LA Times Article Sparks Differing Views of Libraries’ Role

In an article entitled, “Libraries reinvent themselves as they struggle to remain relevant in the digital age,” one prominent librarian from a more traditionalist bent felt that libraries are not the place for game rooms and ping-pong tables. He and others worry that such changes will hurt rather than help libraries’ image and their service role in the community. We wanted to find out more so we informally polled some of our authors on their reaction to the traditional view of libraries and their feelings about how libraries are going about reinventing themselves. Here are some of their thoughts, quoted with permission:

All this talk about libraries not being real libraries anymore because there are more computers being used than books makes about as much sense as saying that paperback romances are edging out hardback classics on library shelves! Library services and collections are NOT mutually exclusive! Our value is growing! It's good news! The doom and gloomers are missing the point if they don't see that the advent of technology, the need for PC connection, the desire to learn how to live online makes public libraries even more relevant and important to their users than ever before - not less! I think a lot of what the article said is true; reference desks will become obsolete as we accept that our 21st-century customers want a different library experience, for example. But one point in this piece is, I think, completely off-base. We're not allowing gaming in order to trick a teen into checking out Dostoevsky but, since gaming and meeting other relevant new needs just may help keep the doors open, he'll at least have a chance to find a copy if he wants one - at his thriving public library!

Catherine Hakala-Ausperk
Deputy Director, Cleveland Heights - University Heights (OH) Public Library, author of  Be a Great Boss: One Year to Success (ALA Editions, 2011)

Oh well, I remember when a few librarians were upset when we put jigsaw puzzles in the library, back in the 80s.  But everyone else loved them.   At my local public library (Brewster, MA) they let a user assemble a puzzle on a library table where passers-by can take a look or stop to help and socialize.  Many public libraries have started chess and scrabble clubs.        

Every community needs a community center and in my small town that is de facto the public library.  What better place?  It's accessible and open 6 days a week.  The meeting room is always busy.  Local artists display their work there.  A huge bulletin board is available to community groups to post notices. 

The display case features monthly exhibits by local hobbyists--from needlework to beautiful sailor's valentines.  The public computers are always in use; in fact people help each other at the terminals.  Mothers chat with each other while their children are at story hour.  Public libraries perform a social function as well as an educational one--and they always have.  I'm lucky to live in a community where the library fosters this. 

Janet Husband, author of Sequels (ALA, 2009) and eSequels.com.
         
I think he is right.  I know that isn't a popular opinion in libraries and I even included video games in my new book from LU, but that was because I knew they were in libraries. . .  not that I want them there.  I often think he is right. He just sometimes says things in a really controversial way.  You can quote that anonymously. 
Any program or service that brings people new to the library inside our doors presents an opportunity for us, the library staff, to show them everything else we have to offer them.  They can not know the breadth of information and materials we have if they never come through the doors to see it for themselves.

Becky Spratford, author of the forthcoming revision of The Horror Readers’ Advisory                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           

The article muddles academic and public libraries, which have different missions. Anything we can do to get patrons into libraries is good.  In-person visits to public libraries in 2009 increased 10% compared with a 2006 ALA household survey. Seventy-six percent of Americans visited their local public library in the year preceding the survey, compared with 65.7% two years ago. Online visits to public libraries increased even more: 41% of library card holders visited their library websites in the year before the poll, compared with 23.6% in 2006.

Peggy Johnson, author of  Fundamentals of Collection Development and Management

Libraries, like most public entities, are in a time of retrenchment – doing less with less.  Times like this also offer an opportunity to try new things, keep those that working well, and let go of functions that don’t serve us as well as they did in the past. 

Valerie Horton, editor of Moving Materials: Physical Delivery in Libraries

From a business perspective, many libraries are looking for a new business model. In every business model, the organization needs to clearly understand its core processes or what it does best.  If  a library provides a coffee shop better than the top competitor in that area (Starbucks, etc.) then it should provide that service.  If a library is able to provide a competitive coffee service because its revenues are subsidized by taxpayers and consequently it does not face the same cost structure of a for-profit organization, this is not a real library core process.  Without a clear identification of core activities and a means to improve them (balanced scorecard, etc.), it would be expected to see the start of all sorts of flailing activities from game to slumber rooms.

Steve Smith, author of the forthcoming book , Cost Control for Nonprofits in Crisis

While this was just a small sample of opinion, clearly there is no consensus as to what the “library” should be.