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Friday, November 27, 2009

Barriers to support: it's all on the web

Recently, a colleague showed me an editorial in a small local newspaper that demanded the immediate resignation of both the director (my colleague) and her board. The reasons weren't exactly clear; it had something to do with her actually quite astute decision to snap up some property at foreclosure prices for a desperately needed library.

This week, there was a letter to the editor here in Douglas County, protesting the direction of our own library.

Of course, people voicing their objections to public decisions of any kind is a First Amendment right. I quite enjoy it myself.

But my interest is this. OCLC identified in its study ("From Awareness to Funding") a perception that is an "obstacle to support:" the idea that "the web has it all." Generally, OCLC concluded that you can't change people's mind about this one, so don't waste your time. But I think that misperception is quite broad these days, and may need special marketing attention.

People -- the general public -- seem to hold two persistent ideas about libraries, both of them, I suspect, created and perpetuated by librarians. First, we are the hallowed hall where old books go to die. Preservers of the past, musty museums of the word. Second, we are information providers, now superseded by Google.

And of course, there is some truth to both of those. We are preservers of the past -- but (a) not everything is worthy of preservation and (b) library space is not infinite. We are also providers of information, providing access to knowledge. But we are not the only such providers. And more to the point: neither of these seems to secure sufficient support from the public to be sustainable as a primary institutional focus.

Ultimately, though, we are something deeper. We are advocates for literacy. That means several things:

* a focus on early or emergent literacy -- live storytelling, finger plays, music, an abundance of picture books.

* the savvy merchandising of library materials. Surely one measure of community literacy is the sheer number of books in people's homes. The more the merrier.

* introducer and access provider to emerging technologies. An example from the past decade about our value in this arena: Where do you go, in the United States (and many western nations) when you're on the road and need to send email? Maybe an Internet cafe. But probably a library. We bridge the digital divide.

* the third place, or maybe the "second home." There are many rich virtual communities. But it remains the truth that we, human beings, are wired for physical community. The library has a continuing role to play as neutral and common ground, public space in which free inquiry, lifelong learning, and simply hanging out with each other are not just allowed, but encouraged.

A second interesting thing is contrasting public education and public libraries. There are ways they are similar -- both are about the exploration of the world of ideas, about the quest for knowledge and wisdom. But there are differences; another colleague says education is about teaching, and libraries are about learning. That is, public education is about the communication of someone else's idea of curriculum. Public libraries are about self-directed learning. Both are probably needed. But they are not the same thing. And we probably shouldn't talk about them quite the same way.

4 comments:

Mark said...

My question is always a rhetorical one: "If everything is on the web, why do I spend so much time in an academic library?"

Mrs. Steffer said...

Very timely. Our Internet Fundamental & Design Class (MLIS) just discussed the future of technology and libraries. Most agreed there are many changes that need to happen for libraries which revolve around marketing and the peoples' perceptions of the public library resources. We pretty much came to the conclusion that social community settings might be the way to go...

Jamie said...

Mark: ok, why DO you?

Mrs. Steffer: I took a gander at your blog. Thanks for the kind words there. I think our mission extends beyond being a community hub, although I certainly think that's part of it. We need a succinct summary to the question: so what is the purpose of the public library in our society? Answer (I believe): we are passionate advocates for literacy and lifelong learning.

Mark said...

Ha! You called me on it. Because the research and reference librarians are helpful in tracking down difficult information, the space is often quiet and free of distraction, and the Internet is lacking rather vital sources for my research. Contrary to popular belief, no, Google hasn't digitized every book and every piece of microfilm.