in defense of the dinky library, among other things

I was hugely amused, in the wake of myriad posts on politeness, or on rocking or not rocking the boat, to read this post from Josh Neff about a post he wrote, and then deleted, and then rewrote, for his library’s blog. I’m glad that the library went with the post, albeit somewhat revised, and I’m glad that there’s already one comment on it.

I’m often glad about a lot of things. If you go back and read some of the earliest entries for this blog, they’re very much of the isn’t-this-cool-I-think-so-too variety. Partly that was because I had this idea that maybe my blog would be read by people at Dominican who weren’t reading other blogs, and partly it was because, well, I did think aadl.org was cool. If Jenny Levine has said something, I kind of doubt that any of us need to repeat it in order to get the word out, but I didn’t know that in May 2005, and I kind of doubt that Jenny begrudges me for linking to something she wrote and saying “me too!”

I haven’t done as much me-too-ing lately, in part because I simply haven’t been doing much blogging lately (new job, exciting outdoor stuff to be doing, still finishing up school, etc., etc.), but also because I know there are many things that I don’t really need to say. Other people have said them or are saying them.

That said, though, in the spirit of honesty before politeness and of writing in my own blog instead of just commenting on other peoples’, here’s my little rant about one of last week’s memes, the suckiness of the physical library space.

I was a little shocked by the number of people who said that they don’t use their local public library (see the comments, and also many posts I’ve lost track of). Really. Of course, I am a public librarian, and I run, or help run, a dinky little library with terrible lighting, incredibly beat up books, tempermental computers, no outlets for laptops (though I’m working on that), and, in many areas, a seriously dated and sometimes nonexistent collection. We do have comfy chairs (which, incidentally, were a patron suggestion in our totally 1.0 locked suggestion box some years ago, before I got here). And cute story time chairs.

I have used public libraries and branches in just about every place I’ve lived. I was lucky enough to grow up with the wonderful Iowa City Public Library. I started going there in preschool, when my father took me and my friend to story hour every Saturday morning and the library was still in the old Carnegie building. I “studied” there in high school (read: listened to LPs and read young adult novels and children’s books), I saw that library through two renovations and innumerable OPACs (remember the very early touchscreen ones where you drilled down through alphabetic lists of titles, authors, and LC subject headings?), and, when I was in graduate school at Iowa, I’d guess that I went to the library almost every day for a book or a movie or just to feel refreshed.

But we’re talking dinky libraries here, right? I’ve been to some of those, too. A branch of the Indianopolis Public Library, before it was expanded. The Eastlake Branch of the Minneapolis Public Library (again, before renovation). The main library in San Francisco, actually, was kind of dinky at least in terms of its book selection when I was using it back in 1996. I once got some books a suburban public library near Boston when I was visiting a friend, though I’ve forgotten which one. It was tiny but cute, and they had a lot of Danielle Steel. I used the Poughkeepsie Public Library a few times when I was babysitting in college, when it still had a card catalog. I loved all of these libraries, and quite frankly, I would far rather go into any of them, or any other public library you care to toss my way, than into Saks or Nordstrom (which, despite Meredith’s delineation of the differences, seem about the same to me–big well-lit places where people want to sell me stuff I don’t want) or into your average big box bookstore. At the library I never feel like people think I’m out to mooch when I sit down and start reading the books.

I realize, however, that I may be in the minority here. I realize that many people want clean, spacious libraries full of fancy gadgets, just as many people prefer department stores to thrift shops. But whenever I read about snazzy new libraries or see pictures of them, all bright and shiny, I can’t help but think about the people who aren’t going to feel comfortable there. I can’t help but think about what policies are being written to keep homeless people from using the library and messing up the carefully planned decor.

So that’s what I’ve been thinking about, librarianship-wise and biblioblogosphere-wise, of late. Now it’s back to figuring out how to cut my juvenile and young adult book order in half, if there’s anyway to rearrange things in the library to give us more space, if there’s some useful way I could do a presentation on Medline for seniors and other interested people of wildly varying technical abilities, how to go about designing an independent study so I can finish library school. . . .

Oh, and for the record, I don’t get Second Life either. Of course, I should really say that, since I’ve never tried it. But if building a library there is your thing, I say go for it! After all, not everyone would want my librarian job, either.

5 comments

  1. Steve Lawson

    Nice post. I, too, have used libraries just about everywhere I have lived, from the grand to the grubby. But I didn’t want to linger in the smaller, more cramped branch libraries, or the central libraries that were long overdue (no pun intended) for a renovation. I tended to get in and out pretty quickly. I feel lucky that the libraries in Colorado Springs are well-heeled, well-run, and well-kept-up. And, according to a recent article in the local paper, they do OK by the homeless as well.

    I also don’t really want a department store or even bookstore feel to my library (see, if you haven’t already, Mark Lindner’s interesting response to Meredith’s post. But even the snazziest new libraries I have visited don’t really give me that “store” feeling because (a) its all free and (b) there’s so much old stuff.

    One of the main reasons I go to the public library so frequently is that it is a place where that my children and I all enjoy which is entirely free (as in beer, as in freedom). And I still think nothing beats the public library for finding a bunch of weird old stuff you didn’t know you were interested in and would never pay for in a million years.

  2. joshua m. neff

    I’ll second that: nice post. Personally, I prefer thrift stores to department stores and small, dark, dusty used bookstores to big, brightly-lit stores like Borders and B&N. I prefer working at my little branch library to working at our larger main library. And I loved the old Iowa City library. (I love the new one, too.)

    I would use my local library no matter what it looked like. When I moved to Milwaukee for library school, my local library wasn’t the gorgeous, epic Main Library, it was the dinky, dingy, boxlike East Branch. It didn’t have a huge collection of anything I wanted, but it had enough books, video tapes and DVDs to help me out. I didn’t really know anyone in Milwaukee, I hadn’t started school yet, and I was broke. That little library branch was one of the main focal points of entertainment for me. So, I have a soft spot for small, poorly designed, poorly laid out libraries with small collections and a small staff of friendly, dedicated people.

    But I’m sympathetic to people who feel that their local library doesn’t have anything to offer. Meredith’s post made clear that she didn’t feel welcome by her library’s staff, and I’ve definitely been in libraries with a similar unwelcoming feel. That’s heartbreaking.

  3. Steve Lawson

    Reading Joshua’s comment also makes me think that one nice thing about the public library system in a good-sized city is that, assuming you can get around easily enough, you often have a certain amount of choice between old and new, big and small, right within the public library system itself. In San Diego, I could walk to two smallish branch libraries, head downtown for the big old main library, or use the new, more “bookstore-style” branch in the shopping center where we often went on weekends. And I used ‘em all.

    Maybe that doesn’t hold true in Meeteetse, WY, though!

  4. walt crawford

    Me three. When we lived in Redwood City, I loved a tiny little branch library that was walkable from our house–actually, almost never went to the much larger central library. And while I love the new(ish), much larger, Mountain View PL, I was happy enough using the old, crowded, less-inviting library before the new one was built.

    I was a little shocked by some of the posts on that topic, but probably shouldn’t have been. In a “system” of 13,000+ libraries, there have to be a few where the librarians aren’t welcoming. As for welcoming librarians with less-than-magnificent facilities: There are LOTS of us who can deal with that just fine.

  5. laura

    Good to know there are more pokey little library fans out there in the world. I should clarify that I agree with those who are disappointed by crumby library service. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced the kinds of things others have talked about, but that may be in part because I have a sort of general aversion to interaction (32 on that autism spectrum test), and so if I can avoid talking to people in an unfamiliar establishment, I usually do. I don’t think I ever asked a question of a librarian until I started library school, and I still don’t do it often.