DO NOT Confuse 21st Century “Library” with “Library Services”


Some uninformed reactionaries are taking advantage of innovations in LIBRARY SERVICES to confuse the public with descriptions or concepts of “THE LIBRARY” in the 21st Century. The latest example is the Wall Street Journal. Monday (October 25, 2010) WSJ reporter Conor Dougherty posted an article entitled “New Library Technologies Dispense With Librarians”, a headline designed purposefully to catch readers.

HUGO, Minn.—In this suburb of St. Paul, the new library branch has no librarians, no card catalog and no comfortable chairs in which to curl up and read. Instead, the Library Express is a stack of metal lockers outside city hall. When patrons want a book or DVD, they order it online and pick it up from a digitally locked, glove-compartment- sized cubby a few days later. It’s a library as conceived by the Amazon.com generation.

This lead for the article SURROUNDED a picture of a “stack of metal lockers” with a sign that states “Washington County Library Express Pick-Up”. This is what Dougherty is calling a “new library branch” – a Library Express Pick-Up. SERIOUSLY?

(For those of you who have Library Express Pick-Up services OUTSIDE your brick-and-mortar library branch, now you can count another “branch” on next year’s PLS Survey that you send to IMLS. AWESOME! Thank you Conor!)

OK, I’ll admit a long-standing personal dislike of reporters in general. They more often than not miss-report the facts, either through ignorance or through efforts to sensationalize a story. (I’ll let you decide which case this article and reporter fall into.) This dislike is justified as the result of personal experience with reporters who have done that – in virtually every situation in which I have been personally involved. It also comes from accounts of other individuals whom I know personally and whose word I trust who have also experienced the same miss-reporting. It is RAMPANT and PERVASIVE.

(Sorry, I’ll step down from that soap box and get back to the “story” at issue.)

Obviously, the sensational headline contained an element of truth (“element of truth” is the hallmark of reporters), but then the article immediately distorts the facts. What could have been simply described as a “new library service that offers Library customers time saving convenience” has been distorted into the lead sentence “In this suburb of St. Paul, the new library branch has no librarians, no card catalog and no comfortable chairs in which to curl up and read.”

OMG! the reader exclaims as they envision the total demise of their “comfortable chairs in which to curl up and read”. So the reporter follows that sensationalized distortion with another. “Faced with layoffs and budget cuts, or simply looking for ways to expand their reach, libraries around the country are replacing traditional, full-service institutions with devices and approaches that may be redefining what it means to have a library.” OK, how many libraries around the country are doing it – 6? out of 16,000! Is this even newsworthy for the Wall Street Journal? Aren’t there a LOT of political candidates they could malign?

Another reason this article hit a sensitive spot with me today is that my previous Post “7 Imperatives for Library Leadership (in the 21st Century) contained imperative 3. Embrace the concept of continuous innovation. that offered the example of “there might be changes in format, including the opening of smaller library “outlets” in what is essentially a variation on a theme already being practiced by retailers like Lowe’s, Wal-Mart, and Tesco. Libraries should appropriate the many traffic-building enhancements that retailers are making to their stores.” This is NOT suggesting that 21st Century Library “branches” are a “stack of metal lockers outside city hall”.

This deliberate distortion of a 21st Century library service as a “library branch” creates a false public impression of what the 21st Century Library actually is. We in the profession are having enough difficulty redesigning our 20th Century library into the 21st Century library without having to also re-educate the public about who and what their local library is, or is not, because reporters who know nothing about libraries are miss-representing and miss-characterizing them, just to make a story.

The WSJ reporter goes on to elaborate on the numerous companies that are designing and marketing DVD and pBook vending machines, and how they are being employed in local libraries. I certainly applaud library directors and boards for their innovation and resourcefulness in the face of difficult budgetary constraints. What concerns me is a trend toward libraries allowing commercial vendors to shape their library services, and eventually their library. This situation reminds me of an exchange some months ago with a reader who advocated closing their local library and later re-opening it when they had figured out what they should be. My counter point was “nature abhors a vacuum”, and in light of the librarian profession’s reluctance to address the 21st Century Library issue, commercial vendors are stepping in to redesign our libraries for us.
Vendors selling these vending machines to libraries in desperate situations reminds me of the first undergraduate class I taught back in the mid-80s. As an adjunct university teacher, I was handed a text book by the department chair and told “Just develop a course syllabus based on this.” Being ignorant to any other alternative, and given the education model that existed at the time, it seemed reasonable. It wasn’t until a few years later that I realized how “rote” that made the learning, and how teacher-centered it was, and how the text book industry was shaping the content of higher education.

In the 21st Century Library we are attempting to evolve into user-centered libraries that deliberately design services for their specific community of customers. We are interested in user interaction with the library, not preventing it. Director James Lund, Red Wing (MN) Public Library is quoted as saying in an interview; “The basis of the vending machine is to reduce the library to a public-book locker. Our real mission is public education and public education can’t be done from a vending machine. It takes educators, it takes people, it takes interaction.” Lund’s Library Journal article is very critical of the “vending library” that is “…devoid of human contact and only as dynamic as the nearest RedBox.”

Librarians who envision the 21st Century Library as a mechanized environment “devoid of human contact” are not librarians I want redesigning my local library. RedBox, Amazon and many others too numerous to mention are doing quite well in that area.

5 Comments

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5 responses to “DO NOT Confuse 21st Century “Library” with “Library Services”

  1. Matt McLain

    Steve,

    I think your post is excellent. As I read it, and the link to Lund’s Library Journal piece, I got thinking that maybe “advocacy” really does need to be redefined within the 21st Century Library skillset…to not only say what a library is: a place for the community to meet, learn, use state-of-the-art technology, and even read; but to also define what a library isn’t: a group of lockers in a hall somewhere where people can pick up a DVD. Libraries aren’t and shouldn’t be simply materials-based–and that’s where 21st Century Library advocacy fits in. We need to change virtually everyone’s mental image of a library (bun, reading a book, quiet book-filled room) to the image librarians see when they think of libraries. –Matt

  2. Have you ever thought about including a little bit more than just your articles? I mean, what you say is fundamental and everything. But think about if you added some great graphics or video clips to give your posts more, “pop”! Your content is excellent but with pics and video clips, this website could certainly be one of the best in its niche. Awesome blog!

  3. Hey there just stumbled upon your website from Google after I typed in, “DO NOT Confuse 21st Century ‘Library’ with ‘Library Services’ | 21st Century Library Blog” or perhaps something similar (can’t quite remember exactly). Anyways, I’m grateful I found it simply because your content is exactly what I’m searching for (writing a college paper) and I hope you don’t mind if I collect some material from here and I will of course credit you as the source. Thank you so much.

    • Thanks. Would you mind telling me what course, what institution? I’m curious who is incorporating 21st Century Library ideas into their curriculum, since there aren’t too many yet. I’d also be interested in how your paper turns out, and what other resources you found.

  4. Pingback: Country connections | Sues Bent

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