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"
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.