Several people blogged recently about the irony of being a librarian but not liking to use their local public libraries. Meredith, Nicole, and Jennifer all point out that while we’ve been merrily complaining away about the state of the catalog, our physical holdings are still stuck within (often) less than ideal buildings and, just like in any business, it’s possible that the librarian on duty might be anything from wonderful to scary (though the optimist in me hopes that most librarians are at least helpful, if nothing else).
In my mind, it comes back to the basic foundation of all libraries. Libraries are not just repositories for books. They have to fill a function in their users’ lives, and this function varies from region to region, community to community, and person to person. For example, I have always been a library user. The first library I remember was our local public library in Dorchester, Massachusetts (not even remotely comparable to even a decent branch library, I’m sure, but what did my 5-year-old self know?). From then on, every time my family has moved one of the first things we’ve done is scope out the library. When I moved here, I knew and had used my public library long before I knew where the post office was, or city hall. None of the libraries I’ve frequented have been beautiful or perfectly laid out, and only one librarian stands out in my mind as being particularly wonderful. But then, only one librarian stands out as being particularly scary, so I guess it evens out.
But through it all, the libraries have served a basic function in my life. They have fed me the majority of information and entertainment in my life. (And since I was home schooled and relied heavily on the library to make that possible, I can say that last statement with confidence.) Even now, working as I do in a well-stocked academic library, I make at least one trip to my local public library every week to get movies, audio books, and even real paper books. These are not things that I could afford to buy if the library didn’t exist (or at least not in the quantities I consume them), nor could I justify shelling out that much cash for my daily entertainment or finding storage for it all once I’d finished with it even if I were rich beyond imagining.
But then, this is my life and my need. If I were less inclined to read fiction, listen to audio books in the car, or watch old movies and BBC sitcoms on the weekends, I’d be able to fill my needs at the library where I work, and then I’d never set foot in my public library because it is small and dark.
So, just to emphasize my favorite part of the arguments in the three blog posts above, it’s not about keeping up with the Joneses and it’s not about the looks. It’s about functioning in the lives of our users. And the lives of our users have changed in the past 25 or 50 years. Maybe some of what functioned before doesn’t any more, but then again maybe some of it still does. In our quest to serve our communities and yes, even compete with big box book stores, figuring out the difference between the good and the not so great habits we’ve developed, policies we’ve enacted, floor plans we’ve preferred, and services we’ve offered will be an ongoing but important struggle.
Not all that is old, small, or dark is bad. The trick is figuring out the difference. The challenge is acting on the difference to improve the roles we play in people’s lives.