Friday, January 25, 2008

Public Libraries and Lifelong Learning

It's been an exciting and action-packed week. Not here on the AL, of course, but just in general, so I haven't been as responsive as I'd hoped to my faithful commenters. I guess I was just so excited to find that the ALA Council passed a resolution calling for an end to violence in Kenya that I couldn't focus much after that. Now that the ALA has spoken, those Kenyans must be relieved to know that peace and freedom are just around the corner.

So now I'll be responsive. As you might guess, I'm all for debate and dissent in the comments section of this blog, as long as no one starts using foul language like two commenters whose comments I had to delete this week. (That's typically the case when it says a comment has been removed by a blog administrator.) This is a family blog, after all. I like to respond to the comments, but sometimes they come faster than I can handle, which explains this post.

In the comments of this week's twopointopian post, a brief debate broke out only tangentially related to the cult of twopointopia, namely, whether public libraries support lifelong learning. Here are the relevant comments that appeared one after another near the witching hour Monday.

Anonymous @ 11:15pm wrote:
"The issue is that public libraries do not support lifelong learners. Many public libraries are now buying items that will get them high circulation such as bestsellers, romances, etc. They are not buying circulating works that cost more than $30 or so dollars. They are buying DVD's and may eventually move almost wholly to video downloads to keep theft down.

Many people who need to fulfill a research need therefore have to do it by using electronic resources since there are no books on their topic. In the future, they will be able to access cheap portable ebooks (as in Kindle) or electronic databases.

I personally have found that if I need a book to fulfill a need,especially an academic or career need, I have to buy it since my public library system either doesn't carry it or has outdated copies.

I think Anonymous 1:02 is correct in that cheap books will continue to be sold, but they will be old books - the new ones will all be electronic."

Nate responded:
"Public Libraries DO support lifelong learners. They provide a human starting point for ANY question. Also, lifelong learning is not limited to reading books, if it were we’d live in a terribly boring society. Fools would just sit around and read all day. What a drag, learning is about a lot more than just reading. Lifelong learning is about EXPERIENCE, and if libraries can provide media or inspiration in ANY manner to enrich experiences then they are doing their job. I feel pretty good about where we are at with that; I think public libraries have a bright future.

I’ll add that I use bookstores regularly too, and I’m a public librarian. It is foolish to think that your public library is going to be a one-stop media shop. I have Netflix too. Or actually I did, I canceled it a while ago cause their delivery system slowed down. I pick and choose where I get books and videos just like I pick and choose where I buy meat, light bulbs, and loose leaf paper.

I’ll tell you what though, I had the flip side of this last anonymous (hey why is EVERYONE on this blog anonymous?) persons experience recently. I was after this obscure book and looked it up on Amazon, Half, AddAll… it was crazy expensive. I talked to my buddy in the interlibrary loan department and whaddya know- I’m reading the book right now. Well not right now, I’m typing right now, but… you know…."

It's no secret that I support the educational mission of public libraries rather than the rec center mission of public libraries. "The Commonwealth requires the education of the people as the safeguard of order and liberty." It does not require the entertainment of the people, and I see no reason I should pay any taxes so that people who can't afford Dance Dance Revolution can dance their lives away at the public library. As far as I'm concerned, if the kids can't afford their own video games, what they need is great education and training so that they can improve their lot in life. This is a right and proper mission of the public library. But I'll also have to note that most public libraries are incapable of sustaining lifelong education at a very high level. I suppose there is always ILL, as Nate suggests, but that's not the same as having the books or articles on the shelves or easily accessible. Even small college libraries are superior to most public libraries in this way, unless those libraries are in big cities.

But let us consider Nate, the educational radical, for whom reading isn't absolutely necessary to education, and in fact can be rather boring. What a dull world it would be if "fools would just sit around and read all day." Lifelong learning is about experience, he tells us, and that's certainly a plausible claim. I would stretch it further than he does in his comment to say that experience might be gained through some media retrieved from the library, or from travel or conversation, and I'm sure he would agree with me. I do cavil at the claim that "if libraries can provide media or inspiration in ANY manner to enrich experiences then they are doing their job [of providing lifelong learning]." This is the intellectual relativism typical of the librarian tendency to reduce everything to "information," and thus argue that access to any information is just as good as access to any other information. Any experience certainly can be educational, and thus within the scope of lifelong learning, but can we make any distinctions at all?

Educated people certainly do make distinctions. The more you know about a subject, the more you realize both how much there is to know, and how little most people know. And the more you know about a lot of subjects, the more you realize how empty of intellectual content most people's learning is. If we're talking about the good of the commonwealth, we're talking about forming educated and critical citizens. Video games don't form educated and critical citizens, at least no more educated and critical than one would be from watching old episodes of School House Rock. To have "any experience at all" is not the same as being educated except in the most banal way. So for me the critical question is whether public libraries can support the lifelong education of the critical and engaged citizens a liberal democracy needs to thrive. Except for web resources, which are hardly localized to the library, how often is this done? How often do public libraries have collections in history, politics, economics, or sociology to sustain study beyond about a 10th grade level?

To say that these can all be obtained through ILL is to say that they're not important enough to provide for public library patrons. After all, the public library patrons just want bestsellers and videos. To buy books on history or economics that none of these people would read anyway is to be judgmental about their taste, and we wouldn't want that, now would we? To provide these books would be a waste of money and shelf space, and it certainly wouldn't be worth that to provide ready access for the handful of eggheads or politics junkies that might stagger through the stacks.

Ultimately, if we say many or perhaps most public libraries support lifelong learning, we have to be clear what lifelong learning is, and what lifelong learning is relevant. It seems the easy way out just to say that any experience the library can "enrich" counts as the relevant lifelong learning. Is all lifelong "learning" equally good? More specifically, is all lifelong "learning" equally good for the commonwealth? Is it justified to spend public money on private goods, assuming of course that playing more video games even counts as a private good? The tougher way is to actually have some standards for what education is good for the people either in their capacity as citizens or in their desire to improve themselves. Then, it seems to me, for many if not most public libraries, the case for lifelong learning is much harder to prove, and that's a shame.


Ed Crank -- Librarian said...

Lifelong learning is becoming one of those catch phrases like the dread Library 2.0

Sounds nice.

Sounds deep.

Sounds like tax payers money is being well spent.

But, if you try to pin down people who throw that term around you get into a really gray area of touchy feely.

Kind of like "no child left behind". Sounds really great as an intellectual concept but in practice it becomes messy and bureaucratic. Sure we support lifelong learners, whatever and whomever that is.

Yes, this is again snarky, but until you can define in black and white what you mean, don't use catch phrases.

As an aside, the ALA made a resolution about Kenya? Good show. I bet everyone forgot about the fatwa that the ALA put out on Osama bin Laden in 2001. When he heard about that he scurried to the hills of Afghanistan and hasn't been heard from since.

George Bush? Ha. The Bun and Shush brigade shut down terrorism.

Anonymous said...

When I wrote my anonymous post at 11:15 PM (and Nate- maybe you should read the back entries on this blog to see why people are posting annonymously) I was thinking of these people in the lifelong learner category:

-people studying for the GED
-people trying to learn English
-people who want to do some home repair
-people who want to figure out what tree is in their yard or bird on their electric lines
-people who want to write a resume
-people who want to learn some computer programming, a basic application, or even how to create a blog
-people who want to take some form of civil service exam and would like an exam book that is somewhat current.

I suppose these are feeble definitions of lifelong learners. None of them are trying to research the Inquisition or the history of Chartre or local geology or Native American religious traditions or build a labyrinth in their yard. I would have to send them somewhere else (possibly another system) or do lots of reserves if they felt like doing that. I'm not talking thesis quality information requests - just general ones.

Part of the experience of a library is being able to browse. I, too, go to bookstores. I browse to see if there is something I'd like to check on at my library. Lots of time I end up buying the books because there is no other way for me to get them. The esteemed tax payers who visit my local library complain over the fact that there really is nothing for them to browse. As such, they are not getting their experiences broadened by the library.

In addition, having to wait a really long time for an interlibrary loan takes the buzz off that first enthusiastic burst of desire to explore something. Part of the lifelong learning experience (for me) is spontaneity - I want to learn about this now! I want to see that movie, read that book, listen to that song now! This is something that portable electronic media devices will promote.It is possible that libraries will be the conduit to these electronic downloads. It is also possible that faced with being put on an electronic reserve list or downloading that book for $2 to Kindle 7.0 (and you can write on it) the tax payer may opt to pay those $2.This is the same reason why you, Nate, cancelled Netflix - you didn't want to wait for your movie buzz.

I'm going to be very interested in seeing what happens to public libraries in the next 20 years.

-proudly Anonymous

Dances With Books said...

I don't think Ed is snarky at all. He does have a point. Lifelong learning is becoming a touchy feely catchprase. As long as you can claim you are doing it, you must be ok. How dare you question it? And therein lies the problem, when those of us who actually question this whole notion of turning libraries into video arcades or rec centers, we get the storm of the "cool" librarians who say "hey, it's an experience. It's lifelong learning."

Actually, Anon. @7:57 has some very good examples of what lifelong learners look like. And true, in many public libraries, materials for such people are seriously lacking. My local public library has books that were probably new when I was in the womb (let's just say that was around the time a certain President had not resigned yet). Books to learn about computers? Are you kidding? Maybe to learn about those old TSR's or Apple II's. However, my local library is not exactly well funded, so not only do they lack books, they also lack the "cool" stuff. Not that those "cool" people would care.

The question will always boil down to what are people really willing to support. If they really believe in the whole idea of an informed citizenry, then they should act accordingly. Sure, you can get a lot online and maybe get some educational media (to use the examples Anon provided), but you still need the books as well. If on the other hand, the priority is simply more numbers of people walking into the building, checking out something (does not matter what it is as long as it raises the numbers), then go from there. However, don't be shocked or annoyed (to borrow our host's nom de plume) when you can't find a good guide to how to use Excel or how to take that civil service exam. You get what you pay for. Problem is, in the end, you get less of that informed and critical thinking citizenry. And that should be what we ought to be worrying about.

As for ALA's Kenya resolution, not even going there. Any reason they can't have a resolution to support "lifelong learning?" Oh wait, that would be too easy, or too close to home, or, let me guess...too relevant?

Anonymous said...

To say that these can all be obtained through ILL is to say that they're not important enough to provide for public library patrons.


Obtaining a book through ILL is providing it for public library patrons.

Many public library patrons cannot access other types of collections.

Anonymous said...

The danger of ILL is that libraries are growing dependent on "them" to collect the material. "Them" being the other libraries that collect the proper stuff.

As one library director told me years ago, ILL is not an answer to collection development.

joanna said...

My library has had a problem with things like GED and ASVAB books being stolen, lost, or never returned. We recently acquired an online resource with up-to-date study guides for those and many other tests. The database can be accessed from the library or at home with a valid library card number.

How is that hindering "lifelong learning" by not having the actual print books in the building? The library is providing the material in a form that cannot be stolen or lost and it can be a great help to many "lifelong learners".

waltc said...

Every public library is different, but it's certainly not just libraries in big cities that do provide both substantial, diverse print collections for "the people's university" but also license good databases and make them available to any cardholder from home.

That's certainly true for my local library, and I don't live in a big city by most standards. And it's been true for any number of other libraries I've visited. There are many excellent public libraries in the U.S. There are some crappy public libraries in the U.S. Not surprising: It's not one system, and probably shouldn't be.

Of course, it's more fun to make sweeping generalizations about public libraries as a whole, even if those generalizations are mostly straw men.

Still not anonymous...

j- said...

*As one library director told me years ago, ILL is not an answer to collection development.*

Right on. Just buy the stupid books. You'll have room when you weed the 200 copies of this month's Oprah book when it falls it is replaced by another.

Many years ago while I was performing my indentured servitude, errrr, in library school, I toiled at a public library as an ILL tech.

We would have many, many kook requests for kook items [The Cure For All Diseases; Milk, The Deadly Poison; etc.] and I was once told that each ILL fill costs the library close to $50 in manpower, postage, etc.

I suggested simply buying a used copy of each of these items since it would be much cheaper in the short term [cost-wise and service-wise] AND the long term since we could eventually move toward being a net LENDER of such items.

I was shot down.

I also suggested the library sell its weeded material on Amazon rather than let our "Friends" group do it for basically zero profit.

Again, I was shot down.

Ten years later, this same library does both things. I bet this time it was the "idea" of some high-ranking mucky-muck though, so of course it was a brilliant plan.

AL said...

"Of course, it's more fun to make sweeping generalizations about public libraries as a whole, even if those generalizations are mostly straw men."

Of course it is, Walt. Why do you think people read this blog?

Anonymous said...

Oh, but lets just say anything we do at our library is for lifelong learning.

It will look good on the bottom line and sure, you can say that anything is learning.

Why just the other day I learned not to draw to an inside straight at my local libraries poker night. It is great fun. The only problem is we have to chase those dancing fool kids out of the place so we can get to some serious learning.

soren faust said...

I’ll try and get through this post without using the Adolph “H” word, so please bear with me.

It seems very popular to engage in public library bashing or make apocalyptic pronouncements on the future of public libraries. On this blog, in the past, I’ve gotten pretty defensive about it. I work in a public library and find it maddening to no end when, as Walt points out, people make sweeping generalizations about something as diverse as the public library system in this country. All this invective directed at the public library somehow continually fell short of matching my experience.

That is why I’m glad Walt wrote what he did. I think it is really the crux of the issue and that is: there are great, good, mediocre and poor public libraries—every one is different. I happen to work in a really good one in a large city where we actually do have historians using the collection for research, where we have college students using the collection and, many of the residents here study for more than just the GED.

I can honestly say that in this library DDR is just an abstract arrangement of letters.

In a way, I am guilty of the same thing the naysayers are guilty of, i.e. making sweeping generalizations about public libraries—only perhaps I’ve been a little too Pollyanna about them. I know there are some really, really bad PLs with equally bad librarians.

Still, the fact remains, to criticize the “public library” as if it were a whole entity is as abstract and meaningless as criticizing the “public”.

Anonymous said...

I work in a public library.

We provide lots of services for people who are out of school.

Do we claim that we support lifelong learning?



Because it is a bogus phrase. It is something you tell management or your elected officials when you are looking for more money.

We go in with hard statistics about what items circulates. What databases are used, in-house and from the web. We contact local tech schools and junior colleges to make sure that we are in synch with what they are offering (in addition to contacting the local public and private grammar and high schools in the same vein.)

Do we beat the drum saying "look at us, we promote lifelong learning!!!!!" No, just the facts ma'am.

And if that is not good enough for our bosses, then we are doing something wrong.

Rory said...

Regarding the resolution on the situation in Kenya, I'd like to remind you that it was brought to ALA by the request of the Kenyan library community, who are very appreciative to say the least that it was passed. They have emphasized the importance of support from groups like ours in the international appeals that they have made to colleagues internationally.

Anonymous said...

So the Kenyan library community requested the support of the ALA?

If I were a Kenyan, I'd request the support of the U.S. military.

Anonymous said...

The US military was indisposed.

The Kenyans asked the next most logical group.

Next thing you know, the ALA is going to follow Congress's lead and write a scathing memo about the Turkish treatment of Armenians in the beginning of the last century.

Anonymous said...

Because it is a bogus phrase. It is something you tell management or your elected officials when you are looking for more money.

Yeah, are we talking about public libraries, or are we talking about your local archive/historical society/museum/courthouse/university collection? When did the public library become Wal-Mart (be-all-to-all), and when did the public system fail so miserably across the board in not forming a consortium with those other institutions to stay in the know when people confuse one institution for another?

soren faust said...

AL (can I call you Al?),

I think you should team up with the Angry Pharmacist

Susan said...

If it is true that "even small college libraries are superior to most public libraries" in providing materials for lifelong learning as AL defines it, perhaps the solution is for college libraries to broaden access and borrowing privileges to the general public (perhaps with a fee to the user, or to the user's public library). Why duplicate collections? After all, as public librarians know, many college students ask the public library to provide course books (from our collection or ILL), when they don't want to buy them.

Like Walt, my library (not a large city, either) has a substantial collection, both in print and other media (audio versions of classics and serious music on CD surely count as lifelong learning, yes?). And most of the reference questions I've handled today have been of the "improving oneself" variety.

But unlike the AL, who I'm sure only reads Great Literature, sometimes I want my Oprah book, and I don't begrude my patrons theirs. Any decent public library can handle this balancing act, and it's nothing new.

Kevin Musgrove said...

For the most part, lifelong learning is the learning that the academic industry doesn't want to provide because it can't be squeezed into a curricular straightjacket and turned into fifty ticks to be mapped against an ojive chart.

Any public library with a halfway-decent non-fiction buying policy can do a surprisingly good job of it despite the best efforts of many library managers.

anaughtymouse said...

I work in a public library that is close enough to a metropolitan area to have a diverse service population, but far enough away so that they don't have access to any university libraries or book store. As a result, we regularly give reference service to doctoral candidates, new adult readers and users newly diagnosed with your latest wretched disease. We manage to have shelf space to at least find something for them immediately and either ILL or order the rest. No one is going to get lost researching in our stacks, but if they try hard enough, they might come out of the library less ignorant than when they came in. Time and time again, however, management insists not on bolstering the collection with subject specific resources, but with Librarians. They are all over the place. In fact, it's hard for the users to use the library without being helped by one. Some users slink by when one isn't looking and check out a non-educational visual resource.
I've heard our director say, "give 'em what they want". The populace doesn't know they want lifelong learning. They want help with their daily lives. I'm glad we can help the grad student, but I'm also glad we can help the guy who is just learning to read, too. If not us, then who?

Anonymous said...

Rory Litwin said:

"Regarding the resolution on the situation in Kenya, I'd like to remind you that it was brought to ALA by the request of the Kenyan library community, who are very appreciative to say the least that it was passed. They have emphasized the importance of support from groups like ours in the international appeals that they have made to colleagues internationally."

Rory, you and your ilk in the Social Responsibility Round Table (better known as the Socialist Responsibility Round Table or the Socially Ridiculous Round Table) are behind this irrelevant resolution like you have been so often in the past. You are profoundly unprincipled for 2 reasons: 1) these type of resolutions are irrelevant to the mission of ALA, but you fail to see it because you are animated & blinded by your radical politics, and 2) even if these resolutions were relevant you would never support one if it did not fall in line with your Leftist politics. Oh well, it gets me annoyed, but it really doesn't matter when SRRT and ALA Council do these things because they are feel good resolutions that have absolutely no consequence to anyone anywhere, especially librarians.

Oh by the way, there’s a misspelling in your resolution. Hundreds of Kenyans have been killed not because of the December “lection” but because of the “election” (not to mention a little tribal hatred). See below:

WHEREAS, hundreds of people have been killed and injured, and thousands have been displaced by the current violence in Kenya generated by the controversy surrounding the December lection results

Kristen said...

"I work in a public library that is close enough to a metropolitan area to have a diverse service population, but far enough away so that they don't have access to any university libraries or book store. As a result, we regularly give reference service to doctoral candidates...."

I'm starting to see the rise of distance education have an impact on our requests too.

And with any other kind of student, sometimes ILLs can't arrive soon enough, so the demand for deep and wide material in-house is just going to increase. (They're not all young and comfortable with databases either. Or they want really old stuff that is not on an affordable databse, if any.)

Crumbly said...

One of the pleasures of Public Librarianship was working with and for lifelong learners. Naturally the ILL system was used extensively for them but less than one would have thought necessary before checking our own book stock for requested items or acceptable substitutes.

There are many people, especially in the States, calling themselves Independent Scholars and presumably most of these research through their Public Library.

The various opinions on the ILL systems do raise the question as to why library systems do not play to their strengths. An inter-lending service as fast and as efficient as possible should be central to the "offer". Electronic delivery of journal articles to the patrons own email should be standard as should notification of requested books arrival or the progress of the request.

What ever else libraries do they should at the least have book and article acquisition or inter-lending promoted and effectively managed.

BODA said...

I have a question what is continuing education and lifelong learning in a library setting? What do you feel the library's stregnths and weaknesses are as a player in continuing education?