What Does "Library" Mean?
The New Year started with a bang with two very different types of stories about libraries:
The Washington Post article, Hello, Grisham -- So Long, Hemingway? With Shelf Space Prized, Fairfax Libraries Cull Collections about a library system weeding classics. My favorite quote: "More computers and growing demand in branches for meeting space, story hours and other gatherings have left less room for books."
The New York Times article, Lock the Library! Rowdy Students are Taking Over! about a library in Maplewood, NJ, that is shutting down during afternoon hours because the disturbances going on during that time period. My favorite passage: "Librarians and other experts say the growing conflicts are the result of an increase in the number of latchkey children, a decrease in civility among young people and a dearth of “third places” — neither home nor school — where kids can be kids."
There's been a lot being said in blogs and over coffee about these two articles, but together, they raise an important question: What is the primary function of a library in a community?
Let's avoid armchair quarterbacking (Fairfax should display classics! Don't lock out the teens, have programs!) and take what is being said at face value.
In Fairfax, it's about changing to be, well, a community center: meeting space. story hours. other gatherings. Giving people only what they want; with no questions about what people need, or whether a library is different from Barnes and Noble.
In Maplewood, it's saying, no, we are not and should not be the community center; we're a library, and if the town wants a community center for teens, build one.
And, surprisingly enough to those who know I delight in pop culture being in libraries, I'm finding myself siding with Maplewood. I think libraries are part of the community, absolutely; but our primary role is library.
We should welcome teens with programs and teen advisory groups; with friendly staff, comfortable surroundings, and with reasonable rules that are the same for everyone.
We should partner with local agencies and community centers.
But if what Maplewood needs is a community center for teens, they should build one and staff one, rather than having people say "oh, the library can do it."
Part of the reason I say this is cost; we have limited budgets. Hiring additional staff means money that cannot be spent elsewhere on electronic databases, updating websites, staff for other library needs, or professional development.
Another reason I say this is training and education. Librarians are librarians. If a library has a primary purpose of community center, shouldn't it be hiring people with degrees in recreational management instead of people with degrees in library science? And once we stop needing people with MLIS's to serve our primary purpose, how can we call ourselves libraries and librarians?
Space is another concern. Most libraries have not been built to serve as a community center and don't have that space. If a library shifts to a community center model what about those who valued the library model and library resources? Where will they go?
A library can be and should be an important part of town it is in. But it cannot be and should not be all things to all people. Libraries can and should (and do!) partner with other members of the community; that's the way to make sure your town has what it needs.