Library Woes
May 12, 2003 7:49 AM   Subscribe

Is your local library in dire need of books? (link from Jackie) As budgets for books get slashed, libraries around the country are in real trouble. When long time web diarist Pamela Ribon heard about the situation at Oakland library, she took action, by sending them a book, and by publicizing their dilemma on her webpage. 2 weeks and 300 books later, Pamie's readers have done an outstanding job in helping out this library. She has also posted letters she received from the library staff. How is your local library doing in the face of budget cuts?
posted by kristin (34 comments total)
I had no idea how bad the book situation at many libraries is - as a kid, my favourite weekend activity was going to the library. I was awed - all those books, for free!

Now, as an adult, I know nothing is free. Libraries started as philanthropic projects, went over to being a government provided/funded service, and now? Maybe the pendulum is swinging back to philanthropy.

As a reader and a writer, this concerns me greatly. It is really heartwarming to read the letters from librarians that Pamie has posted, and she has inspired me to donate, both to her cause, and to a South Side library, which doesn't get the funding or donations that my suburban library does. I preordered copies of Pamie's Book, my husband's book, and the first of the Anne of Green Gables books.

We are a web of writers - surely there is something we can all do to help.
posted by kristin at 7:58 AM on May 12, 2003

I'm lucky enough to live in a rich county, so the libraries are still great here, but it's a damn shame that they're having problems. Libraries are in everybody's interest. Even if you don't use them yourself, they cost so little and help so many people have access to so much. Don't you think we're better off as a nation if the poor get to read too? If even the middle- and upper-classes get to read much more than they otherwise would? (I realize I'm preaching to the choir here, save a couple conservative mefiers.)

Damn short-sighted people.
posted by callmejay at 8:31 AM on May 12, 2003

I think there are a few things contributing to the library crisis in this country.

One: Image libraries are seen as old-fashioned and not having enough of the newest stuff, the best movies, the most useful help. The number of people I have heard in the last few years who say "why go to the library when it's all online?" really floors me. Then you get sites like Google Answers that try to substitute for traditional reference services and do a piss poor job of it [in my opinion]. The image issue is not helped by all these dumbass newspaper stories replaying tired stereotypes over and over. I feel like many of these reporters have never even been in their local library.

Two: People even poor people have credit cards lately, it seems. I know a lot of people whose main reason for not going to the library, or even having a library card is "I want to OWN a copy of the book" This is, of course, legitimate and yet seems somehow a shame. This then makes libraries seem even more like daycare for the homeless and disenfranchised because everyone else stays away in droves and shops for new books online. There's more going on at most libraries than just books, but the older most people get, the less they seem to enjoy rubbing shoulders with the public, the entire public.

Three: Featuritis libraries are hemmhoraging money on a number of things. Serial publications [that's periodicals to you and I] especially academic ones, are getting fiendishly expensive. Publishers are charging more and delivering less [did you know that if you buy an electronic serial and cancel your subscription, very often you don't even have access to the content that you already paid for?]. High end online catalogs that try to outdo eachother and seem more and more like the the online bookstores people are used to [including book covers and other value-added services that cost money]. Lastly, even though library jobs pay piss poor for work requiring a Master's degree, in many cases they are still union positions with some job security and decent health care and benefits. I am not claiming that library's should pay workers less, just that highly-educated workers cost money.

I go to my local library in town here probably once a week. How many MeFiers go to their library even once a month? Increased traffic stats at your library can often help funding decisions. Libraries keep records just like cops and firemen, if you're not going, libraries seem less and less, and become less and less, essential to the community.
posted by jessamyn at 8:55 AM on May 12, 2003

it's pretty bad here in catoosa county library. we requested $1,000,000 this year just to buy enough books and equipment to meet the national standards (which is something like 2 books per county resident) but we were only awarded $350,000.

and this doesn't just affect the purchase of new books. it also means we can't afford to have broken books or audiobooks repaired, or repair our microfiche readers in the special collections department (a repairperson will charge $200 just to appear in person and diagnose the problem), or our replace our public internet computers (we've lost 12 in the past couple of years. I've had to work doubletime to maintain and jury-rig the ones we have left), or maintain any of the other public services we offer (all for free).

the worst cut backs of all have had to do with our children's program. obviously kids' books are gonna need repair the most often, but we also have a summer reading program and storytimes etc etc that will have a distinctly low-fi flavor this year.

(I realize I'm preaching to the choir here, save a couple conservative mefiers.)

ya know, I've always found it a little ironic that the local libertarian party uses our multi-purpose room, completely free of charge, for their meetings.

thanks for the links, kristin. I'll pass these on to the branch mangers.
posted by mcsweetie at 8:56 AM on May 12, 2003

Ways to help your library:

--Donate money. See if your local library has a "Friends of the Library" organization; they're often in charge of fundraising.

--Call ahead and ask what particular book or kind of books would be helpful to donate. Otherwise, they may end up with a bunch of extra copies of the latest John Grisham novel, which they already have anyway. (Sort of like everyone bringing dessert to the potluck dinner.)

--Call or write your appropriate local officials and tell them libraries are important. Don't forget state government while you're making your calls; many local libraries get hurt by state budget cuts to regional library organizations.
posted by gimonca at 9:27 AM on May 12, 2003

Maybe we could follow Pamie's excellent example and, as metafilter-ites, find a library in need (maybe one our librarians work at, or one of Matt's choosing) and start hitting their wishlist.

I would do it. Anyone ideas?
posted by kristin at 9:33 AM on May 12, 2003

Ditto everything jessamyn said, and everyone else for that matter. Just about every public library in the US needs a reaffirmation of public support, through money, patronage, political activism, etc...

Jesus, there's so much I want to say here but I can't get it out; mostly because I work in a particularly pathetic situation, seeing as it's the nation's capital and all (see here; that picture was taken right outside my office). Money is the root of our problems, but it's just one of many, and even that article doesn't get close to them all. There is simply too much to say about this (both here in DC and in public libraries in general); if I try I'll just make myself more pissed off/miserable than I am right now.

(I'm okay, really. I'm just at work.)

By the way, I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in book and library history, and the state of each in a wired world.
posted by arco at 10:20 AM on May 12, 2003

Jessamyn is right on target, as always. School libraries in California could definitely use a hand as we have seen our budgets cut to the bone. However, we often receive donations of books that are old, smelly, out-of-date, mildewed, etc., and it is a challenge to try to keep that stuff off our shelves while trying to provide our students with the newest, latest information. May I humbly suggest that if you wish to support your local school library, that you send a check and mark it carefully, "For Library Use Only"? That way it probably won't get rolled into the general fund or used for athletic equipment, etc.
posted by Lynsey at 10:38 AM on May 12, 2003

An explanation might be needed. Many libraries in fact are having far fewer requests for books but instead getting heavier traffic for CDs and videos and "talikiong books"--book on tape for driving. Thus, budget cuts often reflect a decline in books now taken out.
posted by Postroad at 11:14 AM on May 12, 2003

The biggest reason I don't go to the library anymore? Parking charges and lack of selection.

There are tons of little, convenient branch libraries in the area, but they have very limited collections. Strictly fiction reading libraries, and less selection than I'd find at the nearest book store.

Then there are the larger, central city libraries which have much more substantial collections. But they're all located in core areas with pay parking. And if I'm going to spend $10 to park for an hour and find a book and $5 to park and run in and take the book back, I may as well just spend $20 and own the book.

I love libraries. As a kid I wanted to be a Librarian. But a hundred times a week I choose to spend more money for greater convenience, and bookstores versus libraries is just another one of those choices.
posted by jacquilynne at 11:22 AM on May 12, 2003

There is no drive-up book drop-off anywhere? I've never seen a library without one.
posted by agregoli at 11:38 AM on May 12, 2003

I would be more sympathetic if I wasn't so disgusted at the crappy paperbacks our local library buys instead of decent literature. The worst is in the children's section. I used to homeschool and finding interesting and worthwhile reading was not as easy as it should have been. If you don't believe me go take a look yourself at the cheese our tax dollars buy.

Other than that, libraries rock!
posted by konolia at 11:48 AM on May 12, 2003

Most libraries will order something that a patron asks for - hence a lot of the cruddy series paperbacks that join the shelves.
posted by agregoli at 11:58 AM on May 12, 2003

Many libraries in fact are having far fewer requests for books but instead getting heavier traffic for CDs and videos ... thus, budget cuts often reflect a decline in books now taken out.

Postroad, I don't follow you at all, this is not true in the library systems I am familiar with, is it true in yours? Many libraries are getting their funding slashed across the board and in some cases [like Oakland's] their book budgets eliminated at least temporarily. This goes for all materials, unless there is special grant money to buy one particular type of item, like ESL videos or "local artist" CDs.

My explanation for all these severe cuts is that other state positions like police and fire fighters are at some level essential services because they keep people alive. Libraries can assist in keeping people alive, but mostly they keep democratic society alive, which seems to be a lower priority when dealing with insufficient funding. At least in Vermont the libraries have always been badly funded, they certainly aren't getting less so, and you can always park right out front. Get a library card, if only to cheer up your librarian.
posted by jessamyn at 12:13 PM on May 12, 2003

konolia: You're getting at one of the central problems in the "identity crisis" public libraries are currently facing. Library directors have more and more been feeling the need to justify their library's existence with numbers (circulation statistics, foot traffic, etc.), so they push their librarians to "give the people what they want" in the form of popular paperbacks, videos/DVDs, graphic novels, etc. These things are all fine and necessary (an entertained citizenry is a happier citizenry), but in times of fiscal crises they more often than not come at the expense of more "serious" services like literature, histories, reference materials and services, community archives, etc (at the ultimate expense of having a less informed citizenry). Plus, "popular" materials usually don't remain popular for long, so you end up with shelves--or dumpsters--full of worthless items, and you have to spend more money to buy whatever's currently "hot."

Money is a huge part of the problem, but so is leadership. Public libraries need to seriously reconsider their roles in their communities (see "Image" and "Featuritis" in Jessamyn's comment above), keeping in mind all the things libraries have traditionally done well and should continue to do: acting as stewards of a community's memory and a source for that community's continued intellectual vitality. Then they [we] need to define these roles in public ways [marketing], to counteract the "everyone has the Internet and Borders, so why need libraries?" notion. And no, I don't think adding a coffeehouse to your library counts as "reconsidering their roles."

[jesus, i sound like i'm writing a library school paper. i'm normally not this much of a tool. i hope.]
posted by arco at 12:23 PM on May 12, 2003

Who needs books? They put too many gal-darned ideas into people's heads. Besides that, librarians hate freedom since they aren't cooperating with the Gestapo...
posted by drstrangelove at 1:22 PM on May 12, 2003

How neat. For once a journaler/blogger-plugged Amazon wishlist that doesn't annoy the stuffing out of me.

I'm with kristin... MeFi and Matt should "adopt a library" too.

Meanwhile, I'll make sure our Hawaii state librarians get wind of this, and perhaps launch their own wishlists.

One of our newest libraries still makes headlines, having gotten funds only for the building... now it sits empty, used only as a "reading room" stocked with random, donated books (which, unfortunately, the library won't catalog or add to its "official" circulation).
posted by pzarquon at 1:22 PM on May 12, 2003

drstrangelove's comment would be funny if it wasn't essentially what this guy is saying.

We live in interesting times.
posted by arco at 1:32 PM on May 12, 2003

It's time for libraries to start fissioning into discreet institutions, each serving its own constituency. One institution for books and printed matter only, one for music, one for internet access, one for videos and DVDs. Oh yeah, and one that serves as a day-care center for after-school kids. We can all guess that the books-only place will be the least used. But at least it will be quiet. (To save money, the books-only library would return to the old card-catalogue system. In fact, no electronic data keeping would be allowed.)
posted by Faze at 1:37 PM on May 12, 2003

My library, in a relatively well-off part of Los Angeles, gets a nearly unmanagable number of used book donations from locals. The people around here can afford to buy and then give away. Most of these books are already in the LAPL system somewhere, and our little branch is so physically small that there just isn't room for them.

At some point in the distant past, the "Friends" started holding seasonal book sales of these donated books, and returning the money to the library's general fund. It was so successful that when the library was renovated with private funds a few years ago, they included a small bookstore on the second floor. Staffed by volunteers, and open mostly the same hours as the library, the booksale is now open all-year round. I suspect the success of this program encourages even more book donations. It's a pretty good positive feedback loop. The central Beverly Hills Library has a similar set-up, and in fact has two bookstore rooms, one downstairs and one upstairs.

But as I mentioned above, I think this set-up is dependent on the patrons of this particular urban branch library generally being pretty well-off to start with, so that they (local members of the community) borrow and buy books, they can afford to give away books, they value literacy and the library's presence in their community, have some small number of people who can afford to volunteer during business hours, etc. (The rich keep getting richer, etc.) I'm not sure the success could be duplicated in another part of the city. Am I being negative and perhaps classist/racist? Any ideas on how something like this could be spread around? (Maybe a citywide library-bookstore? Does anybody have anything like that in their town?)
posted by jengod at 2:21 PM on May 12, 2003

You forgot one, gimonca.
-- Return your books late, so that your fees will help support the library.

As long as I'm a patron, my library will be well-funded!
posted by theora55 at 2:23 PM on May 12, 2003

Return your books late, so that your fees will help support the library.

... actually, in many systems this is a big myth. Just as library funding comes in many cases from city/state/local general funds, so do fines return to this fund. Not everywhere, but check your library policy before you assume that your truancy will be benefitting the institution. Also, many [not all by a long shot] libraries keep no record of what books you borrow providing you return them on time. So, if you want to avoid the "gestapo" that drstrangelove alludes to, get those books back promptly if you're concerned about the feds, via the PATRIOT Act, observing your reading habits.
posted by jessamyn at 2:50 PM on May 12, 2003

Thanks Jessamyn, I was about to mention that. In the library that I work at, not only do the late fines go straight to the city's general fund, but so does all of the money taken in for replacement fines. Which, of course, means that the patron essentially paid for a book that will never be put into the collection. With a book budget of around $10,500 this year, there isn't much hope that we will ever get around to replacing those deleted items - much less buy anything more than what the patrons ask for... popular fiction.
posted by bradth27 at 4:12 PM on May 12, 2003

I have to agree with arco: circulation runs the ship. For a public library the money is allocated where the action is. If you want more money spent on the book collection...check out books. As long as small libraries have DVDs and videos flying off the shelves they will continue altering the budget to boost that higher circulating item.

Another way to help your library is educate the librarians to your preferences. For example, at our library we wasted money buying new editions of classics (such as "To Kill a Mockingbird") because the Acquisitions Librarian insisted no one would read our old "library bound" copies. The pages and covers of all these books were fine. They just looked dated.

Only by questioning the need of replacing such books could stop that process. Yes, a silly example of waste and possibly it was the only library in North America doing that, but I'd bet prejudices exist in every library system.

The moral: get involved. Question policies that try to turn your library into a coffeeshop/Barnes&Noble clone. Ask your media librarian if a dozen copies of Corky Romano is really necessary. Get appointed to the board. Join the Friends. And take the road less traveled... if you're in a large city help a branch in one of the less funded districts.
posted by ?! at 4:27 PM on May 12, 2003

I love my libraries. I have about a dozen branches within 30 minutes driving time. Parking is always free. They have multiple copies of both new books and classics, as well as tons of the most current periodicals, non-fiction and research aids. Although the chairs and tables are mostly occupied, a little searching eventually locates a seat. These places are often noisy with debate and meeting new people is a snap, and no one seems to mind the extra hubbub at all.

On top of all that, they have coffee bars with great beverages and tasty (but pricy) snacks and sandwiches and they are open from 9 am to midnight. Of course, they carry names like Borders and Barnes & Noble.

My first experience with this new breed of bookstores so many years ago introduced me to the concept of the commercial library, and I believe that not only did these brands drive the independent booksellers into bankruptcy, but they also compete so heavily with city and county libraries that eventually even these public institutions will go out of business.

For this reason, I have stopped supporting my local public libraries, switching my contributions instead to the school libraries of my local elementary and high schools. ;-P
posted by mischief at 12:29 AM on May 13, 2003

I go to my local library in town here probably once a week. How many MeFiers go to their library even once a month?

I'm at the library once a week at least; more when I'm in the city because it's right across the street from my house. I love the library.

In Pennsylvania, the budget currently awaiting signature or veto from our new governor (which happens to be 99% of his own making, so veto is unlikely) would slash library funding by some 50%. For the rural library I patronise, that would mean that they too would see their entire annual purchasing budget eliminated. For the city libraries, that means a 50% cut in hours, elimination of "nonessential services" like the computer training they offer (with Gates Grant computers) and no replacement of any staffers who decide to try to find work that pays more than $10/hour.

The amount of money that the state proposes to provide libraries in Pittsburgh is a whopping $2.4 million -- which sounds like a lot until you realize that there are 18 branches, plus the central library and special collection for the blind and sight impaired, all housed in buildings more than 35 years old, one of which is now undergoing major improvements because it was condemnable.

I strongly believe that libraries are far less important to people who can afford to buy whatever books they wish to read/hear, rent any DVD they wish to see and have their own computers and 'net connections (which they use to download all of the music that they wish to hear). That fairly well describes everybody who gets elected to office these days; no state senator's kid sits and waits for their half hour on a public computer or is nineteenth on the waiting list for that biography of Abraham Lincoln that he needs to write his term paper. As a consequence, the vital role they play for the basic education of many children is simply not understood or even recognised. I think it's fair to say that library patrons will need to make much more noise than they are normally expected to in order to get this to change.

It's time for libraries to start fissioning into discreet institutions, each serving its own constituency.

That would be a nightmare. What are people supposed to do, drive across town (or worse, take a bus or two) every time they want a book, or a children's book or a video, all of which reside in separate collections in separate buildings in separate neighborhoods? Which branch would get the computers? One of the benefits of the community library in the multimedia era is the availability of all circulable media in one place!

My first experience with this new breed of bookstores so many years ago introduced me to the concept of the commercial library, and I believe that not only did these brands drive the independent booksellers into bankruptcy, but they also compete so heavily with city and county libraries that eventually even these public institutions will go out of business.

That's just stuff and nonsense. Barnes & Nobles/Borders et al are as far removed from the library concept as is possible. Want proof? Ask them if you can take something in their "collection" home and bring it back a week later without charge. The entire mission of libraries is to make information available to everyone. When penniless kids from the projects can access the 'net or borrow all of the information they need to write a scholarship-winning essay from Barnes & Noble, then libraries will be unneeded. Until then, there's no ground for comparison.
posted by Dreama at 4:36 AM on May 13, 2003

this new breed of bookstores...the concept of a commercial library

What you say is true, to a point, but the fact that people have this perception of libraries and bookstores underscores my point about developing and marketing services unique to libraries and the communities they serve. Borders and B&N are great places to grab the latest magazine and/or Harry Potter book, pay $5.50 for a cup of coffee, and plop down in a comfy chair for a few hours. These stores provide this kind of service well, and public libraries shouldn't try to compete with them in this regard.

There are other services, though, that bookstores don't provide and never will. Try to get a Borders information desk attendant to help you sort out how to find quality research materials for a school paper; yes, they'll be nice and, just maybe, they'll actually know something about the subject you're researching. But most likely the store won't have the breadth and depth of sources you'll need to properly do research, and the worker won't be able to help you much beyond pointing to the "Reference" (read: dictionaries) section of the store; no suggestions for further sources, no help interpreting and evaluating what it is you're looking at. Nor will the store have back issues of periodicals and newspapers (let alone the indexes of those journals) you'll need, or even access to useful online databases like Infotrac. And I can't imagine a bookstore having old geneaological and historical records for a town or city, let alone an employee dedicated to helping you sort through your family tree. Services like these (not even touching upon free access to information for those without the means to otherwise afford it), are unique to public institutions, and will never be provided "free to the people" by the private sector.

As I said, public libraries must look at the communities they serve to identify particular needs, and find services that are unique and appropriate to those needs. Entertainment is one of those needs, but don't try to emulate Borders; the private sector will always win if we compete head-to-head for those kind of amenities. If your community needs literacy services, expand your adult education and literacy offerings. Area with lots of families should offer lots of story times, puppet shows, and inviting spaces for parents to spend time with their kids on regular "field trips." If your community has been hit hard by unemployment, develop something like the Job and Career Education Center, with a computer lab and librarian(s) dedicated to helping people with their resumes, job searching classes, locating continuing education, etc. Most importantly, though, we need to advertise these services in ways that define our niche publicly; Borders is great, but look at what we offer.

The problem highlighted by this thread, however, is that many public libraries don't even have the funding to provide "basic" services (like books), let alone the "bells and whistles" like online reference . I would like to see those things (i.e. online reference) become "basic" services, but when a branch can't even open for weeks because the heating doesn't work in the building, or when I can't even order a new set of encyclopedias (print; we don't have enough computers to make a CD-ROM or online encyclopedia useful), specialized services are a pipedream.
posted by arco at 7:21 AM on May 13, 2003

Ask them if you can take something in their "collection" home and bring it back a week later without charge.

I don't need to take it home. I get all the information I need by reading the book there, as do most of the college kids I see huddled over their laptops. As for reference sections containing only dictionaries, have you been in a modern Borders megastore lately? A library may have all sorts of old information of severely limited utility to the average person or student, but they can't touch a bookstore's wealth of new information that encompasses a wide spectrum of interests.

Plus, that information is available to anyone who wants to walk through the door and access it. The information is free; one needs only pay for the medium to store it.

Excepting college campuses, the public library has pretty much become an anachronism.
posted by mischief at 11:19 AM on May 13, 2003

And isn't that sad.
posted by agregoli at 11:51 AM on May 13, 2003

Perhaps it is sad if you are a reactionary. ;-P
posted by mischief at 11:57 AM on May 13, 2003

Cory and the gang at BoingBoing point out that hundreds of libraries have wish lists at Amazon. Find one near you!
posted by Mo Nickels at 1:05 PM on May 13, 2003

?!, arco, jessamyn, et al - right on. I like what somebody said about the importance of visiting the library - I go to mine at least once a week, and use their website all the time.
posted by drobot at 1:23 PM on May 13, 2003

Again, mischief, when your local B&N can come up with a 1999 copy of a professional periodical for you to use, your point will be valid. Until then, it is indicative of the disdain that is resulting in a real loss of access to information for a lot of people.
posted by Dreama at 1:28 PM on May 13, 2003

Mischief (and Dreama) - or even a two month old copy of a professional periodical, a copy of an out of print book, access to resources like Contemporary Literary Criticism (useful in my field), a quiet place to read and study (the B&Ns I've been in tend to be loud places, esp. when there are jazz combos playing in the coffee shop), access to somebody who knows what they're talking about (librarians), free internet access, private meeting space for literacy tutoring (another interest of mine), etc.

The one exception to this might be in the case of popular computer books like the Wrox books that B&Ns stock, but this doesn't (in my mind) come even close to being able to replace all the great things about the public library.
posted by drobot at 1:46 PM on May 13, 2003

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