Tuesday, August 15, 2006

On the Purpose of Public Libraries

Do public libraries serve any coherent purpose any longer? Is the purpose now just to get bodies inside them regardless of what the bodies are doing there? Is this now the mission of public librarianship?

I just read a laudatory and typically overexcited blog post ("take a look for inspiration!") about a library offering a lot of videogames to attract teenagers . This particular library allowed more gaming time if the teens joined the "gaming club," which requires having a current library card. That will at least boost those user statistics! Oh, and the gamers have to check out four items a month, at least two of them books. More usage stats! But then it gets even harder:

"Level three: Once in the Club, points are accumulated to be eligible for additional gaming time, group gaming parties, special prizes (headphones, memory units, gift certificates), or use of the conference room with the 46" TV."

Special prizes! Yay! 46" TV! Yippee! Group gaming parties! Sign me up, baby!

"Points are earned by doing at least one of the following:
  • writing book reports
  • attending an after-school program
  • participating in a youth service organization
  • embracing other positive, self-improvement activities"
Embracing other positive, self-improvement activities? Sounds rather vague to me.

But still, I've read about other libraries offering videogaming just to get the teens through the door, I suppose on the strange assumption that if they come there to game they'll do other things. Or on the even stranger assumption that this is the sort of thing libraries should be doing. And it doesn't stop at gaming. Just consider every suggestion for getting people through the doors of the library that has nothing to do with informaton or education or even providing space for community groups. Just having teens hang out in a library doesn't make it a community center. Loitering teens just make it a mall.

I don't have anything against videogames or teenagers, and I really don't care what any of these libraries do, but my larger question is whether public libraries have any real purpose anymore. Maybe they don't, and maybe I'm just naive and hopelessly reactionary to believe they should. Supposedly, libraries are dedicated to enhancing learning and ensuring access to information to all. That's what the ALA mission statement says, and we know they're always right. That's at least a coherent and worthwhile goal.

Or consider the statement on the Boston Public Library Building: "The Commonwealth requires the education of the people as the safeguard of order and liberty." Now that's a way to justify a public library!

What does videogaming have to do with any of these goals? Or 46" TVs, for that matter. Or "group gaming parties." Do libraries ever consider any more what their purpose is? Is it to ensure access to information for all? Or to educate the people as a safeguard of order and liberty? Or is it just to get people through the door to try to justify their existence to library boards?

Bureaucracies expand because the self-interest of bureaucrats is to keep their power. Apparently, public libraries are no different. Many libraries are desparate to seem relevant regardless of the lack of coherent or compelling rationale. Apparently, just getting people through the door is a compelling enough rationale. Is this the kind of tepid purpose that inspires librarians today? ("Take a look for inspiration!") Do librarians even want to be inspired anymore?

It seems to me that public libraries no longer have any coherent and compelling mission. They just want to get more people to use them somehow, anyhow. They just want to be all things to all people. Of course it can't be done, and what might happen is that they fail to do even what they could do well. The goal is just to get bums on seats, and if the libraries are filled to capacity with gaming teens or whomever, then that sad goal will have been accomplished. The new mission of public libraries: bums on seats, luv! It certainly makes me proud to be a librarian.


Anonymous said...

Public libraries are fighting a rearguard action to preserve a service model that is almost as obsolete as the Commodore PET. Once the taxpayers really figure out what we're doing with their money, the public libraries will be no more.

I really hate the obscene amount of money I spent on this worthless degree.

-PBI, who isn't logged in because he's at work on a public computer

Dances with Books said...

Oh, that librarian always gets overexcited if it is anything tech. As for public libraries, that is a magnificent question. Is the purpose just to get as many people in through the doors, be they the old ladies getting their mystery with cats fix, the bums, or the gaming teens? I am a believer in the public library as a center for education and recreation of the community, but where is the line drawn. When does the library stop being, as Boston aspires, the safeguard of democracy, and becomes just the next mall to hang out? And by the way, when it comes to cool, I don't think a public library can compete with the mall, or Starbucks, or Borders, or any other retail place that certain librarians seem to favor as their source for inspiration.

As for the club, you have to have levels. After all, that is how the gaming culture understands things: you have levels to overcome, and you gain power or experience as you level up. The 46" TV would be like getting to the big boss battle stage. Like you, nothing against teens (I spent some very good years teaching them in high school), but after a while, I think we should be asking some questions about what a library is really for.

lmmlis said...

Dances w/Bks makes good points. I also appreciate Annoyed's validation of my uneasy feeling of being a reactionary because I want my public library to be a place where people come for information and reading and learning. That said, they are tax-supported institutions by definition and so must find a way to stay "relevant" in the face of a changing world if they are to survive. Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go sign up some kids onto MySpace.

Anonymous said...

I'm already thinking ahead as to how we can get those coveted 18-54 year old males through the door - Strippers!

Cincinnati NAMjA said...

I have read a few of your posts and have commented on a few also. For the most part I agree with most of them. Being a supporter and former employee of a public library I have to say this is one of your more irresponsible and mis guided posts. I could go into an entire diatribe about why I feel this why, but I feel that it would be lost on you.

Taupey, the Bush Kangaroo said...

Cincinatti Namja, I completely disagree. These points are the points not being made elsewhere, and AL makes them with her usual clarity and panache. Public libraries appear to exist as a shell for bureaucrats with a political agenda and as such need to show "assets" like long lists of cardholders to get ever increasing funding.

Yes, libraries need to provide multimedia research tools, but they are and should remain limited to a repository of resources available to the community. Unless specifically mandated to be a rec center or such, a library does not need to "market" itself any more than a public water utility. The water company exists as a singularity--a monopoly; the community (to varying extents) runs it and its citizens use it. Public libraries exist and the citizens use them. There is no competition, there is no prize for "hipness." You don't expect your Crick Neck Regional Water Authority to compete with Evian, you expect them to deliver potable water. And the Crick Neck Public Library should have books and reference materials, and competent people to assist patrons. That's it.

Bums in seats...serviced by seated wide bums?

Anonymous said...

A.L., every time you say "baby" I think of this:

ELAINE (uninterested): Yeah, it's funny, I dunno.

JERRY: You don't know? Come on, that's gold!

ELAINE: Well, I don't know about "gold."

JERRY: Oh, that's gold, baby.

ELAINE: 'Baby'? What, are you doing George now?

JERRY: I was saying 'baby' way before George!

Anonymous said...

I suppose if you think the purpose of public libraries is to babysit the sick, lame, lazy, and crazy, they are fulfilling their purpose neatly.

Ask the 400# guy wearing earmuffs and safety glasses, wandering around in my reference department today while tweaking his nipples.

P.B.I. Librarian said...

demmit..double tap

Anonymous said...

To some degree you're right - and I find it worrisome. Our library's PR department is talking about setting up point of sales displays so patrons won't miss these books that we want to push while they're checking out the crumby DVDs that they actually want.

We keep hearing from above, "We have to increase circulation." And while I know that it is true - at least insofar as my job security - I can't help but think that I'd rather be helping less people actually find good information than helping more people log into their yahoo mail.

We're trying to redefine ourselves along new paradigms; I'm not sure if it is warranted, and I'm not sure if we're going down a good path.

Greg said...

Well, the advantage of high stats is easy arguments for better budgets which means we can afford better resources and higher quality services. The problem is that more and more the extra funds and services seem to be getting funneled right back into the entertainment side, as if the point of having bake sales was to fund bigger and better bake sales.

AL said...

Exactly, Greg. It's as if the entire purpose of public libraries has become to increase circulation and other usage statistics, period. Doesn't matter how or with what. One commenter mentioned strippers as a way to get the young males in. Is that so far fetched? Why not set aside rooms specifically for viewing internet porn, but require people to have a library card and to check out at least four books a month? The library spa 5.0 initiative isn't that crazy compared to some ideas I've seen. Just give full body massages to all the patrons. That's about as relevant to library work as videogaming.

Erika said...

I would really like to know what you mean when you say "anymore" -- my entire History of Public Libraries class was framed through the lens of "One more era in which libraries try to figure out WTF their mission to society is precisely."

According to that class we are waaay more centered now than we were in the 60's. ("In this era, kids, librarians take up macrame.")

AL said...

Erika,perhaps you're right. Perhaps public libraries have never had a coherent mission, or at least, as I suspect, haven't had one in decades. Though I think everything is probably more centered than the 60s. I'd be interested to know more about the first half of the twentieth century.

miriam said...

I suspect that in our attempts to be up-to-date, we are risking becoming obsolete.

Example: DVDs. These will soon be languishing on the shelves now that downloads and services such as Netflix are available.

Public libraries do have an honorable mission, to encourage the love of books and learning, and as long as one child learns to read and think in these venues they are worthy of support.

Erika said...

Personally, I think WWI is the most interesting era. ALA was pretty much a direct vehicle for government propaganda. Libraries were just starting out -- desparate to justify themselves as worthy of public funds.

The slightest dissenters were fired (sometimes tarred and feathered to boot) and children's programs were banned from any sort of peace themes. All German material was burned w/o hesitation.

These are just a few examples -- I'll try to find the book citation.

(Sigh) Our purpose was so simple then - to serve as a community launchpoint for wartime efforts. :) Kidding on the nostalgia.

Erika said...

An active instrument for propaganda : the American public library during World War I

by Wayne A Wiegand


P said...

"My basic question is whether the rationale of public libraries anymore is anything other than trying to get people through the door by any means possible."

I'm involved with the gaming going on at my library, and I'd like take a minute to explain my own personal reasons for supporting our program.

You make excellent points when it comes to whether or not libraries are losing their focus. While I feel it's important for libraries to not lose their focus, I do believe it's equally important for libraries to evolve and expand their focus to stay relevant to the public.

For me, I feel that our library's purpose isn't just enriching the minds of our users. It's also enriching the patrons themselves. The library should obviously be about providing access to any information a user desires. But I personally feel that providing programs for our community, even if they aren't completely information based, serves the public in an important way.

The purpose of our gaming program, in my eyes, is to reach out and give the teen community something they can be excited about and proud of. They can look at our gaming and say "Wow, someone cares enough to do something aimed at us." So many times places ignore the teen population or even seek to keep them out of their area. I think that libraries reaching out to them, both with educational intentions and with recreational content, is important, as long as one isn't forced into the other.

As a whole, I believe that libraries should not only be all about access to information, but should serve as a meeting place for all the different types of people in our community, so as to enrich our community.

Heck, I'm not even a librarian. I only hold a clerical position. Maybe I'm naive as to how everything works up top. But I can say that when it comes to our gaming program, I do not do all of this work just to justify our budgets and accounts with increased door and chair usage.

I sincerely hope that's true for the other places that commit to gaming as well.

Anonymous said...

Sigh, it's the flashy toys that will help us keep the doors open. Plus the "How to Grow Roses" programs, etc.

The people who come actually looking for a quiet study area give up in disgust and leave... We'll miss them. They genuinely appreciate libraries.

and I'd love to wall off the entire children's area so the rest of us don't have to scrape ourselves off the ceiling every time one of the little darlings is allowed to scream non-stop the whole time their "minder" (not necessarily a parent) is in the building.

Anonymous said...

Well, I currently work for a public library and I feel like we've become a free Internet cafe/Blockbuster. I get more questions on how to set up a myspace page and how to print pictures of wrestlers than reference questions, by far. I'm fairly young and finishing my MLS and I think gaming in libraries is ridiculous. And, in response to P. . .I will have to say that pub libs aren't here to make teens feel good about themselves. Whatever happened to community centers planning activities for teens? Libraries and librarians have reached a point where they have to make themselves valuable to people, even if not truly library related, in order to stay open keep our jobs. I think that's the bottom line.

Vox Populi said...

I agree with Cincinnati NANJA ... whatever gets a teen in to a library rather than in to on the streets .. that's a good thing.

Wow, I had NO idea (but always suspected) how judgmental some librarians are. They make fun of the mentally ill, disparage the homeless ... sorry to trouble your pretty world ... wow. Become teachers. They're by and large heartless too in george bush's world.

BlackSheep said...

These arguments all point to the library's need to stick to its original mission--We consider that a large public library is of the utmost importance as the means completing our system of public education…’ Their mission was clear: to serve as a new kind of educational institution, an adjunct to the public school, which would provide citizens with ongoing opportunities to learn after they had completed their formal schooling. “Digital Libraries and the Problem of Purpose” by David M. Levy, D-Lib Magazine January 2000 Volume 6 Number 1, ISSN 1082-9873
Once defined, it makes it clear that we are not a social service. We are not to be competition with Borders or Blockbuster. We should not be reduced to a kind of "pandering" to entice warm bodies off the street to increase our "patron counts" and to devise schemes to increase circulation to justify our existence.

With the Nation's education in such decline that we cannot compete well with other nations, our jobs going overseas and foreclosures at an all time high, we need educated people who can solve problems--not mind-wasters who spend hours tweaking buttons on games or gossiping on MySpace. It is the library's mission to enable the people to better themselves and to understand their government and public systems to improve their ability to function in these environments.

Anonymous said...

Both the original post and many of the responses here seem to take it for granted that valid "information" must come from reference questions and literary tomes. Looking at information or learning in their most basic forms, I believe they include everything that the libraries you are describing are doing, from allowing access to social networks online to enabling interaction through gaming. Gaming not only is "fun," it does provide educational opportunities, from logic and analytical thinking, to rhythm, to problem solving skills.

Perhaps libraries do not need to redefine or give up on their original purpose (to provide access to information and educational activities), but rather librarians need to redefine their rather intellectually snobby perspectives on how these concepts are defined.

--A public librarian