective -- and while I know not everything we do has be factored by a lowest common denominator, it's a mistake to discount the value of making knowledge broadly available.

    Godin's assertion ot the contrary, information is not free, and that which is apparently free comes with hidden costs. Not everyone can afford even most of the books they'd like to read, nor highspeed Internet connections, nor the databases that hold information they're seeking. Not everyone will be sherpas, nor could the craftiest sherpa make everyone in our community into aggressive information seekers.

What libraries can do -- and many are, very effectively:
  • recognize that our core functions of education, connection, information equity and opportunity have not changed, though the delivery methods have
  • make books and other media available in a variety of formats to meet user needs -- and keep evolving with the times into downloadable ebooks, downloadable audiobooks and whatever other formats emerge to be effectively useful
  • train people to become savvy consumers of information resources, help provide tools and instruction in their use -- and give needed assistance where savvy is lacking
  • provide formal and informal community spaces
  • have a sophisticated understanding that although the public needs equity and "information wants to be free," publishers and creators of information content want to put food on the table -- know where knowledge comes from and what it costs -- and use this understanding to creatively make resources available
  • find a variety of channels to push information and learning opportunities out into their communities, through websites as digital branches, through social media, through cultural programs and games, through putting librarians at the table with community groups and through marketing resources -- helping leaders and non-leaders alike find ways to meet their needs
  • actively promote family literacy
We're doing these things already. We're hardly sitting around unhappily contemplating our DVD circulation. Education and libraries are for everyone. We're looking to the future -- and it's exciting.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Supporting the library -- 2010

Public libraries need support in many fashions. Of course we appreciate everyone who votes with their feet or their mouse to use our services. But to maintain services, especially in tough times, we need specific kinds of intentional supporters: donors, volunteers and advocates.

Today's Capital Times has an excellent article on advocacy by Bill Berry: "Keep the library lights burning." He writes:
Our libraries are busier today than ever before, and there’s something incredibly uplifting about that fact. Much of the increased demand is said to be tied to the economy. As people tighten their belts, they’re using public libraries more than ever.

But that doesn’t mean libraries are safe as local governments strive to balance their ledgers. Difficult decisions are being made about essential services.

As the American Library Association reports, libraries across the nation have endured budget cuts and staff reductions. That has led to reduced hours of operation, branch closings and other cuts in services at a time when the public most needs what libraries provide.

In these tough times, it comes down to defining essential services. By almost any measure, and especially in the current economy, libraries are essential to many people. Folks need to tell that to officials who are making budget decisions.


A 2008 research study commissioned by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction on the contribution of Wisconsin public libraries to the state economy found that tax dollars invested in Wisconsin public libraries produced a return on investment of $4.06 of library services for each $1 of taxpayer investment, including both direct economic contributions and the total market value of library services.

Healthy communities need strong businesses that provide good jobs. Just as much, they need good schools and libraries. It’s no stretch to say that libraries are among the crowning achievements of our democratic society. They serve people of all economic backgrounds. Right now, they happen to be needed most by those who’ve been hit hardest by the economic downturn.

Tough times call for tough choices. Libraries aren’t and shouldn’t be immune from scrutiny. But make no mistake about it: Our public libraries are essential to our health and well-being. They nurture informed and educated citizens of all ages who better their own lives and their communities. We need to keep the lights on.

Thanks to Paul Nelson for calling attention to this article.