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March 7, 2008 2:04 PM   Subscribe

"Hendon's library's opening hours have been cut, a cafe has taken the place of part of the fiction section, and a computer learning zone has replaced the periodicals room. When I complained, a local councillor wrote back to say that he did not feel that the cut in opening hours was a great hardship for anyone."

The Guardian writes on the long slow death of libraries.
posted by The Jesse Helms (86 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
I love libraries. This is sad.
posted by chicken nuglet at 2:10 PM on March 7, 2008


Once again, The Guardian misses the real question: do they have YuGiOh price guides?
posted by aramaic at 2:18 PM on March 7, 2008


I feel like the death of tangible books and the demise of libraries are related but separate issues. At least in my world they are. I don't enjoy libraries much anymore, the books I want are always out, the waiting lists are long and the ones I have been to were poorly organized. However, I'll crawl over broken glass to buy a physical book before I'd read the subject off a screen. I can snuggle somewhere with a coffee and the smell of new stiff pages to thumb through. Nothing beats an actual bound copy in my hands.
posted by BridgetR at 2:18 PM on March 7, 2008 [2 favorites]


I work in the Toronto public system, and our circulation figures are (in general) dropping fast. We're still one of the most well-used systems on the planet, so I don't think we're in danger of going the way of the dodo anytime soon, but there are a lot of days when it seems like the only reason people come into my branch is to check their Facebook accounts and watch videos on YouTube.
posted by The Card Cheat at 2:19 PM on March 7, 2008 [1 favorite]


I'd take the convenience of having 500 books on a SD card to carry around over the tactile sensation of reading a bound-paper book, personally. I don't understand why some people are so against electronic books and why they haven't caught on more. Wouldn't it be better to, say, have a subscription service where you can look up any reference material you want and download an electronic copy (possibly with some sort of DRM to enforce limited time of use, if they must) and do it all from your home rather than having to drive to the library, navigate around the schizophrenics and cladestinely-masturbating pedophiles at the computers and dick with the Dewey decimal system only to find the book you wanted isn't even available anyway?
posted by DecemberBoy at 2:25 PM on March 7, 2008 [4 favorites]


I don't understand why some people are so against electronic books and why they haven't caught on more.

It's more than that. Libraries have served as community centers for thousands of years. It's sad to see them dying a slow death, but hopefully they can adapt and change with the times.

What is a library, anyway? A lot of the books at the main library in my town seem to be Sidney Sheldon escapist literature - hardly a fitting heir to Alexandria. Many of the non-fiction or resource materials are pretty dated - better information can be found on the Internet.

I'd be curious to hear what jessamyn (or other MeFite) librarians have to say in this thread.

[FavouriteMemoryFilter: The smell of a library in high summer when I was a kid; the smell of cut grass wafting in through an open window, mingling with the fragrance of books]
posted by KokuRyu at 2:37 PM on March 7, 2008 [1 favorite]


Please note that libraries increasingly spend more of their budgets for films, records, books on CDs, etc and that cuts into book purchases. I am not suggesting that this is bad. After all, the library is there to serve what the public wants for its tax money. But I have also noted that libraries have become noisy. And that seems now an ok thing...people bring habits of home (watching and talking while tv on) to movie theatres and to libraries and librarians seldom say anything. Cell phones? but of course.
posted by Postroad at 2:38 PM on March 7, 2008


DecemberBoy, most libraries these days have excellent websites which allow for online browsing, reference searches, etc. I check out books and media from my library weekly and the only time I actually step into the building is to pick up my reserved items (and to return things as well). My library system is currently implementing streaming video options as well as other "new media" options for patrons. The experience you describe above, although stereotypical, is not reflective of what libraries have become/are becoming.
posted by joseph_elmhurst at 2:38 PM on March 7, 2008


Decent online catalogues, ordering and notifications systems totally transform libraries and make them hugely more useable and useful – that’s something I’d advise any library system trying to stay relevant to invest in if they haven’t done so already. Decent computer access, and wireless, in the library space itself is a natural complement to that. And a access to a decent inventory of books – they don’t necessarily have to be onsite, just available to place holds on online.
posted by Artw at 2:41 PM on March 7, 2008


HarperCollins, which is owned by News Corporation, parent company of The Times,

And that's probably the most unintentionally insightful sentence in the article - the disclaimer. An article about one subdivision of News Corp. written by another subdivision of News Corp. on the subject of old media business models whose demise has been facilitated by their parent company, News Corp.

You can't write about the demise of the book without referring to the rise of the new media super-conglomerate.
posted by phaedon at 2:44 PM on March 7, 2008 [3 favorites]


It would be a crime to lose libraries.
(Tips hat at The Jesse Helms, long time no see.)
posted by madamjujujive at 2:45 PM on March 7, 2008 [11 favorites]


I am going to build my own fucking library.
posted by mattbucher at 2:46 PM on March 7, 2008 [1 favorite]


Wouldn't it be better to, say, have a subscription service where you can look up any reference material you want and download an electronic copy (possibly with some sort of DRM to enforce limited time of use, if they must) and do it all from your home rather than having to drive to the library, navigate around the schizophrenics and cladestinely-masturbating pedophiles at the computers and dick with the Dewey decimal system only to find the book you wanted isn't even available anyway?

Yes, and why go out and see bands play live? I prefer to turn up my stereo and dance in the privacy of my own home, and the drinks are cheaper!

Personally, I like going to libraries. I was at my local library every weekend as a kid. My father told me that "I didn't have to know everything, I just needed to know how to find things out". In retrospect, his willingness to drive me to the local branch whenever I decided I wanted to research scrimshaw or whatever other bizarre topic that had fascinated me that week is especially appreciated. He'd sit in a chair and read the paper while I roamed among the stacks all day. I became friends with the staff, who would suggest other stuff I might be interested in. Thanks to them I encountered Bob Dylan, David Bowie, the Kinks, The The, D&D, science fiction, etc etc etc. I even volunteered there for a while as well.


Browsing in a library is a great way to become aware of books or topics that you otherwise wouldn't have looked up. I also blame my interest in fonts on glancing at tons of book spines. You can't judge a book by its cover, but you can get a pretty good idea of what the marketing dept. wants you to think.

presenting a library as a place full of schizophrenics and clandestine masturbators is a pretty flimsy argument, IMHO. After all, they're there for the internet access, not pawing through "Lolita" and breathing heavily.
posted by dubold at 2:47 PM on March 7, 2008 [4 favorites]


I also really rather doubt that books are going anywhere anytime soon. I predict that they, and alarmist claptrap articles predicting the death of “books”, “reading”, “literacy” etc…, will be with us for many, many years.
posted by Artw at 2:49 PM on March 7, 2008 [1 favorite]


Sadly, this problem seems to be spreading to academic libraries as well. Almost the entire focus of the college library I worked for 6 years was on the electronic databases we had. When our circulation and attendance slipped to abysmal levels, our Dean was thrilled. She claimed it meant that the students were all in their dorm rooms downloading articles from FirstSearch.

If I go back into libraries, I'll go back to children's services, where I started. There is still an emphasis on matching the child with the right book that is deeply satisfying to me.
posted by Biblio at 2:51 PM on March 7, 2008 [1 favorite]


On the positive side, it's now just a matter of time before a sub-editor somewhere in Essex finally gets to use the apocryphal headine: "Book Lack In Ongar".
posted by tomcooke at 2:51 PM on March 7, 2008 [6 favorites]


I guess the awesome title kind of makes up for the random and shitty last link.
posted by Artw at 2:53 PM on March 7, 2008


I'd take the convenience of having 500 books on a SD card to carry around over the tactile sensation of reading a bound-paper book, personally. I don't understand why some people are so against electronic books and why they haven't caught on more.

I'm not against electronic books, really, and a lot of my reading is done on a screen.

But I love physical books. I love the weight and the heft and the scent. I love the feeling of the different kinds of paper that publishers use. I love the fact that the book has no battery that will die; the text will not suddenly become inexplicably "corrupted" and unreadable; and even if I drop it in the bath or knock a cup of coffee over it, I can dry it off and it's still usable. Or if it's really destroyed by the coffee, I can probably track down a used copy for not much money.

I also love the smell and feel of bookstores. I buy by sensory input - some amalgamation of the words on the flaps, the page 1/page 30 test, the feel of it in my palm.

I'll admit that I'm a horrible, horrible library patron, which is to say that I'm not a library patron. I buy books because I like to own them. I need to know that if I have an urge to reread something at 3 am, I can. Libraries used to like me a lot, because I often racked up huge late fees.

Although I'm not a patron, I'm a library supporter. They're an important cultural and community resource. When I was a kid, my mom and I went to the library every week, and every week I checked out the maximum number of books allowed, and I got good feelings from the approving smiles of the librarians, which made up for the sneering of some of my classmates (and even some of my teachers!) - "You've always got your nose in a book. What's the matter with you?"
posted by rtha at 2:56 PM on March 7, 2008 [1 favorite]


It's a vicious circle - underfunded libraries become libraries with huge waiting lists for popular books, inadequate space and facilities, and people become less inclined to fund them. Underfunded libraries become libraries that cut their degreed librarian positions (this just happened in Marathon, Wisconsin) and people stop expecting anything from their librarians... and then, if librarians don't have any special skills anyway, why bother funding the positions?
posted by Jeanne at 2:56 PM on March 7, 2008


DecemberBoy writes "I'd take the convenience of having 500 books on a SD card to carry around over the tactile sensation of reading a bound-paper book, personally. I don't understand why some people are so against electronic books and why they haven't caught on more. Wouldn't it be better to, say, have a subscription service where you can look up any reference material you want and download an electronic copy (possibly with some sort of DRM to enforce limited time of use, if they must) and do it all from your home rather than having to drive to the library, navigate around the schizophrenics and cladestinely-masturbating pedophiles at the computers and dick with the Dewey decimal system only to find the book you wanted isn't even available anyway?"

Thank you for reading my mind in advance and posting this for me. Why are we operating on the fallacy that information is scarce?
posted by mullingitover at 2:58 PM on March 7, 2008 [1 favorite]


DecemberBoy. It's more than the tactile sensation. Paper books combine ease of reading, and ease of access. You can flip back and forth to reread something you were reading earlier (and the page flipping becomes a mnemonic placeholder for finding something quickly, sometimes more efficient than a digital search), and I'd guess that I read paper 10-40% faster than I do LCD or CRT. The Sony ebook comes close to paper for readability, but accessing new pages is so slow that it takes about the same amount of time as flipping a page and reading 10 lines of the next page in a paper book. Also, you don't need a power source to read a paper book.

Besides, the schizophrenics can be kind of fun to talk to if they aren't having halitosis / fecal stench issues.
posted by BrotherCaine at 2:59 PM on March 7, 2008 [2 favorites]


My eyes were tearing up while looking at the pictures n adamjujujive's link. That was unexpected.
posted by piratebowling at 2:59 PM on March 7, 2008


Our local library seems nicer than ever. I suppose that there's less emphasis on the books, per se, than there once was, but it has a relatively new building (expanded some 40% from the 1970s building that was gutted and replaced on site). Yes, there's a cafe, which raises money for the Friends of group, which includes an ever-changing selection of withdrawn volumes for a buck. So? I remember as a kid, in the old Carnegie building, when they got the first photo checkout devices and stopped writing the dates on the slips of paper. Now there are no slips, just barcodes, and you can renew a book for up to 9 weeks using the website, or reserve one and get an e-mail when it's available. I suppose the days of a library becoming a kind of Bookflix (or Netboox) are not far off, though it will take a logistical shift of some kind.

The original lending libraries, in the 19th century generally, were quite necessary as a way to impart lifelong learning capabilities to the furthest reaches of the frontier. (Allow me to cite and morph the Andrew Tanenbaum quip to never underestimate the bandwidth of a Conestoga loaded with books hurtling across the prairie.) Yes, the independent bookstore has all but definitively died, but almost everyone in a reasonably large town has access to a big box full of books nowadays, and there's been some voting with the feet. Libraries, though, are managing to change with the times. The cafes are in fact testaments of continued patronage.
posted by dhartung at 3:06 PM on March 7, 2008


Oh, I'd add selfcheckout to the list of things that help transform libraries.

Basically, and perhaps a little paradoxically, the fact that I can order a book online, get an email notification of when it’s available, pop into the library to pick it up and very quickly check it out – thus minimizing the time I have to spend in the library in order to use it – means that I use it much more, and hence visit it more often and elect to spend more time in it.
posted by Artw at 3:11 PM on March 7, 2008 [1 favorite]


(Also, no, a cafe is not a sign of the apocalypse. Limited hours -especially if they limit access outside of office hours- are far more worrying)
posted by Artw at 3:12 PM on March 7, 2008 [4 favorites]


Thank you for reading my mind in advance and posting this for me. Why are we operating on the fallacy that information is scarce?

Information is not scarce, but access to it can be. Are you going to cough up the cash to ensure that people have access to electronic readers, cards, and computers from which to download the stuff they want to read - not to mention the cost of those downloads, and money to fix the electronic reader when something goes wrong with it?

What it costs a poor person to get a library card (in places I'm familiar with, anyway): nothing. Maybe proof of address. But not cash.
posted by rtha at 3:13 PM on March 7, 2008 [3 favorites]


Decent online catalogues, ordering and notifications systems totally transform libraries and make them hugely more useable and useful – that’s something I’d advise any library system trying to stay relevant to invest in if they haven’t done so already.

I was about to say, I'm rather impressed with our county library system. The website could be a little more logically laid out, and I tend to divert to Amazon to get info and reviews about books... but I reserve and renew online, for both books and DVDs. It's pretty nice really.
posted by Foosnark at 3:41 PM on March 7, 2008


Foosnark - that actually sounds quite a bit like my library - I'd describe the layout as "functional", and the various searches are a bit brutal and technical, but they do get you what you want. The book information is often a little sparse, so I'm always popping over to Amazon for info (or even to the exact title of books, and then search for them back at the library). But it works, and it gets me the books I want, and that's brillaint.
posted by Artw at 3:49 PM on March 7, 2008


I don't understand why some people are so against electronic books and why they haven't caught on more.

The smell.
posted by Snyder at 3:50 PM on March 7, 2008 [3 favorites]


I did my library degree from 1991 to 1993. I was very excited about the prospects for digital information work, and I've managed to make a pretty good living out of it in the private sector. I have also been able to use my skills to develop my own bibliographic hobbies.

I once went into a bookstore from which I made purchases online, and I was shocked by how small and dumpy the place was. The clerk told me that the store was just a front, that the real collection was in a warehouse, and all the business was over the Internet. In fact, the business had grown so much through the Internet that the owner had purchased a mansion in the country.

I guess the moral is that new media need not destroy the old; they can work synergetically.
posted by No Robots at 3:57 PM on March 7, 2008


I don't understand why some people are so against electronic books and why they haven't caught on more.

Why haven't they caught on more? Until now I think they've had some usability problems.

Now the biggest problem is price. When a Kindle or Sony eBook Reader costs less than $100, they'll be commonplace.
posted by grouse at 4:02 PM on March 7, 2008


Modernisation can do a lot for libraries, including providing bigger spaces with better sound insulation and decent self-service borrowing/returns facilities.

The new library in my city is the centrepiece of a new pedestrianised square in the city centre, and has seen visitor numbers and book loans treble in the three years since it opened.

I am particularly fond of the children's library, which is cunningly arranged so that it's fully part of the library but also remote enough from the main bookshelves that you don't feel guilty if your kids are noisy. They have story readings, music and other happenings for toddlers every day. My (3-year-old) daughter does a weekly trip there with her daycare class. The last time my wife was there with her, a class of twelve year olds from elsewhere in the city were volunteering to read to the younger kids, which was lovely.
posted by athenian at 4:03 PM on March 7, 2008


I work in the Toronto public system... We're still one of the most well-used systems on the planet

'"Our libraries are where people become Torontonians," he said.'
posted by regicide is good for you at 4:09 PM on March 7, 2008


I can't imagine anyone preferring to read a book off a screen rather than from paper - it's just not as pleasant; it hurts your eyes. Granted I do my fair share of reading on the internet but an entire book? No way.
posted by Jess the Mess at 4:12 PM on March 7, 2008


Pardon me for asking, but where in the linked Guardian article (actually, a fairly thin opinion piece) does it say anything about the death of libraries? The article's own hed is "Publishers are braced for the slow death of the book." Then there is another linked article, again from the Guardian, about a north London library reducing its hours and moving in more PCs.

Not that there haven't been plenty of (premature) obituaries, but the Death of the Book is a different topic from the Death of the Library. To paraphrase Mr. Clemens, the reports of both deaths are greatly exaggerated.

Libraries are indeed cutting hours, but that is an issue that neither article actually addresses. The concern seems more to be that libraries are making an effort to keep up with the times. How dare they!
posted by blucevalo at 4:15 PM on March 7, 2008


Jess the Mess, you should check out the new e-paper displays. Instead of transmitting light towards you, they actually physically move ink particles around on the screen that absorb or reflect light just like the pigments on a piece of paper would.

They're also high-resolution.
posted by grouse at 4:15 PM on March 7, 2008


I believe in libraries. I believe they are not only essential to learning, they're essential to democracy.

That said, I really hate books. I hate how they're linear, how unless you have a really good index they're virtually unsearchable in paper form. I hate that they sit on my shelves not at stores of knowledge but as status items.

I'm not saying they're not pretty and wonderful in the tactile sense. Heaven knows how much I love my Moleskines and how I really only love them because they're the right size and shape and feel for me to take notes on. But at the end of the day, I wish I was taking those notes on a tablet PC or something similar so I could store them, tag them, and have them at the ready when I want to piece an idea together.

Books are just too limiting to me. My ADHD-addled brain just can't cope with their form and function.
posted by dw at 4:18 PM on March 7, 2008


As I see it, one of the big problems is that people expect the library to be all things to all people - which would take enormous amounts of money - but then they get upset when they're faced with the alternative of (a) raising taxes by an enormous amount or (b) funding other people's priorities in addition to their own.

People want the public library to be:
-A Barnes & Noble, but free.
-A Blockbuster Video, but free.
-A university library, with all the resources necessary for serious research.
-A community center
-A Boys & Girls Club (storytime, children's/teens' programming, homework help)
-A grade-school library
-A center for education/job information
-A place they can hang out even if they're homeless, even if they're latchkey kids
-An internet cafe, but free.
-A user-friendly link to local, state, & federal government
-A place where you can find information professionals to help you with research
-Etc.

People end up thinking, "The library should just do THIS, why does it have to spend all its money on THAT? What am I paying all my tax dollars for if I can't get THIS?"

Some of these things are things the public library can't feasibly do. Considering the cost of some of the scholarly databases, for example, public libraries just can't replicate the resources of a university library. Some of these things, the public library does badly. At the library where I work, a huge percentage of the popular movies either walk off the shelves without being checked out, or get checked out and never get brought back. And... providing copies of the new Danielle Steel and James Patterson is fairly simple and fairly easy, but one has to question the necessity of providing those books for free to middle-class people who could easily go to the bookstore and buy their own copy.

And while there are logical connections between all these things - you can get storytime and new picture books in one stop! You can get a book on resumes and send in your resume online in one stop! - I wonder if we need to stop putting all of these disparate missions under the "public library" umbrella. (At worst, you end up paying a person with a Master's degree $40,000 a year to babysit, check in books, and deal with the clogged toilet). We could either stop doing some things altogether (I have no philosophical problem with people being able to get Die Hard at the library, but buying things only to have them get stolen isn't working) or split up into different institutions... but then, a publically funded internet cafe wouldn't really fly, would it, if it weren't attached to an educational institution?
And if public libraries can't gain access to the scholarly databases, they can form consortiums to pool their resources (they are already doing this in a lot of places), we could establish federal funding to help non-students gain access to university libraries...*

I think that there will always be a place for public libraries. I've staked my career on it. But I think the form this will take may look very different in the future, and I think we're seeing some growing pains as this starts to happen, and I'm okay with that.

*I like to read Japanese books. Duke University in Durham, NC had a fabulous collection that I could get borrowing access to for only $35 a year. Sadly, Columbia charges a great deal more than that.
posted by Jeanne at 4:18 PM on March 7, 2008 [16 favorites]



It's more than that. Libraries have served as community centers for thousands of years....hopefully they can adapt and change with the times.
Unfortunately that seems to be part of the problem in Philadelphia. I haven't been in the Public Libraries as much since I've had access to a University Library (ours seems to be doing great at Temple U), but when I go–and my colleagues have corroborated my experience–the Main Library seems more and more to be a homeless shelter in some utopian dream, excepting the smell.

I'm not saying this out of some antipathy for the homeless, but rather out of frustration that the only place they can get a break (or internet access, or a bathroom) seems to be the Main Branch of the Public Library, which was never really envisioned as a place for primary care of our most indigent citizens.

But when this is allowed to persist, it inevitably drives other people away... which from my perspective threatens to limit the ability of the voting public to see the sense in funding the library (since let's face it, a lot of voting is around self interest). And then the homeless lose one more safe place, and everybody loses the library.
posted by illovich at 4:30 PM on March 7, 2008 [3 favorites]


It would be a crime to lose libraries.

Holy crap those are some beautiful libraries.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 4:36 PM on March 7, 2008


I work for a living. I don't have time to visit a library.

Oh man, I sound like a philistine, but there's a grain of truth in that. Pre-internet, when I was an unemployed teen, I spent months working my way through my town's main library. I read every Scientific American back until the 60s, and I credit A K Dewdney with a large part of who I am today.

*surfs wave of nostalgia*.

KokuRyu's comment, right at the beginning of the thread - "Libraries have served as community centers for thousands of years" - ok, thousands of years is a bit silly, but library-as-community-centre deserves some thought. We've lost churches, we've (mostly) lost the hustings, and the library's sitting right there. It might be nice to develop it as a community focus.
posted by Leon at 4:36 PM on March 7, 2008


The last time I was in a library I realized I was the only one whispering.
posted by Tube at 4:49 PM on March 7, 2008 [3 favorites]


Libraries need to cost something and to use the extra money to buy multiple copies of the latest high-demand books. Make a wing for paying visitors only (no visiting without a card and a payment) and put all the latest books in there. No free public computers, no noise, no phones, no smelly guy camping in the corner (unless he paid to get in), etc. When demand for a book in the pay part of the library drops below a certain point, move it out to the free part of the library with the rest of the older stuff (and the free computers and the poor smelly guys sleeping in the chairs).

And because that's probably too hard to implement in a government-owned system, do it privately, but work with the local public library to decide what both places need. The pay library could then sell books no longer in high demand (to customers or to the free library).
posted by pracowity at 5:01 PM on March 7, 2008


The Card Cheat: I work in the Toronto public system, and our circulation figures are (in general) dropping fast. We're still one of the most well-used systems on the planet, so I don't think we're in danger of going the way of the dodo anytime soon, but there are a lot of days when it seems like the only reason people come into my branch is to check their Facebook accounts and watch videos on YouTube.

Oh! The Toronto system is so great. I lived there for four years and I read so much during that time. [Sanderson reprazent.] Now I've moved back to Montreal where you can't reserve online, and if you could it's not like they'd have the book you want to begin with. It seriously breaks my heart.
posted by loiseau at 5:02 PM on March 7, 2008


pracowity: Libraries need to cost something and to use the extra money to buy multiple copies of the latest high-demand books. Make a wing for paying visitors only (no visiting without a card and a payment) [...]

With all due respect, sir, I suggest you refrain from posting while high.
posted by loiseau at 5:05 PM on March 7, 2008 [7 favorites]


Now there are no slips, just barcodes, and you can renew a book for up to 9 weeks using the website, or reserve one and get an e-mail when it's available.

That's true, but what you lose is the historical record behind that book. Me, I (used to) get a thrill looking at that flap, or even multiple flaps, seeing when previous patrons had taken the thing out, noting how many times they had re-newed it, wondering what they thought of it, marvelling that no had touched a given volume in ten, twenty, thirty years or more. It created an anonymous conspiracy, a bond, between me, the book, and unknown members of the community. Very Norman Rockwell, and good.

Now, the bar code and the damn pre-stamped cards that inevitably fall out de-personalize the whole exchange, strip the books of a kind of dignity, turn them into commodities. "Would you like a DVD with that?" Sure, it's efficient, but I still miss seeing the old librarians with the old pencils with the date stamps attached right to them. (Where does one even find such things anymore?)

(Oh, and at least at my local library, the computers tend to forget when I've asked for things and "remembered" fines that I have either already paid or do not owe in the first place.)
posted by IndigoJones at 5:17 PM on March 7, 2008 [2 favorites]


As a kid, I spent many hours each week at the local library, and I would look forward to going to work with my dad the professor so that I could use the college library. As a student in elementary and high school, I spent hours each week at the school library. As a grad student ... grad school library. See a pattern here?

Then came the web.

The web has, for both better and worse, replaced the library in my life. I'm 1.5 miles from a world-class science library, and 2 miles from what I suspect is one of the top 500 urban libraries. I rarely visit either, and when I do, I don't get that feeling that *this* is where the books and the answers are - not like I did when I was young.

I don't think my libraries are necessarily worse than the ones of my childhood; I just think that the internet gives me many things libraries can not, or gives me them in a way that's more convenient and reliable. Obscure out of print books? I can get them faster and more reliably than interlibrary loan via Powell's and Abebooks. Obscure in-print books? Amazon. A place to do research? Anywhere with wireless.

I miss the libraries that were a retreat and a place of scholarship, and I still love finding and visiting Carnegie libraries, but I find libraries frustrating - less reach than the net, less convenient than the net, and less reliable than the net.
posted by zippy at 5:52 PM on March 7, 2008


rtha writes "Information is not scarce, but access to it can be. Are you going to cough up the cash to ensure that people have access to electronic readers, cards, and computers from which to download the stuff they want to read - not to mention the cost of those downloads, and money to fix the electronic reader when something goes wrong with it?"

Every library I've visited in the last ten years has been stuff with electronic readers. These electronic readers also allow you to browse the web and do word processing. They are available for free use by library patrons.

For those who wish to use the media outside the library, personal general-purpose computers are approaching the price bracket occupied by DVD players, and they are fast dropping to the price bracket of telephones. A media card capable of holding an entire encyclopedia set costs less than what many people spend on lunch at a cheap restaurant.
posted by mullingitover at 5:59 PM on March 7, 2008


For those who wish to use the media outside the library, personal general-purpose computers are approaching the price bracket occupied by DVD players, and they are fast dropping to the price bracket of telephones. A media card capable of holding an entire encyclopedia set costs less than what many people spend on lunch at a cheap restaurant.

Again, this is not free. A library card is free. Taking books out of the library is free.

A computer is not free, nor is the electricity to run it, nor is the card reader. If you live in less-than-secure housing, it's not unlikely that someone might break into your place and steal your computer. Batteries for the reader - also not free. Downloads of books - not free (well, some are, many aren't. How much does that entire digital encyclopedia set cost, anyway?). A few hundred dollars may not seem like a lot to many of us for a computer + card reader + book downloads, but that's a position of phenomenal privilege.

The computer, the media card, the reader - they're good things. But unless they're going to be as free as a library card and books, then they are barriers to information, not access to it.

Look, I'm not saying that electronic readers and the like aren't valuable. I'm not saying they aren't incredibly useful. I'm not saying you shouldn't use one.

But they are not a replacement for libraries and the services they offer, for free, to anyone with a library card (and many without). Not to mention that books don't require tech support, or repairs, or any specialized knowledge beyond knowing how to read.
posted by rtha at 7:01 PM on March 7, 2008 [2 favorites]


The Guardian writes on the long slow death of libraries.

Uh, am I being slow or is that The Times, not The Grauniad?
posted by Frasermoo at 7:03 PM on March 7, 2008


And, as noted above, not really about libraries.
posted by Artw at 7:13 PM on March 7, 2008


When people start talking about the death of the book, I begin to worry about the currently egalatarian nature of reading. Anyone with that skill can pick up a book and read it, limited only by their comprehension skills. A poor kid can pick up a book for free from a library, and providing his school has fulfilled the most basic of its requirements then he can read it. Once the book becomes mediated, filtered through not just a e-book but all the attendant code and DRM protocol that goes along with it, it means that the reader has to be conversant with the form of mediation as well as having the ability to read. It's easy for people to gas about how easy technology is on the Internet, because the people who are disefranchised from electronic media are by definition not going to be able to make themselves heard. This is going to freak some of you out, I'm sure, but there are people out there who have more important things to spend their money on than an internet connection. All the chatter about how easy it is to download and use an e-text is meaningless is you don't have acess to the technology required to do so.

There's also the problems associated with having small, valuable stores of knowledge. You can lose a small media card containing an enclopedia without much hassle. I can't imagine that even the most clumsy of kids could manage to lose a whole hardbound set of the same. You also can't give an e-book to a toddler to have a paw through. E-paper is crap if you drop it in the bathtub. And I can guarantee you no-one will leave an e-text they hated at the bus stop for someone else.

Bottom line is that anyone who can read can read a book. The book is self-contained and easy to use. Even bought brand new, books are cheap. Second hand they're even cheaper. They're free if you borrow them from a library or from your friends. They are self contained and require only themselves.

An e-book is not a democratic device. It requires a certain amount of tech savvy to navigate. It requires constant maintenace that a conventional book does not. They require an initial outlay, then a further cost per text. E-texts are significantly easier to lose or damage than a conventional book.

There is still a massive demand for books and for libraries, especially here in Australia. The e-book has its uses (the compact nature of e-reference books, especially things like the law library example given above) but I think it's terribly foolish to start harping on about how the book is doomed.


On preview, what rtha said.
posted by Jilder at 7:15 PM on March 7, 2008 [3 favorites]


I'm surprise copyright lawyers haven't closed them down years ago.
posted by HTuttle at 7:19 PM on March 7, 2008


that too Artw. damn histrionics.
posted by Frasermoo at 7:23 PM on March 7, 2008


..and to back it up, surprisingly, I've read more books in the last 3 months, than I probably have ever read in any 3 month period... so there.
posted by Frasermoo at 7:24 PM on March 7, 2008


I am going to build my own fucking library.

That's basically why the one thing I never clear out is my book collection. I'm going travelling for an extended period of time and ditching pretty much everything but .... To me it's a very real reality that when I've reached 60 these things will be rare and I want to have my own little library in old age. Bonus points if I can remember where each and every stain originated .... memories!!
posted by mannequito at 7:31 PM on March 7, 2008 [1 favorite]


My favorite library in the world is closing this fall So sad. The New York Public Library Donnell on West 53rd Street, between Fifth Avenue and Sixth Avenue was bought by the people who own '21' club just behind the library. A hotel will be built in its place and the library will get a basement space in the hotel building.

I will miss it terribly.
posted by nickyskye at 7:31 PM on March 7, 2008 [1 favorite]


Also, I'm pretty sure that both e-paper and real-paper are pretty worthless after a trip into the bathtub, unless you're a quick draw on the blow dryer.
posted by mannequito at 7:32 PM on March 7, 2008


I am going to build my own fucking library.

That's very cutting edge. There are a couple (one?) private library in the US open to the public: Prelinger Library in San Francisco. The cool thing is your not stuck with an outdated dewy decimal system and can basically do anything you want, even set your own hours, have a no checkout policy - do whatever you want. It just takes money. It's a throwback to the Victorian era when wealthy learned gentleman of leisure were at the vanguard of knowledge.
posted by stbalbach at 7:35 PM on March 7, 2008


Yes, and why go out and see bands play live? I prefer to turn up my stereo and dance in the privacy of my own home, and the drinks are cheaper!

Because seeing a band playing live offers something you can't get by just listening to their record. It's an experience. What does a library offer over a hypothetical service like the one I proposed? The glorious smell of homeless mental patients?
posted by DecemberBoy at 7:37 PM on March 7, 2008


Decemberboy: Do you actually go to a library? Because you seem to have some pretty rough estimations of what they're like that in no way match up to not only my own experiences, but those of others in the thread.
posted by Jilder at 7:45 PM on March 7, 2008


As an aside, anyone remember DIALOG? It was this craptastic, arcane service that ran from dedicated text terminals installed in school libraries. I don't even remember what it did, maybe something to do with looking up magazine and newspaper articles. Toward the tail end of elementary school and in Jr. high we were drilled in its use as something we MUST learn and would be using for the rest of our academic lives. About a year or two later, the first ISPs opened and no one ever heard of DIALOG again. It may still exist in some form, but it probably runs off a single midrange Windows/SQL Server box now.
posted by DecemberBoy at 7:47 PM on March 7, 2008


Decemberboy: Do you actually go to a library? Because you seem to have some pretty rough estimations of what they're like that in no way match up to not only my own experiences, but those of others in the thread.

Exaggeration for comedic effect. I don't have anything against them, but if they all ceased to exist outside of universities I wouldn't particularly care.
posted by DecemberBoy at 7:49 PM on March 7, 2008


Here's an idea - have a private library that is stocked with books by the members of the library. The unit is a "shelf" and each member gets a shelf which they can stock with their own books. It's sort of like a Wikipedia commons library. The books are still owned by the person, but they can be checked out by others. It combines old fashioned libraries with new concepts of user-generated content and community. Old style libraries are top-down, run by the state - this would be a ground-up system run by the patrons. The patrons can decide how to stock the shelfs. Lots of ideas how to run a system like that, the key is, getting rid of the paternalistic top-down state-run system where expert librarians act as gatekeepers. IMO that is a problem - information wants to be free of the constraints of the people running the libraries. It's like Encyclopedia Britannica vs Wikipedia.
posted by stbalbach at 7:51 PM on March 7, 2008 [2 favorites]


if they all ceased to exist outside of universities I wouldn't particularly care.
You will mate, when you haven't got two pennies to rub together, and suddenly you can't just pop down to that public building and borrow for free, the book you want to read.

Drop your 'me me me'.
posted by Frasermoo at 7:53 PM on March 7, 2008


You will mate, when you haven't got two pennies to rub together, and suddenly you can't just pop down to that public building and borrow for free, the book you want to read.

Drop your 'me me me'.


You know, I don't even really care about this that much so I don't know why I'm arguing about it, but the last time I was in a library I didn't even see that many books. Lots of DVDs, lots of public-use computers, lots of everything else, but not that many books. And what there were were mostly children's books. Granted, this was a small library, but still.

And yeah, plenty of people without two cents to rub together use the library: to use the computers and take a crap indoors. Personally, if I were destitute, I think I'd have bigger concerns than reading for leisure, like, y'know, food and shelter, but this is silly and hypothetical anyway.
posted by DecemberBoy at 8:21 PM on March 7, 2008


One final thing: yeah, I have fond memories of libraries from when I was a kid too, but I also have fond memories of record stores, and they've become mostly obsolete too. Yes, the technology for ebooks and the Internet as a true reference source have just now started to really come to fruition, but 10 years from now they'll be much better. Will we have really lost anything other than nostalgia? Maybe we could have tax-funded repositories of electronic books, again with DRM if necessary, and keep the libraries around as the free net cafes they already mostly are. There are any number of ways to do it. I just believe in technology moving forward even if some things fall by the wayside. Like, when the printing press came out, I'm sure there were people who mourned the loss of illuminated manuscripts. I realize that libraries are free and ebooks and computers cost money, but like I said, maybe libraries could be repurposed at least partially.
posted by DecemberBoy at 8:35 PM on March 7, 2008


I'm a big fan of the local library's website + insta-reserve; before I order anything up from Amazon, I always run a quick search there and see if they have it. If they do, it goes on my reserve list, and I can walk over and pick it up. Can't beat that with a stick.

I think Jeanne absolutely nailed the current issue with libraries, though. Until fairly recently, the function and purpose of a public library was well-understood. It was (mainly) a place you went to browse and check out paper books; that was their function. Now, I'm not so sure that you'd get wide agreement as to what the purpose and scope of a public library is. Some people basically want to use them for the purpose that I quite admittedly use it for, which is as an alternative to Amazon or Blockbuster or driving to the local university library. Other people really seem to see and use it mostly as a place to sit down and access the Internet for free. And some people want a community center, a place with lots of rooms that they can schedule and use for various activities. I'm not sure that given the limited amount of funding that's available for "the library" as a single entity, all or even many of these functions will ever be satisfied under the same roof -- and trying to satisfy all of them risks satisfying nobody.

I don't think there's a single right answer for every community. People in towns and cities need to decide what they want out of a library, and what they're willing to pay for. And I think that a certain amount of users' fees for services determined to be ancillary to the library's core purpose (whatever that is) may be involved in some places, and may be a reasonable part of a solution.

As for the whole paper-books vs e-books issue, I'll be the first one singing the praises of e-books as soon as they have a product that's actually superior to paper books for my reading habits. I've only gotten to handle a Kindle briefly, but I don't think it's there yet; frankly I'm not sure if the technology exists yet. The Kindle's display is good -- e-ink is a huge step up from LCDs or LEDs -- but it's not as good as paper in terms of contrast and sharpness, at least not to my eyes. Plus there are the separate issues of cost, fragility, power, and DRM. Depending on your reading habits I could see it being better than paper in some instances, but I don't think it's a general replacement yet, especially for casual or occasional readers. But I'm not saying e-books are a failure or that they'll never replace paper; I think that's an unsafe claim. I think it'll just be much longer than some of their proponents seem to think.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:01 PM on March 7, 2008 [1 favorite]


Libraries need to cost something and to use the extra money to buy multiple copies of the latest high-demand books. Make a wing for paying visitors only (no visiting without a card and a payment) and put all the latest books in there. No free public computers, no noise, no phones, no smelly guy camping in the corner (unless he paid to get in), etc. When demand for a book in the pay part of the library drops below a certain point, move it out to the free part of the library with the rest of the older stuff (and the free computers and the poor smelly guys sleeping in the chairs).

The library already costs money. Your desire to fuck over poor people does not make this a better idea.

the key is, getting rid of the paternalistic top-down state-run system where expert librarians act as gatekeepers.

Yes, random people off the street are equally qualified to engage in information organisation and retrieval as people who've spent two years of post-graduate education learning information organisation and retrieval.
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:06 PM on March 7, 2008 [2 favorites]


Wouldn't it be better to, say, have a subscription service where you can look up any reference material you want

And wouldn't it be nice if that subscription was provided to all by a library? (lots of major libraries actually do offer such a service - but ok, maybe not every reference book ever published)

As an aside, anyone remember DIALOG?

Its actually still taught in some Information Science degrees. Not that its very much used anymore (although I did work in a library that still had an access two years ago), but its a very good way to learn the core principles of research.

The tricky part about e-books is the format. Unless every future e-reader is compatible with old versions, maybe the out of print won't just be unavailable for purchase, but you might not even be able to read those old publications.

For journal articles, non-fiction and reference I enjoy electronic, but for fiction reading, i still like good old printed books. Then again, I haven't tried the latest generation of e-readers.

And link to a funny picture somewhat related
posted by domi_p at 9:20 PM on March 7, 2008


I've been a member of a public library since I was four years old. I'll never forget the sense of awe and wonder as I first walked in and my mother signed me up. Even when I has handed the library card I just found it impossible to accept that I could read all those thousands of books.

For free.

I and many other working class people learned more in a public library than in a dysfunctional education system. Without access to a public library I wouldn't have had access to 1% of the books I've read. Without them I just wouldn't be able to develop my thoughts and interests.

The arrogance shown by some in this thread illustrates exactly why libraries are needed for all people, regardless of income or formal education.
posted by quarsan at 12:00 AM on March 8, 2008 [6 favorites]


Naomi Alderman's article had particular resonance for me, as I grew up in the same part of North London and, like her, got my first library card for Hendon public library when I was about two years old. Much of what she says is true. What has happened to Hendon library is very, very sad, and it is a microcosm of what has happened to the UK public library system as a whole.

For those who don't know Hendon library: it was built in the 1920s as a flagship of the public library system, in classical style with a proud Latin motto over the main entrance: 'NON MINIMA PARS ERUDITIONIS EST NOSCERE BONOS LIBROS'. When I first knew it in the 1970s, it was an outstanding library with an excellent, wide-ranging stock and a superb reference section. There was a splendid children's library, one of the first in the country, founded by a brilliant librarian, Eileen Colwell, who had joined the library in 1926 and stayed there for forty years. (Do, if you are interested, follow the link to Eileen Colwell's obituary; it encapsulates everything that was good about the old public library system.) What Naomi Alderman says in her article rings true for me too: 'Hendon library was my temple, my treasure house, the place that inspired me to read and then to write.' It wasn't just books either: I first started to explore classical music when I was about fourteen, and spent many hours listening to scratchy old Harmonia Mundi LPs borrowed from the record library upstairs.

So what happened? To say that the public library was killed off by the rise of the Internet is nonsense; the problems began long before the Internet was ever heard or thought of. Hendon library was a casualty of the cuts in local authority funding imposed by the Thatcher government in the 1980s. To cash-strapped councils looking to save money, libraries were an easy target: staff could be sacked, opening hours could be cut, book purchases could be reduced, reserve stock could be sold off. The result, of course, was that library use fell sharply, thus providing justification for further cuts and propelling public libraries into a vicious circle of decline. (Not coincidentally, it was at about this time that we began to hear talk of public libraries as 'elitist' and 'used only by a minority'.) Hendon library never really recovered. This was the beginning of the process described in Naomi Alderman's article, as public libraries got rid of their old stock, replaced hardback fiction with paperback, introduced cafes and rows of computer terminals and rebranded themselves as 'community resource centres' in a desperate attempt to win back their lost clientele.

Now, I don't agree with all of Naomi Alderman's overwrought rhetoric ('the moneychangers have taken over the temple' etc) and I am quite prepared to accept that public libraries needed to be modernised. But it is quite clear to me that the history of Hendon library over the last twenty years has been, overall, a history of decline. One change that particularly concerns me is the way that older library users have been effectively disenfranchised; my 80-year-old father-in-law, for example, is still a regular user of Hendon library, but has never learned how to use the Internet and has access to only a very limited range of printed reference materials (and can no longer rely on the presence of a trained reference librarian to help answer his queries). Another change that concerns me is the loss of cultural memory resulting from the short shelf-life of most public library books; it is now common for libraries to discard their books after 2-3 years without keeping any reserve stock, so that it is increasingly difficult to find older books. As a teenager in Hendon library, I was able to familiarise myself with all the best contemporary British fiction of the last twenty years (Kingsley Amis, Malcolm Bradbury, David Lodge ..) to an extent that I don't think would be possible today.

I was struck by DecemberBoy's comment upthread: 'I don't have anything against them [= libraries], but if they all ceased to exist outside universities I wouldn't particularly care.' Perhaps this was said partly in jest, but I think it gets to the heart of the matter. We are, very rapidly, moving towards a situation where a lot of information is only available to an educated elite inside the university system who have access to well-stocked libraries, access to a wide range of electronic resources, and some training in how to use them. This leaves an intellectual underclass of people who don't enjoy the same privileges and who (crucially) no longer have the means of accessing elite culture via the public library system. In effect, we are moving back to the situation that existed in the mid-nineteenth century before the public libraries came along. Is that really what we want?
posted by verstegan at 4:22 AM on March 8, 2008 [7 favorites]


loiseau: I should have added that people coming in to pick up their holds, which they can browse for and reserve online, is one of the other things lots of people come in for quite often. The TPL's holds system is fantastic.
posted by The Card Cheat at 8:09 AM on March 8, 2008


We are, very rapidly, moving towards a situation where a lot of information is only available to an educated elite inside the university system who have access to well-stocked libraries, access to a wide range of electronic resources, and some training in how to use them.

This implies academic libraries are not suffering from a similar slow death as public libraries. Academic libraries are beholden to two main audiences, the students and the faculty. Each of those camps have pull over the other and between them is the tension on which the academic libraries lies. Faculty determine what students research and where they look - as faculty slowly modernize, more and more they send their students towards the web and online resources. Students are the ones that actually go into the library, so their use determines what resources the academic library needs to develop and maintain. Students are either 'digital natives' or 'lazy' and therefore are not interested in physical books. So circulation of materials falls, harder to track access to online materials rise, and academic libraries must adjust their budgets to support that trend. This means less money spent on books, more on workstations and databases.

So yeah, the traditional library is dying. In fifty years, libraries will be data access points staffed by people whose job it is to assist the user in getting the resources they need. Their information resources will be wide, but not very deep. What will be lost will be vast swaths of print material determined to be not worth making the transition from page to screen. Why scan the 3rd edition of a book when you have the 6th edition online? Well, the 3rd edition could have information, be it factual or some representation of the biases of the era, that the 6th lacks. More and more 'libraries of record' (like my former employer) are ditching their print collection development. They only want online materials and do not have a plan as to what to do if said online resources suddenly disappear. But hey, the loss of that historical information only impacts a small minority of information seekers, and they'll all be dead soon, so why worry?

Libraries can no longer be an everything under the sun resource. They can't be an information commons (a place for people to gather in an information-rich environment) and an archive at the same time. The money and use is not there. So libraries shift their resources towards the commons. Archives shift their money towards the 'sexy' old stuff (the only old textbook you'll see in an archive will be a text owned by a famous person), but as material moves more and more away from the paper, they'll be without anything to store and so will either die or become book-museums.

All that said, I'm not too worried about my future career as a librarian. I'm on the access management track, so will still have plenty to do for years to come.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 8:22 AM on March 8, 2008


Regarding the e-book: I'm not sure it's particularly wise to put one's hopes on a format that requires a power source. Generations of people have grown up in a world that takes electricity for granted, like water from a tap. A power outage like the one that struck central Canada and the northern States back in 2003 was a real culture shock, because people base so much of their daily existence on access to a working wall outlet: TV, computers, even light. In fifty years when electrical and gas power are no longer plentiful, those battery-free books* are going to seem pretty economical.


Side story, apropos of nothing: I once tried to convince my 8-year-old nephew that when I was his age, books had to be powered by batteries or stationary exercycles connected to a turbine. I told him that "cordless books" were one of the great modern inventions he was so lucky to enjoy. I love being an uncle! (And no, my nephew didn't buy my story for one minute.)

posted by spoobnooble at 8:26 AM on March 8, 2008 [1 favorite]


i blame jessamyn.
posted by quonsar at 9:24 AM on March 8, 2008


Our library is huge, majestic, constantly approved for tax increase referendum after tax increase referendum. It’s well stocked and pretty much exactly what a library should be. If they had a weight room you’d never get me out of there.

"You've always got your nose in a book. What's the matter with you?"

Bill Hicks does a great bit on this waitress at a waffle house asking him “What you readin’ fer?”


“Personally, if I were destitute, I think I'd have bigger concerns than reading for leisure,”

Books make people unhappy, they make them anti-social.
These are all novels, all about people that never existed, the people that read them it makes them unhappy with their own lives. Makes them want to live in other ways they can never really be.

People want to be happy, isn't that right? Haven't you heard it all your life? I want to be happy, people say. Well, aren't they? Don't we keep them moving, don't we give them fun? That's all we live for, isn't it? For pleasure, for titillation? And you must admit our culture provides plenty of these.

Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs or the names of state capitals or how much corn Iowa grew last year. Cram them full of non-combustible data, chock them so damned full of 'facts' they feel stuffed, but absolutely 'brilliant' with information. Then they'll feel they're thinking, they'll get a sense of motion without moving. And they'll be happy, because facts of that sort don't change. Don't give them any slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology to tie things up with. That way lies melancholy.

...ach, probably a waste of time. (Smed, why would you say that? What do you mean? Oh, you’re referencing this, but that doesn’t connect to blah blah blah blah.) Amounts to the same thing though. No destruction needed. Just don’t give folks two sides to a question to worry them, give them one. Better yet, give them none.
posted by Smedleyman at 11:20 AM on March 8, 2008


In fifty years, libraries will be data access points staffed by people whose job it is to assist the user in getting the resources they need.

That's what libraries are, man.
posted by Pope Guilty at 12:03 PM on March 8, 2008


I go to the public library all the time. I use the library for a lot of things: to check out books, to use the internet, to have a place to sit and read or knit. I suspect that makes me different from a lot of the people posting here.

I think one of the legitimate functions of a library is to create a place where people can go and sit quietly. They're places where kids can go and do their homework. High-school kids make up the largest contingent of people I see at the library, and I support having spaces where kids can go after school to study. That's especially important for kids whose homes aren't conducive to concentrating. I see people at the library who appear to be homeless and/or mentally ill, and I believe that they have as much right to be there as anyone else, provided they're not bothering anyone. Most of the time, they're not bothering anyone. (And again, I know people are going to talk about smelly or abusive homeless people, but I am a regular patron of an urban library, and I don't see it often.) In the summer, I often go to the library because it's cool there and I don't have air conditioning. I think that's a legitimate function of a library. There ought to be public spaces that are open to everyone. I think that's almost as important as the information-dispersing function. It's important to have free, accessible public spaces. In that sense, libraries aren't just repositories of information. They're democratic spaces, like the indoor equivalent of a public park.

I don't think that libraries can ever be replaced by the book version of Netflix. That wouldn't be a good idea even if there weren't blindingly obvious issues about inequality of access. (And it's worth noting that the people who use public libraries are often the very people who don't have access at home to the internet.)
posted by craichead at 12:43 PM on March 8, 2008


You will mate, when you haven't got two pennies to rub together, and suddenly you can't just pop down to that public building and borrow for free, the book you want to read.

If you get the urge to borrow books while mating, then you're doing it wrong.
posted by martinrebas at 12:54 PM on March 8, 2008


I'm a bigger fan of public libraries than most everything else. I find them extremely comforting, and they've always been a huge community resource in my experience.

One thing that I've always really appreciated public libraries for: they may not have the specific book I hoped to read, but they usually have a ton of local history and documentation. The Providence Public Library has records of every Providence Journal going back a few hundred years. And it's easily searchable. I've found invaluable information and history about neighborhoods in the local branch of the public library.

I remember when I started doing local research. I had access to the internet! and to an impressive university library. I was shocked to realize how much of a scarcity both venues had in local history and resources. The local historical preservation society has a heafty membership fee. All of a sudden I had to re-think my plan. And then I checked the local library - lo and behold, everything I needed, for free!

I, too, have been seeing huge cuts in funding for libraries. It's heartbreaking.
posted by lunit at 5:10 PM on March 8, 2008


I check out at least a book a week from my library. They have a great system for requesting books online, and the locations I go to are usually crowded. It might take a while to get the most up to date programming books, but it beats paying $50 for them.
posted by drezdn at 5:43 PM on March 8, 2008


Last fall I was involved in a heavy fight to save our local library. The city council and mayor, all of whom are new money carpetbaggers that have invaded our small town didn't see any reason for children's programs, or to have a "real" library director...they wanted the non-degreed guy who headed up Parks and Services to be in charge of the library so they could fire the PhD who ran the library.

We didn't win the fight on all points, but we were able to motivate hundreds of the residents who were here before the commuter community to park ourselves in the city council offices, in the city planners office, in the council meetings...it was fabulous. We lost services, but we at least kept the library open.

Unfortunately, we'll have to keep doing it every year, because until those council members have been run out of town on a rail, they're going to keep voting to destroy the things that made our little town so wonderful. They've given every BigBox retailer a huge tax rebate/abeyance, but somehow we don't have the funding for kid's sports, or community center activities, and now the Kid's storytime is at....get this...a freaking McDonalds. (And yet our tax rate is among the highest in Texas per capita...almost all of it going to the "capital improvements" being done by companies owned by the new council members. ) Thanks, Republicans!

Losing libraries and the associated cultural benefits is a crime against thought, against intelligence, against culture and against society.
posted by dejah420 at 7:26 PM on March 8, 2008


I love my local library, and would just like to point out that if you're on a Mac, there's a great little menubar app called "Library Books" that keeps track of your holds and checked-out items for you (it even lets you know when your books are approaching over-due-ness by the little menubar icon changing color).
posted by blueberry at 8:21 PM on March 8, 2008 [1 favorite]


Every time you log onto the internet you are going to the library. It's really just information management in a public sphere using the common technology, or better, a free society giving access to information via the common technology to everyone. This is why it was logical for public internet access to land at the library rather than, for instance, the police station, the courthouse, or city hall.

Books, too, are just a way of disseminating information. Rather than lament the demise of the book (after all we survived the demise of the oral tradition, steles, the scroll, and the monasteries), we should be lamenting, nay protesting, the demise of uncensored access to information in the name of "security."

Access to information, through free discussion, commitment to education, open assembly, widespread internet access, and even book publishing is THE key to a safe, secure and free society. I like holding a book and I like being able to see an entire page, rather than just a sentence at a time, but in the end, I want to be able to read what I want to read, and if I have to do it off my pda because there are no books anymore, so be it.
posted by nax at 2:29 PM on March 9, 2008


>>>In fifty years, libraries will be data access points staffed by people whose job it is to assist the user in getting the resources they need.

>>That's what libraries are, man.


Not quite. The library as data-access-point is just one of the multiple roles of the traditional library. The library also has social and communal aspects - its content and character are reflections of the community around it. It is a meeting place, a teaching place (which is different from a data-access point - data informs, it does not teach), and sometimes a defacto homeless shelter. It can be a monument to generosity or self-aggrandizement (think of any 'named' academic library or all those Carnegie libraries out there) or a temple to learning. It is a storehouse, an archive, and a place to go to get out of the rain. A library does its best to equalize information access across all levels of society.

To pare down the library to just its data-access-point form is to chop away a lot of what makes the library a unique institution. What is left, the data-access-point, is the aspect that most directly competes with the internet, which is a losing proposition. To make a library nothing more than an access point makes it vulnerable to the whims of those who already have data access approaches of their own (computers, enough cash to blow at Borders, etc). The argument then becomes 'Why should we have a library when I have the internet?' To which the reply is 'Not everyone has access to the internet' which is then followed by 'Yeah, but those people don't pay as much in taxes as me.'

So the library cannot be a 'Poor Man's Internet' any more than it can be a 'Poor Man's Blockbuster' or a 'Poor Man's Barnes & Nobles'. But the library keeps taking on new roles as a response to the shifting needs of its patrons, stretching itself too thin. It needs to specialize, but in what, I have no idea. Ideally, it should specialize in just being a library, that weird meeting point of factors described above, but that does not seem to be what people want any more, hence the slow death punctuated by periodic flares of rebirth.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 5:01 AM on March 10, 2008


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