doing what we can do

Although the world of libraries and the world of technology often overlap, it’s important to remember that they are not contiguous.

Defrag was, I am sure, a fascinating conference (if I had had a spare $1300 lying around somewhere, I would have gone–there was even a $140 roundtrip ticket from Billings). But I would guess that the people there were not trying to decide what books to read for story time, or how to do better outreach to the Spanish-speaking population, or how to teach people to use e-mail, or how to fit a thorough bibliographic instruction into one hour slot. That’s in no way meant as a criticism of defrag. It is meant to remind us (myself most emphatically included) that not every problem we have in libraries is a technology problem, that not everything we do can be done with technology, and that sometimes paper and markers work just fine.

Technology bests us quite a lot. There are far more alternative news sources available on the web than there are print copies of such publications in libraries (thank goodness we at least have the internet in libraries–though, as the folks at the sadly now defunct NewStandard noted a few years ago, Google’s algorithms are made to discount alternative news sources). Technology is flashier and often more fun, and I defend the value of social networking and gaming and other online pursuits on a near daily basis.

But I think that before we start beating our chests about how we don’t have the newest and the best, we might think a little more about what we offer that technology does not. You could think of this as a business strategy, or as strategic planning, or as whatever other management system you want.

I think libraries still offer many, many things that aren’t readily available to many people. I grew up in a college town with multiple independent new and used bookstores, with avant garde theatre and a Jackson Pollack mural, with a whole series of local alternative publications, with lectures and concerts all around me. I used to get depressed at my old library when I put “bookstore near ____” into Google, because the top few results were all adult bookstores. Kids who came to my library then never saw books outside the library except at KMart or Wal-Mart. That’s largely true of my current library, too (although we are mercifully free of neighborhood adult bookstores).*

As I see it, a library in such a situation has a responsibility not only to provide books (and movies and CDs and magazines and newspapers), but to provide as a broad an array as possible, and to introduce things that people otherwise simply won’t run into. That’s something any library can do, and it doesn’t require much. If you’re a small and poor library, just consider making one book in your monthly book order something off the beaten track, or one book every other month, if it’s a month when James Patterson has two new ones out that you have to buy. When you think about “going where your users are,” also try to think about going where they aren’t, and then figuring out a way to lead them there.

We don’t beat Google by trying to best Google. We beat Google by being the thing–the things, really–that Google can never be.

*Please note, I am not against adult bookstores per se. If they were all like Early to Bed or Good Vibrations, I’d say bring ‘em on. Unfortunately, I think most of them are more about plastic wrapped magazines, scary guys who man the door, and browsing fees.

4 comments

  1. Nonanon

    Great post. I’ve lost a lot of my library faith over the years, but I maintain that, if absolutely nothing else, we still offer one place where people can go for help or commiseration or materials where they don’t have to pay for our time by the second, or subscribe to us before we’ll help you. It’s getting more rare to find that. I may not always have the best tech answers for you, or the most up-to-date computers for you to use, but I will try to help. I’ve seen the alternative, after all, and it’s called the cable company, the phone company, the wireless company, etc. Pay through the nose at all of those places and you know what? They can’t always help either! (And yes, I know, we’re not free, you pay good money in taxes for us. Still a good deal, frankly, and all the more reason to go in and get your share of the resources.)

  2. laura

    Thanks–and I love your line about the cable company. I plan to employ it frequently! (crediting Nonanon, of course :-))

  3. Edith Houdek

    I live in a small Wisconsin town (1000 pop.) with a small library but a very active turnover in books, tapes, cds, etc. through the library resources we can use through a home computer. I can search for a book and then request it, and usually have it in less than a week. If I can’t find it in my area libraries, I can use Wiscat and search all of Wisconsin. This is also available in Florida and Missouri, but I don’t know if it’s available in all the states. But it certainly is a great benefit for library patrons that I have found.

  4. laura

    Edith, yes, many libraries belong to regional or state-wide groups that make it easy to borrow books from other libraries. The whole state of Wyoming is like that, but it’s not true everywhere. It sounds like you’ve got a pretty good setup, though!