Friday, February 02, 2007

Top 5 Library Problems

A friend is taking a college Literature class and had to interview a public librarian. Her assignment was to ask what are the top 5 problems with libraries today. I told her she'd better sit down for this. Here are my Top 5 Library Problems (with possible solutions/ideas)...

1.) The biggest problem that faces public libraries today is whether we will be around in the next 20 or 30 years. Reference librarians will shout from the rooftops the importance of using a librarian vs. using
Google. They say what we do is far more complex than just finding data/answers on the internet. We are trained to extract information from the patron and use a variety of electronic databases (and yes, Google, etc..) and local resources to find the answers to what people are looking for. That's all true - but users are getting savvier and I think we all need the face the harsh truth that they really may not need us in 20 or 30 more years. Let me clarify - they may not need libraries the WAY that they've needed us in the past. Something that we've been doing at my library is changing the focus of traditional Reference to a plethora of "Adult Services.” We try to be a community center for the downtown area. We do computer classes for the community (both in the library and soon out in the city), and we bring in award-winning authors, performers, and lecturers to the library for programs. We're trying to provide a service for our community that is unique.

DRM – Digital Rights Management and the “book” – The same battle that is going on with the music industry and the movie industry right now is also going on with the publishing industry. What consumers want and what the “industry” wants are two different things. The publishing industry doesn’t want to give copyright over for digital downloads of books because they’re afraid that will be the end. Users/patrons would like to be able to download books onto their MP3 players and their iPods. Well, the publishing industry wants to secure this so that people will still *buy* their books in any kind of format. Libraries do use products like and others but there aren’t any (that I know of) that are compatible with iPod (and iPods dominate the MP3 industry). What is the future of books? Will books go the digital route and will we dispense with “the book” as we know it today? I don’t think it’s a one or the other kind of issue. I think there will always be books because like movie theaters – they are an “experience.” I can download a movie and watch it on my computer, watch a movie On Demand or rent a DVD – but none of that takes the place of the “cinematic experience” that is the movie theater. It’s the same issue with books. Nothing quite takes the place of the “book experience.” Even if the industry works out DRM to everyone’s advantage – I think we’ll still see books in their original form and still have a need for them in libraries and in bookstores.

3.) Teens – Teens are a perpetual problem for libraries, but in an ironic sort of way, they are also the solution(wow!...profound! You've never heard that before). By that I mean that teens are the future users of libraries, so libraries certainly don’t want to write them off. But we have to entice them with things like gaming (
DDR, Second Life, Worlds of Warcraft, traditional games, etc..) and social networking sites (My Space, Chat/IM, Wikis, FaceBook, YouTube, Flickr, Tagged, etc..) to get them *into* the libraries. Once we get the teens there, then we try and introduce literature and incorporate that into the fun. My library, in particular, “gets” this. We use popular themes like American Idol and Amazing Race and incorporate those themes into book clubs. You can see examples of this on my library’s Flickr site. The way some teens can be a problem is that they can be unruly and destructive, and this drives adult users away from the library. If you need an example look at Maplewood Public Library in New Jersey. The New York Times did a piece on them a few weeks ago when they announced they were going to have to close down the library during after school hours (3pm-5pm) until further notice because the teens had taken over the library (later the community did step in to help out so they wouldn't have to actually close). Sometimes you have to "think outside the book" (sorry, bad pun) on how you deal with teens. If you do it right – you’ll have future library users (and taxpayers)…if you do it wrong – well, you may have turned a person off of libraries indefinitely.

4.) Funding – I put this down towards the bottom because my director always says, “Never let lack of money hold us back from doing what you want to do. If we have ideas, intelligence and enthusiasm, we can do anything.” I believe that this is true. But, the reality is also that libraries are cutting back on services all over the country because of lack of funding. Often at the local level, tax referendums don’t pass and that means that libraries have to cut their hours, their staff and hence their services. This means that librarians need to try even harder to promote libraries and think outside of the box on how we can do this on limited funding. Taxpayers and government will pay for what they think they need to pay for – if librarians don’t find different ways of promoting why we are necessary, we will eventually not survive.

5.) Censorship – In particular, “digital censorship.” There was some legislation introduced a few months back called
DOPA (Deleting Online Predators Act). In a nutshell, the Act wanted schools and libraries to have internet filters and to prohibit social networking sites, and this includes email and chat/IM, to users who are under the age of 18. Now, this isn’t really an issue of liberals vs. conservatives because believe me, there were (and still are) plenty of liberals who are in support of this. This is an issue of people who are afraid of sites like My Space and are afraid of chat because they believe there are too many crimes going on against minors. If DOPA was passed, my library would have needed to put filters on all of the internet computers (because they were purchased with certain funds) and we’d have to ban email and chat (among many other things like this blog, for example!) from these computers because we do allow teens on them. We could literally walk over to the computer and switch the filters off for adults and then switch them back on for anyone under 18. This would be impossible for staff – so this would have meant that we’d just have to leave the filters on altogether and no one would be able to email in the libraries. Can you imagine a student going into his public library and not being able to email his paper to his professor? I can’t imagine being a patron in my library and not being able to email or chat with my brother-in-law in Afghanistan. I also can’t imagine trying to do research on “breast cancer” but the filters won’t allow access to articles that have the word “breast” in them (yes, this is an actual example). DOPA was passed in the House in July of 2006 but died in the Senate. But I hear rumors of similar legislature taking form. I guess we’ll have to wait and see. There is no doubt that it can be scary what children have access to on the internet, *BUT* that doesn’t mean that the federal government should make the decision on what patrons can and cannot view on library computers. That is something that should be decided at the local level.

And there they are. The Top 5 Library Problems according to me. My Assistant Director says, "Try not to introduce a problem without also introducing a possible solution." Sage advice. Kankakee Public Library may not have all the solutions. But, we do love a good challenge. Problems? Bring 'em on! We're ready.

Allison Beasley
Head of Adult Services


Blogger Ivan Chew said...

I'm with you re: point #1. Libraries will be around, but the way we operate, they way we are used -- will be quite different. What is less certain is whether librarians will be around (yes, I'm a librarian too). Probably the job scope will change, so we've to be ready for it. What's certain is that if we don't keep our eyes and ears open, and we don't react to change (never mind anticipating change, 'cos sometimes we can't) then our chances of being redundant will be much surer.

11:32 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home