Friday, January 05, 2007

In a generally counterintuitive article at the WSJ Opinions, the author, John Miller, decides that:

"If public libraries attempt to compete in this {bookstore} environment, they will increasingly be seen for what Fairfax County apparently envisions them to be: welfare programs for middle-class readers who would rather borrow Nelson DeMille's newest potboiler than spend a few dollars for it at their local Wal-Mart.

Instead of embracing this doomed model, libraries might seek to differentiate themselves among the many options readers now have, using a good dictionary as the model. Such a dictionary doesn't merely describe the words of a language--it provides proper spelling, pronunciation and usage. New words come in and old ones go out, but a reliable lexicon becomes a foundation of linguistic stability and coherence. Likewise, libraries should seek to shore up the culture against the eroding force of trends."

The assumptions Mr. Miller makes are idiosyncratic. It sounds like he is proposing two things:

First, he is proposing that libraries are somehow beyond market forces. People generally decide which public services they support by how useful they find them. Mr. Miller is suggesting that by buying fewer books that our patrons want, by becoming less relevant to our community’s interests, libraries will somehow be perceived as more useful.

Second, that we could succeed as arbiters of taste. His first statement hinges on some view that our profession can decide for the general public what they want to read. Perhaps we should hand them a book at the door. "No, no. You don't want to read DeMille. Try Hemingway.”

Never mind that “For Whom The Bell Tolls” apparently wasn't on the local school’s reading lists. And that they might have more to do with “shoring up the culture” thnt we do. Does he really think the public at large pays our millage so that we can tell them what books they want? That looks like a recipe for a “doomed model” to me.

Nineteenth century librarians didn't even think novels should be in library. Mr. Miller is more permissive: he just thinks that we're wasting money on new novels.

In fact, libraries offer all sorts of information, besides those new fangled novels. Full-text periodical databases, newspapers, audio-books, business and investing resources, reader’s advisory, citizenship information, test preparation books, language CDs, meeting space… professionals who might be able to help a stumped patron navigate the many resources available to them. Is Mr. Miller really so unimaginative that he can’t think of any informational resources better afforded by an institution than the general public?

In the near future, I'm betting that many people will be making economic choices about reading material by buying in electronic format, to read on PDAs, portable readers, even cell-phones. That trend will increase over time. Thinking further ahead of Mr. Miller, as the price of computer storage falls, we can envision a time when you can carry a library of public domain classics as a freebee on your PDA. And you still probably won’t read them, much like you browse through most of the cable channels in your package at home.

So what happens in the future if we follow in Mr. Miller's thinking and advice? The library becomes not only irrelevant, but redundant.

There may be alternatives to the library's resources. Some of them may prove to be more effective, especially in the long run, than public libraries. But I'll bet that the 90% of our patron base we have registered as users, on an average day, get more use out of the 1.3 mils they pay us yearly, than they do out of the police force or fire department. This is in no way an indictment of basic services, but does point up that we compare favorably to them.

My biggest complaint with Mr. Millar’s thoughtless essay is that it rarely comes down to a choice of “Hemingway or DeMille.” His leading opening suggests that revered classics “may” be removed entirely from the library system. In fact, the greater disservice is to mid-list or small press authors, like himself, who get cut from the catalog due to disinterest.

I would be surprised if any largish library system doesn’t have access to “Charlotte Brontë, William Faulkner, Thomas Hardy, Marcel Proust and Alexander Solzhenitsyn” I bet if he bothered to look in the Fairfax County Public Library system’s catalog, they would be available yet. At the very least, we can inter-library loan them.

Librarians are doing their best to navigate the waters of utility in the age of Google: spending tax dollars wisely while still making sure that we are a service, not a warehouse. We will make sure that resources are available to you: If For Whom the Bell Tolls isn’t right there for you, we’ll Inter Library Loan it. But if your suggestions are fulminating about “them new fangled popular reading novels,” don’t be surprised that our profession doesn’t find it constructive criticism.

1 comment:

Kate said...

You know, I don't think bookstores are the competition anymore.

A few months ago I had this angry woman who didn't want to wait six months for a movie (super long hold list), and complained that she could just download it at home for free and have it in 2 hours, but wanted to try to support public libraries.

At the time, I kind of agreed with her. Of course, when I got home Jenny reminded me that downloading is illegal and why wait ten years to save up for that new car when you could just walk outside and steal someone else's in 30 seconds... and so downloading really isn't competition.

But that was months ago. We're moving towards iTunes-like service for video, also. Soon you'll be able to download anything for way less than people sometimes pay in fines. How can libraries compete with this?