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Month: January 2007

Being a Library User

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.



Because I’m a nerd, I spent much of my holiday weekend listening to NPR and cataloging my books in LibraryThing. Here’s what I wrote about my collection:

I’ve always been a heavy library user, so the books that I keep at home tend to fall into three categories: things I read in college and grad school, things I’ve read on planes or vacation, or things I can’t get at my local libraries. I also have a small collection of juvenile fiction that I read when I was young and thought might go out of print and get deselected from libraries. I probably won’t be very disciplined about including library books that I borrow in this collection.

I can’t figure out if I’m glad or sorry that I started this project after weeding my collection down to half or a third of what it used to be. I’m pretty sure I’m glad, though, because working on my laptop (without a convenient number pad) typing in all those ISBNs is a pain. I also discovered that I have a LOT of books that don’t have ISBNs. Those are a major pain to find and enter. I spent the longest time searching for a record for my 1930 edition of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

I’d put off even looking at LibraryThing until last month mostly because it sounded like just the sort of thing I’d get addicted to and spend way too much time doing. But finally the call of another mode for sharing and organizing stuff became too strong for me and I caved.

Still, even though I had a lot of fun and can see this becoming as much a part of my life as my Flickr and have become, there are a couple of things I’d like to be able to do but can’t. I’m still not sure if I can’t because there is no way, or because I haven’t figured out the way, but here goes.

What I wish I could do (or may be able to do but can’t figure out how):

  • Sort by multiple fields at the same time
  • See who has added me to their watch list, or who other people are watching (a la networking or Flickr contacts)
  • Click on tags other people have given to my book, or selections from my own tags, in order to tag my books. (I hated going back after a couple of days and finding that I’d been hyphenating some works at one point and not later one.)
  • Batch editing/merging of tags.
  • Public/Private comments
  • Fields for translators/illustrators
  • “Advanced search” of multiple fields (like title, author, date, and publisher) to cover those times when you run into a whole shelf of books with no ISBNs.

I’ve found a couple of familiar people out there and added them to my watch list, but only a very, very few. Anybody out there who wants to share your LibraryThing name?