An Institution in Transition
December 5, 2011 7:52 AM   Subscribe

Upheaval at the New York Public Library: an article in The Nation which looks at the current state of the NYPL, and highlights many of the problems facing public libraries across the United States.
posted by codacorolla (40 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
"We want it all on computer, but we want to cut the budget by 20%." It's not like we haven't heard that before in the library world. Honestly, every time I have explained to administrators what online access actually costs, what the per year increases are, and likely impacts of their decisions, they kind of glaze over, go blank, and then reboot to "online will save money." It's like they have all been infected by a virus or something....

(Personal reasons may also keep Marx from sleeping soundly: on the afternoon of November 6 he was arrested in Upper Manhattan for driving while intoxicated; his blood alcohol level was 0.19. He is scheduled to appear in court on December 9.)

Imagine the blood alcohol level of his staff!
posted by GenjiandProust at 8:02 AM on December 5, 2011 [5 favorites]

“The building is a machine for reading books in. The stacks are part of what the building is. There’s an idea there: that the books are in the center and they rise up out of that machine into the reading room to serve the people. It’s a whole conception that will be turned on its head by ripping out the stacks. It’s a terrible thing to do.”

Granted, a library building itself is library technology, and this particular technology is very, very old, and also granted that libraries are undergoing a period of incredible change where no-one can predict what that new future will look like...

I'm extremely wary of any changes to the main branch. Things will have to change, no doubt, because of the change in demands on how libraries are used, and changes from above requiring to do more with less, but -- the building is a gem. It's close to a Platonic ideal of what a library should be. A wholesale change such as this is a dangerous one. The uncertainty involved in any change is only magnified by the secrecy surrounding the plans.
posted by Capt. Renault at 8:16 AM on December 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

It seems like what's happening is this (I come from a family containing several generations of librarians, the youngest of whom left library work in despair):

Disaster capitalism, basically. We need - regular people need - more access to computers and a public space to use them in. Marginalized people in particular need these things - homeless people, refugees, youth. All those people need public gathering places protected from the weather, in any case. There aren't a lot of community facilities, schools have fewer resources and semi-private spaces like malls and coffee shops cost money, plus at least around here they've become a lot more security-conscious, as have schools. (It's no fun to hang out in heavily-policed space, and librarians really don't have any authority.). And there is so much desirable media - porn, youtube, games, etc. And children are required more and more to do online learning games as homework, whether or not they have reliable computer access at home.

These things are essential to any kind of social or political participation - it's no joke. If you can't use email/Facebook/etc you're pretty much shut out of a huge portion of the job market, deprived of news, have fewer medical resources, etc.

But there's no political will or money to provide these things anywhere, nor is there political will to pay people enough for them to have these things for themselves. Ergo, libraries become de facto computer centers, loud and chaotic and unpleasant.

I have been to the public library precisely once in the last three years - the downtown branch is basically a computer-use barn, with a tiny selection of pop (romance! capitalist boosterism! self-help!) books actually available to patrons. (Although I have learned recently that you are allowed to go into the stacks, use the shelf-moving things and browse actual books.) The public library is no fun anymore, but I sure don't blame the folks who need to use the computers. (Family members left library work because they got tired of babysitting the noisy teens and the porn watchers - that wasn't why they went to library school.)

Anyway, what's happening is that needed social reforms - paying people enough for proper internet access, giving youth places to meet, de-privatizing daily life - are being done in a half-assed way by appealing to anti-elitism and technocracy. All those boring, stodgy old people who don't want to use technology; all those weirdos who don't want to digitize everything; the tiny minority of fussy intellectual killjoys who are ruining real Americans' fun...let's take the library away from those people, that's the logic. The things those people want are undemocratic and stupid and trivial.

I strongly suspect that we'll have neither our penny nor our candy when all this is over - there's no way that, even if we repurpose every single library in the US - we'll be able to keep up with people's needs with society and the economy the way they are. And frankly, I suspect that once they've fucked up the libraries, the "democratizing" elites will fund the new computer centers less and less, because the basic purpose of the exercise is to minimize public expense by giving people the least that they'll accept.
posted by Frowner at 8:21 AM on December 5, 2011 [15 favorites]

Librarians and library schools are complicit in all this. There is no democratic mandate preached at library schools. It is all about budgets, computers and management. Librarians are in the thrall of the system that is destroying them. They're like trusties in a concentration camp, hoping that they have curried enough favour to save themselves.
posted by No Robots at 8:45 AM on December 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

NYPL Slip.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 8:46 AM on December 5, 2011 [3 favorites]

Things like libraries are easy to close in hard times but hard to open in good times. I wish people would recognize this and make the effort to preserve them, rather than looking at them as an easy source of budget cutbacks.
posted by JHarris at 8:47 AM on December 5, 2011 [4 favorites]

When I lived in North Carolina I researched much of a novel -- taking place at a silk factory in a fantasy version of 1920s Japan -- at Duke University, which charged only $35 a year for borrower privileges. New York doesn't have any research libraries where an ordinary guy off the street can get, for a reasonable price, access to substantial research collections... except for NYPL. Columbia University charges $100 a month for borrowing privileges. NYU charges $1000 a year.

So, as a librarian (for Brooklyn Public Library, which is a separate system) I am frequently terrified by each year's round of budget cuts -- including in 2010, when I got pink-slipped and didn't know for several months whether any funding was going to be restored. And as a librarian, I'm occasionally resentful that NYPL has enough cachet to pursue a lot of private philanthropy, whereas a lot of people don't even know that Queens Library and BPL aren't just subdivisions of NYPL.

But as a library user who often wants to look up books that are too old or scholarly or obscure to be found in the average public library collection, I know that we need NYPL's research libraries. We're so quick to find other people within the library to put the blame on -- too many computers, too many romance novels, too many Slavic books, and really, it's like we're crabs in a bucket pulling each other down. We need to defend all those parts of the public library, both the kinda weird person who spends their time typing nonsensical screeds on a public library computer and the kinda weird person who's looking for university press books about Japanese modernism.
posted by Jeanne at 8:58 AM on December 5, 2011 [7 favorites]

In case that wasn't tl;dr enough:

At my library we get a ton of people who are doing college research who do not have college libraries that can support them in this. Sometimes they're going to online universities, sometimes they have other circumstances I don't know about. That's going to only become more common in the future, and certainly I think that the colleges should bear some responsibility too, but we have to somehow address this question of how to give people access to scholarly materials. The public library can be a poor man's university, but not if you keep trying to lop 20% off the budget every year.
posted by Jeanne at 9:05 AM on December 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

Upheaval should start at the top with NYPL president Anthony Marx, who was recently arrested for DWI after he plowed a library owned Audi into a parked car. You would think that he could afford a cab or car service with his $800,000 annual salary.
posted by Frank Grimes at 9:08 AM on December 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

At my library we get a ton of people who are doing college research who do not have college libraries that can support them in this. Sometimes they're going to online universities, sometimes they have other circumstances I don't know about.

There is this, too -- online universities (often for profit) whose business model relies on public libraries being available to provide services that a) the "university" can't effectively offer and b) probably doesn't want to -- it's a tad shady to push your costs off on public institutions, but it gets tricky when those institutions close.

It's like the scholarly/reader version of Wal-Mart teaching its employees to apply for food stamps -- since the Walton mindset seems to want to abolish food stamps, how do their employees eat in the future...?
posted by GenjiandProust at 9:27 AM on December 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Imagine the blood alcohol level of his staff!

Or some of his patrons!

We expect libraries to solve, or at least contain, social problems that go far beyond their mission. Last time I was a the main branch of the San Francisco Public Library, I went up to the periodicals room to kill some time during a couple-hour break during Jury Duty. I soon had to summon library staff because the patron across from me was attempting to systematically shred and eat his way through the periodicals section. What do you even do with that? I believe they tossed him out, reasonably enough, but it was obvious that it was far beyond the resources of our society to actually do something for this man.
posted by zachlipton at 9:44 AM on December 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

because i hip and like to blame reagan for things, i am dead curious whether there is any work on whether reagan's "care in the community" led to public libraries being hobo storage nowadays.
posted by beefetish at 12:49 PM on December 5, 2011


I read the article, and I read all the comments in this thread. I've also read the fpp and the comments in other library related threads. This is first time someone even approaches the solar system that contains the solution to the problems facing libraries:

"We expect libraries to solve, or at least contain, social problems that go far beyond their mission."

Why the hell are homeless people invited in to libraries, and not hospitals? Because the people who run libraries, including the librarians themselves, can no longer articulate what the function of a library is in society, so they believe the library is supposed to serve every social function anyone can articulate for it. A repository of scholarly knowledge? Of course. Then why are there shelves and shelves of Norah Roberts and Stephen King? A place for students and others to do research? Then why do libraries allow people to rent pop CDs and DVDs of Hollywood movies? A place to provide access to computers (oh yeah and books too) for the underprivileged and the unemployed? Then why are there so many books and so few computers?

Libraries need to charge money and restrict access. A library should not do what Netflix or iTunes does. If someone is so "underprivileged" that they can't get movies from netflix or redbox, then they probably don't have a dvd player and don't have time to watch movies anyway. Don't stock shlock. I'm sure there is some cultural import to using 15 linear feet of shelf space to store the collected works of Danielle Steele. Ditto for anything else that isn't required reading somewhere.

Now if you do these things, if you take away the things that do not further the lofty social goals of storing knowledge or providing access to information for the underprivileged but which are nonetheless popular, you will of course see a drop-off in patronage as those people chase their cultural drug of choice from retailers.

The way for any organization to compete with digitization and electronic media is either to become electronic or to impose surcharges for the privilege of dealing with physical media. You like browsing the stacks? Pay for it. You like perusing back issues of magazines? Pay for it. You like checking out crappy movies? You like having reading rooms with big tables so you can spread out? You like anonymous broadband access to the internet? Pay, pay, pay.

What is a library? It is a store of knowledge and information. Specifically, a convenience store of knowledge. Convenience stores charge higher prices than regular stores precisely because of the convenience. And convenience stores routinely toss loiterers, lunatics, and the homeless, because they interfere with the convenience of the paying patrons.

Approximately 75% of American households pay for television, via cable, satellite, or fiber to the home. That means that 75% of households pay at least $30 a month for television, even though everyone can get TV for free over the air. If they can spend $360 a year for better TV, then surely, if these same people need libraries, they can pay $50 or $100 per year for them.

But the grim truth is that most people do not use libraries. They may say how important they are, or they may feel bad when libraries are closed, but they aren't using them.

And the reason they aren't using them is because librarians have no idea what libraries are for. Sure they know what they used to be for, but what are they for today? If you can't articulate in 100 words what a library is for, then I assure you, no one else will even bother to try.
posted by Pastabagel at 12:57 PM on December 5, 2011

I could not disagree with you more, Pastabagel. I'm sure someone more clued in to the librarianship world than me can address this with more specifics, but surely one of the intended purposes of a public library is to provide people with resources that they need not pay for (or pay a lot for) - for example books, whether scholarly or popular. Internet and computer access seem like they fit pretty well into the model of "here are some things which, if they are available to everyone in our society at no or very low cost, result in a net gain for society as a whole." That is to say, it's more of a public service than a store of information.

There already exist a variety of stores of information which users can gain access to in exchange for paying money, not the least of which are university and other private libraries. I don't know that public libraries need to serve that purpose.
posted by whir at 1:08 PM on December 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

Oh my God.

Libraries need to charge money and restrict access.

Right after they put in the Irish-baby buffet, I hope, because if this is earnest it shows that you absolutely do not know what you're talking about, and have managed to hit on something so far from the solution that it's comical.
posted by codacorolla at 1:25 PM on December 5, 2011 [3 favorites]

Internet and computer access seem like they fit pretty well into the model of "here are some things which, if they are available to everyone in our society at no or very low cost, result in a net gain for society as a whole." That is to say, it's more of a public service than a store of information.

First, the "public" isn't using this service. Second, these things are already available at low or no cost. I can't understand how anyone would argue that Netflix, which is a library of nearly every film ever released to DVD is someone expensive at $20/month. Third, it isn't clear to me that the public agrees with the notion that much of what is actually on the shelves of most public libraries and gets used the most frequently constitutes "some things" whose free availability results in a net gain for society. In fact, I would argue that the free availability of these "some things" is actually a detriment to society. Again, junk food is bad not because it's junk but because it is cheaper than real food. Junk food should be more expensive than good food, not less. The same is true of books. And who gets to decide? Librarians. They should exercise some judgment that extends beyond what will get people to use the library (which is precisely the kind of cultural lowest common denominator that libraries were set up to thwart).

And in any case, the argument about cost makes no sense. Water and electricity aren't free. The bus ride to the library isn't free. So why should access to the books in the building you have to pay to get to also be free?

The problem seems to be with the inability to reconcile an increasingly costly enterprise with not charging people to use it. There is no free lunch, and who- or whatever has been picking up the check to date has finally said "no mas." It's time for the patrons to pony up. If this stuff is so important to you, then it is worth it to you to pay for.
posted by Pastabagel at 1:32 PM on December 5, 2011

I sort of agree with Pastabagel. I mean, librarians have already bought into the whole corporate ideology from within the safety of public funding, and so it would be great fun to watch them try to actually walk the walk. At the same time, though, I certainly see a need for welfare agencies and such to receive government funding for aiding the indigent with their information needs; but this needs to be directed specifically at helping people toward self-sufficiency.
posted by No Robots at 1:34 PM on December 5, 2011

So free internet access is junk food for the masses? And also, who, if not librarians, would you put in charge of selecting what books are available in a library? Congress? Shall we ask people to vote for their favorite books by spending one dollar to get one vote?

I don't really get how you can assert that the argument about cost makes no sense. I mean, I think quite a strong argument could be made that one of the fundamental purposes of a library is to provide access to books at no cost. Like, it's a lending library, right? Not a rental library. I guess you just disagree with the whole notion that lending libraries should exist at all?
posted by whir at 1:45 PM on December 5, 2011


Am I reading this right? They're planning on offsiting 9 million books and dumping the idea of a non-circulating reasearch collection?

The whole attraction is that anyone can go there, sign up for a card and read the books on site and they won't dissapear into the ether.

Contrast that with the NYPL circulating collection where that does happen. Mid-Manhattan library has a circulating collection on literary criticism. But when I was there last month it was in complete dissarry... completely out of order and nothing could be found. I've had a request in for Geoffrey Hill's Collected Critical Writings since then, but no dice.
posted by Jahaza at 1:45 PM on December 5, 2011

Librarians and library schools are complicit in all this. There is no democratic mandate preached at library schools.

This is not true of the library schools I am familiar with. I have my doubts about the efficacy of their democratic mandate (it's hard when you don't have much power), but it is preached, explicitly so.

As for Pastabagel's proposal, I think an interesting exercise would be to look at an exactly opposite proposal. Something like:

1. Act as a repository of scholarly knowledge and a place to access popular culture. Be a place for students and others to do research, and stock lots of stuff from high culture to low culture. Include 15+ feet of Danielle Steele if that's what people want.
2. Allow access books and computers (especially for the underprivileged who may have limited access to both). Be extremely competent with both physical and electronic media, and therefore uniquely capable at intersections of the two.
3. Increase access as much as possible, both online and off. Don't charge money -- lessen fees, and where possible, give a free alternative to for-pay cultural markets (Netflix, iTunes, Redbox). In fact, pay people to access the library (prizes!). Play this up, hard.
4. Go out of your way to seek the participation of all classes of the public, from the most hard-up to the wealthiest. Give the former resources (showers, support, computers); give the latter resources (access to famous authors, fancy balls). Consider mixing the two groups in clever ways. Wealthy donors do like doing good for the downtrodden, after all. Introduce them!
5. Flatly refuse to be pinned down to any 100 word "mission statement" or "message about the relevance of the library today". After all, anything that can be so reduced will be commodified out of existence. Embrace complexity, ambiguity, and nuance. Encourage patrons and the public to help recreate, constantly, what your library is for.

Hmm. That's pretty good! Ambitious, but probably at least as good as some of the library manifestos I've seen.

Thanks, Pastabagel!
posted by feckless at 1:47 PM on December 5, 2011 [3 favorites]

I have several ideological arguments I could make to Pastabagel, but my library computer is over five years old and shuts down every fifteen minutes or so, so I'll stick to the pragmatic one. Taxpayers support the library, to the extent that they do, because they can check out James Patterson and Danielle Steel and their kids can do research on the internet for their school projects. The minute you say, "Your books aren't good enough for this library," you lose whatever taxpayer support you ever had and you transform yourself from a place of open access to one of those awful Elitist Ivory-Tower Institutions.

Just about ten minutes ago, someone told me that there was a used sanitary pad on the counter of the women's bathroom, and I had to deal with it, there being no janitor in the afternoons. And I still believe, to the bottom of my heart, that the library will not fulfill its mission unless its resources are available to all regardless of the ability to pay.

Or to throw away your own damn trash.
posted by Jeanne at 1:54 PM on December 5, 2011 [4 favorites]

First, the "public" isn't using this service.

I would absolutely love to see your citation on this, because as soon as I get done with the paper that I'm writing I'll go ahead and provide you a few of my own that say the complete opposite thing.
posted by codacorolla at 1:55 PM on December 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Right after they put in the Irish-baby buffet, I hope, because if this is earnest it shows that you absolutely do not know what you're talking about, and have managed to hit on something so far from the solution that it's comical.
posted by codacorollaPoster at 4:25 PM on December 5

You can't even define the problem, let alone the solution. Here's the problem, in full color. People are not using the library as a library, they are using it as a deeply discounted bookstore and video store. You read that articles and say "See, this proves people need libraries and libraries are important." But you are wrong. Offering bestsellers and videos for the kids is not what libraries are for. That's what libraries turned into to when the public stopped using them for what they were originally for.

The fact that people are pouring into libraries now that the economy is bad proves that they don't need libraries. If they needed libraries, they would have been using them all along. What the article suggests is that people need entertainment from books and video, and when they can't afford it, they turn to someplace that does. The library is a cheap alternative to B&N. In suburbia, libraries have become the Dollar General stores of the entertainment industry. Great.

And in the cities, libraries are the de facto social service provider for the "underprivileged" which is code for the homeless and mentally ill. These people do not need libraries. They need homes. And hospitals. Why don't homeless people hang around police stations, the DMV, or the SSA offices? Oh right, because those places throw them out. Not libraries, they welcome everyone with open arms. We have books and computers here, so of course the homeless are welcome to masturbate in the bathrooms. Duh.

Before you attack my comment, consider for a second that music stores disappeared because even though people still needed music in their lives, they didn't need the store to get it. The same thing is happening to libraries, you just don't want to accept it. You think libraries are somehow special hallowed places, but you can't for the life of you articulate how or why they are special.

The problem is yours. Define a library in a way that is different than anyplace else, and you'll have a conversation. If you can't do this, if libraries can't do this for themselves in a way that makes them more than the entertainment discounter of last resort, then they will all vanish as the lastest casualty of budget cuts and cultural indifference.

When an organization is struggling, the first thing it must do is define who or what it is, and then define who or what it wants to become. As I've said 1000 times, libraries and librarians have not done this.
posted by Pastabagel at 1:57 PM on December 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

You think libraries are somehow special hallowed places, but you can't for the life of you articulate how or why they are special.

Oh no, believe me, I can. I'm just debating whether it's worth my time to argue with you when you're doing a perfectly good job of making yourself appear insane and ignorant without any help from me.
posted by codacorolla at 2:03 PM on December 5, 2011

First, the "public" isn't using this service.

Somewhere nearby to you, there's a library with a book that will tell you what the word "public" means. You should maybe examine that book before shooting from the hip like this.

Define a library in a way that is different than anyplace else, and you'll have a conversation.

Around here, it's "the place where the sex offenders go when the homeless shelters are closed during the day." Maybe they should lounge around your front lawn or place of business instead. They don't just disappear, you know.
posted by gauche at 2:09 PM on December 5, 2011

And, for what it's worth, I love that my library is a place for that. I am proud to be a member of an institution that provides the homeless and other "unwanteds"* of our society with a place to stay, access to the internet, access to music and literature, resume writing workshops and classes on how to start a business.

These things are so important. Libraries are the original bootstrap. We deprecate them at our own peril.

* imagine big, BIG scare quotes around that word.
posted by gauche at 2:14 PM on December 5, 2011 [3 favorites]

OK, so to be clear we're now having a general conversation about libraries, as opposed to the one NYPL which does in fact seem to be making a (partial?) transition from a temple-o-research to place-o-entertainment. So, general public libraries.

Pastabagel seems to be asserting that, once upon a time, libraries were something different. What they were is left somewhat unclear, but they certainly were not places for people to find entertainment less expensively than elsewhere. The article he links to as "the problem" (more people are using the library since we're in a recession!) says, basically, that people are using it more now because they can find entertaining media less expensively. I suspect that there's some functional needs going on there too which the article doesn't spot, but let's gloss over that for now.

Now take a look at what the patrons of Muncie were doing about 100 years ago.
For example, they discovered that fewer than 38 percent of Muncie patrons were blue-collar, though more than 60 percent of Muncie’s families were blue-collar. They also discovered that blue-collar families were significantly more likely to have multiple library cards than white-collar families. With little spare cash to buy books—and with few forms of affordable daily entertainment—the single book permitted out on each card frequently was not enough for a blue-collar family with several avid readers. Blue-collar borrowers were also more likely to borrow classics, or older books, while white-collar readers gravitated to the latest fashionable books: Felsenstein and Connolly speculate this may reflect the availability of older books in the houses of wealthier patrons.

When I jumped into the numbers game myself, the first thing I noticed was the incredible popularity of fiction in the library. Of the 175,218 transactions (that works out to about 39 per patron over a 10-year period, though there were quite a few wildly voracious patrons who borrowed hundreds of books) 137,188 (78 percent) were works of fiction. Of the 4,008 active patrons, all but 185 had borrowed at least one novel.

Who were they reading? Herman Melville barely registered (68 loans; the library did not even own Moby-Dick), Charles Dickens (587) and James Fenimore Cooper (691) did surprisingly poorly given their 19th-century reputations. Twain was a solid shower (877). When it came to authors I truly admire, only Louisa May Alcott (2,962) and Frances Hodgson Burnett (1,462) cracked the top 15, which is instead filled out with the syrupy Rosa Carey (1,922) and run-of-the-mill Hardy Boys forerunners like Oliver Optic (5,208) and Charles Fosdick (7,399).
Libraries have been places for all classes to find entertainment and education that suits them. For a long time.
posted by feckless at 2:14 PM on December 5, 2011 [5 favorites]

5. Flatly refuse to be pinned down to any 100 word "mission statement" or "message about the relevance of the library today". After all, anything that can be so reduced will be commodified out of existence. Embrace complexity, ambiguity, and nuance. Encourage patrons and the public to help recreate, constantly, what your library is for.

Yes, embrace complexity. Install showers for the homeless, because libraries are the logical place for that. Why not offer an in-library travel agency and manicurist as well. We don't know what the hell to do, so let's do anything!

and yet you already admitted that libraries supply whatever is demanded. You wrote "Include 15+ feet of Danielle Steele if that's what people want." If the people want pornography, will you stock that too?

A librarian is not a cashier or a clerk. They are paid to make judgments about what the library is supposed to hold or not, and insodoing, they define what the library is. 15 ft of Danielle Steele, etc. are the choices that got libraries into this mess.

"Your books aren't good enough for this library," you lose whatever taxpayer support You already do this, but you do it to people you tastes are sufficiently in the minority that the loss of their patronage doesn't count. But resources are finite. More Tom Clancy might mean less Foucault. More Nickelback means less Ligeti. You have to choose, and the librarian chooses. And choosing based on customer demand means the librarian is not making informed judgments about what serves the public interest.

Finally, everyone talks about the taxpayer like their are the consumer than needs to be served. But according to that article I linked, the taxpayer is only using the library because they are strapped for cash. So you are applying a market calculus ("we provide what they want") to a class of consumers that has no money to pay you. Do you think this consumer is going to support raising their own taxes to fund the library more?

A library should be like a holy place, venerable, slightly imposing. It should not be accessible. The mall is accessible, and they are going out of business too. Any enterprise built on giving people what they want is failing, because people are coming to realize that they don't know what they want.

The library should be a place you can pull any book, video, or CD off the shelf and reading, viewing, or listening to it will make you a better person and a better citizen of your community. It should be a place that is decidedly not commercial, not defined by tastes, but rather driven by informed and intelligent judgments. Certainly libraries can offer free access to computers and free wifi, and hell, free coffee if that is important. And yes, they can offer Danielle Steele and Tom Clancy too, but people should have to pay to rent it. Because the implicit message should be that the library is about culture and knowledge, and access to that should be unrestricted. But the other stuff, that is crass, base, frivolous, and trivial, that stuff should be restricted, because providing it is a waste of the library's time, consuming it is a waste of your time, so access should be restricted and money is the easiest way to restrict it.

If you do this, the library will become a special place. Everyone of every class will know that it is special, and that what is in there was not achieved easily or quickly. There may be a decline in patronage if you measure it quantitatively, but I believe that the use of the library will increase qualitatively. More people will have more important intellectual experiences there than do so currently, and for that reason, they will be willing to sacrifice other things to preserve it.
posted by Pastabagel at 2:29 PM on December 5, 2011

If there's one thing I've learned working in libraries, it's that people do not agree about what is crass, base, frivolous and trivial.
posted by box at 2:36 PM on December 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Libraries have been places for all classes to find entertainment and education that suits them. For a long time.
posted by feckless at 5:14 PM on December 5

Let me suggest that 100 years ago, in 1911, the barrier to getting something published was considerably higher than it is today. Also, it is inconceivable that 100 years ago, the homeless were permitted to loiter in public libraries.

But regardless, if your facts are true (i.e. that libraries have always offered entertainment for all classes like they do now), and the fact that libraries are struggling financially is also true, then it still supports my point that the status quo is not working. Perhaps I mistakenly assumed that the status quo now was different than in the past (though again, this is arguable), but nonetheless the status quo is failing. It is failing because in Muncie 100 years ago you didn't have Walmart and Redbox, cable TV, Netflix, etc. There are many many places that have sprung up over the last 100 years to offer entertainment to people of all classes. The growth of the entertainment industry is exponential. And yet, the number of places that offer culture and knowledge of elevated importance has not changed, or at most has grown sporadically.

Libraries have a niche in the latter. They should play to that, and make it a strength.
posted by Pastabagel at 2:38 PM on December 5, 2011

Now you're just being incoherent. You seem to be saying:

1. In the past, libraries provided entertainment (along with other more "respectable" services), since some people couldn't afford such things.
2. Now these things (and their modern equivalents) are cheap (Netflix! Walmart! Redbox!), so that isn't needed anymore.
3. As pointed out in that Boston article, more people are using libraries recently for (among other things) entertainment, because they can no longer afford such things. (Despite Netflix! Redbox! Walmart!)

To me, point 3 would invalidate point 2 ...

(The funny thing is that I sorta agree with your point in a narrow sense, in that it may be that the NYPL library covered in the actual post is making a mistake by moving from temple-o-research to big-branch-library. I'm not a New Yorker, I don't know. I can totally see libraries that sound like what you want as a really interesting niche, which should be maintained here and there in big cities as research institutions akin to University libraries. But you seem to be applying that logic to all branch libraries, which is totally bogus.)
posted by feckless at 2:48 PM on December 5, 2011

Pastabagel, you also seem to be simultaneously saying that nobody knows what the real purpose of a library is and that the things people actually use it for are wrong. This seems contradictory, do you yourself have a 100-word definition of a library's purpose that you'd like to propose? I mean, obviously from your point of view it doesn't include services that compete with Netflix et al, nor providing social services to the indigent, but what do suppose they are for? I mean, used bookstores also exist, which arguably comete with libraries in terms of inexpensive access to books, so should libraries stop offering to lend out books as well?
posted by whir at 2:55 PM on December 5, 2011

oh thank god it's pastabagel
posted by beefetish at 3:15 PM on December 5, 2011

Also, it is inconceivable that 100 years ago, the homeless were permitted to loiter in public libraries.

I just saw this! Your confusion about the role of public libraries makes more sense now, as you seem to be ignorant of the history of public libraries in this country. Access by the poor to books for their benefit was the main argument the Progressive movement used in the creation of some of the first free public libraries. (Sample of their point of view here.) So yes, homeless people in the library 100 years ago was not only a thing that happened, it was part of the point.

The availability of cheap entertainment for the lower middle classes was more of a side effect, though, I'd argue, a side effect which made libraries as popular as they became over the years. In fact, I'll go back to my original point, that the bog-standard small-town or branch library offered something for (almost) everybody for 100+ years:

1. Middlebrow culture for the middle classes (who already had the rudiments of high culture from other sources, but wanted the equivalent of the latest Danielle Steele novel)
2. High and middle culture for the working poor (who couldn't afford it)
3. Access to education and resources for the destitute, to give them help in becoming un-destitute

It's a good mix. We should bring it back!
posted by feckless at 3:22 PM on December 5, 2011 [3 favorites]

Define a library in a way that is different than anyplace else

posted by uosuaq at 5:03 PM on December 5, 2011 [3 favorites]

Is it too much to ask that if you're going to use Danielle Steel as the primary example of everything that's wrong with library collection development practices, you at least spell her name correctly? (And why is it always her, anyway?)
posted by asperity at 6:09 PM on December 5, 2011


The Library of Congress, the NYPL, the Butler Library, and the Mercantile Library are not libraries?

They all charge or restrict access to one degree or another.
posted by Jahaza at 6:46 PM on December 5, 2011

Yes, and the library I work for is pretty exclusive too. But please try to read enough of the thread to understand my response to Pastabagel.
posted by uosuaq at 7:23 PM on December 5, 2011

> It seems like what's happening is this (I come from a family containing several generations of librarians, the youngest of whom left library work in despair):

I graduated from library school in '99. Not long before I did one of my profs, after several beers, told a table full of my classmates and I that public libraries as we know them would be dead and gone long before any of us retired. I wouldn't bet against his prediction at this point.
posted by The Card Cheat at 8:34 PM on December 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Pastabagel, I am not sure how much you know about libraries but you have stumbled upon an old debate in the library field.

It's sometimes called 'Give 'em what they want' versus 'Give them what they need.' Over the years the pendulum has swung towards 'give 'em what they want' as the paternalistic elements ('the librarian knows best') of public institutions have been overtaken by a more client-centered approach ('no, the patron knows best').

It's a debate that librarians continue to have (Patron driven acquisition!) and one that's been raging since at least the '70s. Slowly, slowly, slowly, libraries have moved towards opening stacks, circulating reference, enlarging popular reading collections, and hosting public events.

It sounds like you disagree with this model (and the pendulum has swung pretty far) but please be aware that we spend lots of time thinking, debating, and re-thinking how libraries should function and this is what our current model is. You haven't really presented a concrete idea why it should change as dramatically as you would like. The model is subject to change, based on individual library needs, individual city/organizing body needs, budgetary needs, and patron needs.

NYPL is one of the last to move away from the research-based model for its four research libraries and I certainly am as ambivalent as everyone else about this change. I don't think every public library needs to be a branch library (meaning full of DVDs, computers, and sci-fi novels). There's certainly value in renovating the building to be more accessible to the public but less drastically than currently proposed by NYPL.

To get back to your point and provide an example, Queens Public Library (quoted in this altogether excellent article) is much further entwined with the 'social welfare' model of librarianship. See their New Americans Program for an example of what libraries are moving toward. I wrote my graduate program capstone on public libraries and this kind of outreach so please feel free to contact me for more statistics and details about non-traditional library outreach events.

I also happen to know the director a large public library system fairly well in a system where I also know a lower-level employee very well and so I've had a first-hand view of the tension of the last twenty years or so as the system has moved from being a book-heavy library with no computers and DVDs to a book, computer, and DVD heavy library with a strong community emphasis. It's been quite a transition and I'm not convinced it's a wholly favorable change. I will say, though, that library circulation numbers are up and patron use is also up. Looks like the director might be on the right track.

Keep in mind, too, that the director is judged by his/her superiors (often a library board or city council) on the basis of circulation numbers and other quantitative methods and s/he is inspired by this to keep numbers up. If you have a beef with the result of this, which is that libraries buy more popular reading and DVDs and increase computer space to increase circ numbers, then you might want to look at where the impetus is coming from.

You may be interested to note (it's been brought up before) that the SFPL has hired an official, trained social worker to deal with the issues brought in by patrons. It seems like an effective way for SFPL to deal with the issues of chronic homelessness and public access to public space in a sane and positive way. It may not be what we had pre-Reagan, where actual mental health professionals dealt with mentally ill folks in actual mental health facilities, but librarians generally work with reality and not what-ifs.

Librarians feel very strongly that the library is a public space for all to use. Three marginalized populations heavily frequent the library (youth, homeless/poor, elderly) and that usually makes the library a target for folks. It turns out that everyone needs safe spaces and the library is one of the last where you aren't expected to pay for the privilege. If you feel crowded out by one of these populations (say, youth in the afternoons after school gets out), by all means talk to the librarians in charge. We will not be going back to the model of 'library as sacred space' anytime soon but we can certainly work to get the noise level down so you can study or read quietly.

I don't know why I'm bothering to boil 30+ years of library science into one very long comment. I hope it helps, disjointed and fragmented though it is, and please be aware that there has been an intentionality in the movement which you describe toward community driven libraries.

As an aside, I really hate the gendered "Nora Roberts/Danielle Steel/romance novels as an example of where libraries are going wrong" (note the correct spelling of 'Nora'). You know what else libraries purchase? Automotive manuals, sci-fi novels, the latest John Grisham book, and oh yes, DVDs. Funny how 'male' or 'gender neutral' genres are not singled out nearly as often as the female-dominated romance novels. Romance novels account for 1 out of every 10 books sold*, a significant segment of the reading public does in fact read them*, and they're certainly not the worst literature in the library by any means. Please update your griping to accurately reflect all the materials libraries purchase.
*source is RWA.

posted by librarylis at 11:01 AM on December 6, 2011 [10 favorites]

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