Thursday, January 04, 2007

Bread and Circuses

As part of my mea culpa for foolishly combining two very different issues in a very bad post last month, I want to offer some advice to public libraries on how to be even more popular and how to be everything to everybody. I've come to my senses, and realize now that public libraries are there to provide what the public wants, and what the public wants is bread and circuses, with as little bread as many circuses as possible! After some holiday reflection, I also realize that the "Bread and Circuses" approach to public libraries is also probably the best way to thwart the revolutionary social change that some people think libraries should provide. "Library as Entertainment Center" is considerably more refreshing than "Library as Revolutionary Socialist Change Agent." Some reactionaries would like to see the "Library as Preserver of Culture and Provider of Important Information with Maybe a Little Trash Thrown in for Good Measure," but that's too retro for most people.

The great thing is that Leslie Burger agrees with me for once! She also thinks that public libraries exist to provide the lowest common denominator of popular entertainment, and that they serve no nobler purpose. From the Washington Post: "'I think the days of libraries saying, "We must have that, because it's good for people," are beyond us,' said Leslie Burger, president of the American Library Association and director of Princeton Public Library. 'There is a sense in many public libraries that popular materials are what most of our communities desire.'" You go, Leslie! None of that nonsense about the commonwealth requiring the education of the people as the safeguard or order and liberty for her! We truly live in a Golden Age of Librarianship!

So now we have it from the Glorious President of the ALA herself that libraries are just popular entertainment centers, but how do we make them even more popular? Sure, getting rid of musty old "great books" and all that boring non-fiction about history and government and politics that nobody reads and is so depressing anyway is a great start. But what next? People have made all sorts of great suggestions on how to get bums on seats in public libraries, from videogaming to food fights, but I would like to offer a few humble suggestions of my own. Here are five services libraries could offer that are almost guaranteed to bring in more business, and they make at least as much sense as playing videogames.

Free Coffee Bar
This should be a no-brainer. Public libraries should have lots of free coffee on hand at all times. And I don't mean one of those two-pot convenience store apparatuses with a caff and a decaf in those dreary brown and orange pots. I mean an espresso machine at the very least. If I could drop by my local library to get my skim latte every morning, I'd save hundreds of dollars a year, all of which would immediately go to my favorite charity--me!

Happy Hour
This would definitely bring in the punters! Heck, if my local library offered a Happy Hour (perhaps with $2 Bombay martinis, if I might make a suggestion), I'd probably go every day, and I haven't set foot in my local library in years! With the latte in the morning and the martini after work, I could begin and end my day at the public library, just like public librarians do! To boost circulation of more "traditional" library items, perhaps folks would have to check out a CD or a videogame to qualify for a cheap drink.

Internet Porn Classes
Libraries should offer classes in Internet Porn! Searching for, of course, not creating. There are some things that are still beyond the pale in libraries, and while Internet searching is definitely within the bailiwick of librarians, being porn stars definitely isn't. I don't think we need to go into the reasons. But why not use those Internet searching skills to help people find the "information" they really want! Since the majority of websites are porn sites (at least according to something I read once but can't remember enough to cite), one might think that finding the stuff is easy. But this is a case of drowning in information, so we'll have to throw in some crucial evaluation skills as well. Maybe we could call it InfoPorn Literacy! InfoPorn Literacy helps people exercise their Intellectual Freedom!

Private Internet Viewing Booths
This would be a great way to let people practice the skills being taught in InfoPorn Literacy. These would draw in all sorts of people, from disgusting old perverts, to disgusting young perverts. They would probably draw in the teenage boys as well, what with all their tempestuous little hormones raging all over the place and not enough privacy at home. Computers in the public area are so, well, public. Intellectual freedom can't really be exercised without privacy. Libraries are all about privacy, right? That's a prime tenet of the ALA. I think I'm on pretty solid ground with this one.

I might be going out on a limb here, since strippers could bring in a seedy element. What am I saying? That's just discrimination! Besides, only female strippers bring in the seedy element--drooling salesmen, maverick cops, etc. That's why libraries should have male strippers as well, who are much less seedy. I saw a male stripper once at a bridal shower, and it was a very tasteful event, at least until my best friend's cousin brought out the whipped cream. The less said about the aftermath the better, but let's just say I've never looked at a banana split the same way again.


Anonymous said...

I don't see the dichotomy of the public library being an entertainment/recreational center as being incongruous with the library as an educational institution.

icxcnika said...

Not sure I would be as tart as your observations but it is alarming that time on the shelf (always a factor in weeding) seems to have become THE factor.

The Bombay gin was a very elegant choice.

anon7 said...

I think Arlington County's library director, Diane Kresh, is on the right track. She said that if patrons "aren't checking out Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring," she's not only keeping it, she's promoting it through a new program that gives forgotten classics prominent display."

In my so-far brief, one year career in a public library, it's been my experience that the special displays can hardly be kept stocked. Many people apparently "grab and run" with whatever is being featured that day. "Out of sight, out of mind" was never more true. Hide Harper Lee in the back of the library with the other fiction, and yeah, it might very well not get checked out for two years. Put it up front on the "Staff Recommendations" table and it will be gone in an hour.

A public library *can* and must serve more than one role in its community. Every library has to determine that balance for its own unique community. A public library that's surrounded by academic libraries is going to make different choices than a public library that is the only resource for 20 miles.

Anonymous said...

Need I point out that once before I suggested that webcams in private porn viewing booths would be a revenue source, and what is called a "closed loop system."

The strippers thing may not work out since you need music. Or so I am told. You stay classy, AL, class it up. Go "spa" style but offer discreet "full body shampoo."

anon7, excellent idea, put Silent Spring next to a few books about Eugenics, maybe some Phrenology texts and that paper about cold fusion by the BYU guy in Utah who also thinks 9/11 was a controlled demolition. All have equal value as "science."


AL said...

I agree that libraries can serve as educational as well as entertainment institutions, but if you consider the library as an education institution then you'll have to disagree with Burger's comments. An educational mission implies that librarians choose materials that educate, regardless of their popularity, and that they keep and even promote those materials. That means buying and keeping materials because they're good for people.

contrarian librarian said...

To hell with libraries. We should follow the lead of SRRT: librarians should either sit at their kitchen tables

or go to the World Social Forum in Nairobi

anon7 said...

'put Silent Spring next to a few books about Eugenics, maybe some Phrenology texts and that paper about cold fusion by the BYU guy in Utah who also thinks 9/11 was a controlled demolition. All have equal value as "science."'

That's an interesting staff you work with, Taupey

Dances With Books said...

Ooh yea, let's teach the porn literacy. You are so right on. Anyone can find the porn. It's finding the good porn that is difficult. You do have to be a discerning consumer when it comes to porn, and if anyone can teach someone how to be discerning and evaluate a product, that is a librarian. I can see the job ads now: "Library seeking librarian for position of InfoPorn Literacy Librarian." I would definitely apply for that. I mean, not only would it involve instruction and teaching, which I love, but it would mean an audience actually interested, and actively engaged, in the content at hand. Ok, maybe they can do the more active engagement in the private internet rooms.

And yes, throw some strippers in while you are it. Glad you advocate equal opportunity for stripper display.

Like you pointed out, I thought Gorman's boo boos were bad, but Burger is certainly doing her best to prove she is just as "good" as he was.

I like that commenter's idea about a full-body shampoo. Would a spa in libraries not be far behind as the next way to make libraries more popular?

AL said...

Library Spa 2.0. I conceived it months ago, but so far libraries are falling way behind. I thought you'd like the "2.0" as well, DWB.

Privateer6 said...

I have a very interesting solution to the weeding problem. When it was discovered that the local library was getting a new director, my family and in-laws, fearing a major weeding by the new director and familiar with various weeding software, went on a checkout frenzy, picking all the classsics and books we didn't want removed. Drove some of the staff nuts as we would max out our cards and then returned them a day or two later. Some of the older staff knew what we were doing and silently condoned it.

One thing that has helped keeping the classics, especially school age ones, is that our juvenile section cooperates witht he local schools and gets their summer reading lists and creates displays with the books and lists.

Anonymous said...

Having a display of the less checked out classics (in any discipline) really does do a lot to solve the problem. There are plenty of patrons who read the "pop" stuff that would just as soon read less contemporary works. Sometimes there are just so many it's hard to know where to start, short of picking a random book off the shelf (which I and some of my lit friends have been known to do).
Plus, once they find one good book by a less-than-pop author, they're more likely to seek out other books by that author or that time.

Anonymous said...

AL: Spa 2.0: Sign me up, baby!

While of no help to the public at large, you can *buy* a set of used (not pristine, but nice) classics, e.g., a set fo Harvard Classics or a set of Scribners (with illustrations by Wyeth!) for a lot less than a few new game cartridges, much less the game platform itself. Sadly, if a peson has $100 to spend on "family entertainment" a set of used books is not on the list.

anon7, Silent Spring has as much valid science and as much discretited science as the other books/topics, and should not be revered but serve as a warning that extrapolation is the most dangerous mathematical operation around.


anon7 said...

"Silent Spring has as much valid science and as much discretited science as the other books/topics, and should not be revered but serve as a warning that extrapolation is the most dangerous mathematical operation around."

Taupey, I happen to believe in the "marketplace of ideas." Bring on the creationists, bring on the crackpot science, the more extreme the better.

Anonymous said...

Allow me to 2nd MDoneil's post, but I need to add 8 years onto his 1-1/2.

If I were the Mayor of any city with a "Leslie Burger" library, I'd fire 3/4 of the librarians in the building. They're just NOT needed to run programs and clean puke off the bathroom floors. Specifically, you can find people at half their salaries to do that. I'm not kidding, I'd fire nearly every librarian in the building. I'd keep a couple for what little col dev and ref there is left to do.


Anonymous said...

I think you might want to take a high dose of Prozac.

janitorx said...

How about a series of co-opted TLC programs? How satisfy your information needs for the following: sucessfully bidding on Ebay, buying the right clothes for your body type and lifestyle, etc. I think all of this crap is absurd, but I bet if a public library created these programs, a ton of people would attend.

I no longer understand the role of a public library. My father was born to immigrant parents and grew up in the mid-1940's. He remembers taking the subway to the main NYPL and reading in the stacks as a child.

The library as an entertainment center undermines the role of professional librarians.

Anonymous said...

PS: AL, I wanted to point out that "punters" can be American football players, or British gamblers. However, it is also slang in Britain to call a customer of a prostitute a "punter." This slang derives from the idea that a gambler is a speculator, not an investor--why buy the cow when the milk isn't free but readily purchased?


AL said...

Yes, indeed, Taupey. I was using it according to this definition from the OED: "5. colloq. A customer or client; a member of an audience or spectator; spec., the client of a prostitute.
In some contexts almost synonymous with person (but depreciatory)." Perhaps I've been watching too much British TV.

Anonymous said...

"I no longer understand the role of a public library. My father was born to immigrant parents and grew up in the mid-1940's. He remembers taking the subway to the main NYPL and reading in the stacks as a child."

Wait, so people don't read in the stacks anymore? Then I don't want to know what all of those people are really doing with our books!

And displays do work to push stuff that might not otherwise go out. My staff picks are usually either classics or obscure (think Gilgamesh), and they all do very well.

anon7 said...

I think you folks who work exclusively in academic and research libraries forget that your clientele comes from a much smaller segment of the general population than does that of a public library.

AL said...

On the contrary, I remember and rejoice.

Bob H. said...

I work in a Public Library and unfortunately, if my staff were to do staff picks, it would all be DVDs - or if forced to choose print, a combination of T.D. Jakes and Field and Stream.

Anonymous Library Person said...

I am completely with AnonyMouse (Anonymous@8:43pm). Most public librarians in large public library systems serve no real purpose. People who live in these areas are getting ripped off paying for salaries of people who do nothing more than sit at a desk all day and occasionally help someone upload a picture to Myspace. A well-trained (or even not so well-trained) paraprofessional could more than do the job of most public librarians these days. And I ought to know...I'm a public librarian who is paid far too much to just sit on my ass all day long reading blogs and looking at Flickr. I greatly appreciate the taxpayers of my city providing me with my more than generous salary (considering what I do.)

Upstart Librarian said...

Nice observations, although the public nature of the library doesn't seem to deter either the old perverts or the young perverts where I work . . .

Dances With Books said...

How did I miss that press release about Library Spa 2.0? You are indeed ahead of the curve.

Dances With Books said...

I'd be careful with assuming all academic settings are nice places with smaller populations, Anon7.

I work for an open-admissions urban university, and it is pretty much a public library with an academic covering. Not only do we have to deal with students who are woefully underprepared (what can I say, we let everybody in), but we are also close enough to get people just released from prison (including a good share of sex offenders), homeless, and pretty much all the "joys" of public librarianship. It's like the "best" of both worlds. Add to it a director who pretty much lacks any spine, and serious security problems, and some of those ordinary public libraries start looking pretty good as places to work.

Not to create conflict, but not all academic settings are ivory towers of silence and solitude. Now, if I could only get a job at one of those ivory towers. Oh well.

AL said...

DWB, how did you miss it? I guess you weren't reading back in early June! How dare you not be reading back then! And Bob H., I don't even know who T.D. Jakes is, and am too lazy to look him or her up. Still, probably outside my demographic.

anon7 said...

DWB, when was the last time someone walked into your academic library and challenged a book?

Dances With Books said...

Hey AL, as soon as I started reading your blog, my life has been enlightened. A pity it was not sooner, but striving to make it up.

And Anon7, our last challenge here was two Falls ago actually. For various books on a display on topics of pseudoscience. Got a couple of very cranky faculty too as part of it. As I said, not always wise to just assume. Anyhow, I am just waiting for the next challenge when they start noticing some our more recent purchases (hehe).

toilet brush said...

we have a new weeding policy - if the range of shelves sit in the area where the new cafe is slated to be, then throw them out. Right next to the cafe we are told will be a "power wall" full of what the customers "really" want. I can only assumed that means popular fiction, DVDs, and porn-enabled Internet access. What the hell is a "power wall" anyway?

While we detest the idea of the cafe, we're trying to look at the bright side. We're thinking of getting a double-sided cafe sign so after 4:00 we can turn it over and it will be a neon "Happy Hour" sign. Cheap drinks and cheesy pickup lines will follow. There was a concern that we'd have to hire better looking librarians, but I assured everyone we'll all get better looking the more they drink.