Rochelle over at LISnews
pointed out this letter to an editor in a newspaper, "For-profit bookstores should be our libraries."
The letter writer argues "In this age of information, giant bookstores with coffee shops and reading areas, why do we need public libraries that suck up taxes instead of paying them?"
Other highlights: "They have lots of books, they could put in a bank of computers for public use, expand their reading areas and they certainly already are able to access any reading material the public libraries can;" "All we have to do is examine what it is that makes our public libraries valuable. Put that in a contracted mandate to a profit-driven firm that is already more proficient at economically providing books, magazines and other information services -- Yes, they could provide a book- lending service. They would be no less convenient, plenty of parking spaces, serve better coffee and since profit is their goal would undoubtedly achieve and surpass the performance of our current library system."Rochelle replies
by pointing out the services libraries offer beyond books, librarians have advanced degrees, and that those unable to pay would be most hard hit. Other comments at LISnews include that price-wise, what someone pays in taxes for their library is probably less than the cost of a book. (I imagine if that contract truly included all that public libraries do, the bookstores would either declare bankruptcy or change much more for their services than what people pay in taxes already.)
David Rothman over at Teleread: Bring the E-Books Home
sees the issue as one of using technology to give customers and taxpayers even more bang for their buck so they keep the funding coming.
Have I made the confession before that between college and going back to get my MLIS, I never used a public library? And chances are I wouldn't currently be a user if I weren't a public librarian?
So based on living years without seeing a need for public libraries, here's my take on the bookstores v. public libraries debate. Part of what is happening is that people don't know what libraries truly offer. Just look at the letter-writer: he only mentions borrowing books, coffee, and parking. Throw in a few computers and a bookstore becomes a library. And -- like Rochelle -- we could go on and on about what else libraries offer. Out of print books, databases, search experts, etc.
But if a tree falls in a forest, and there's no one there, does anyone hear it? And for most library services we offer --- there's no-one around to hear. We tell each other, we tell ourselves, we tell the people who are coming in the door anyway. Whose fault is it that the letter writer doesn't know what libraries offer?
I say its not his fault. It's our fault.
Recently, I've heard people say that within 20 years there will be no more public libraries. My yes is qualified; because I don't believe that public libraries are "dinosaurs" that will die off if they don't change dramatically in mission and services. Rather, I think public libraries will die off if they continue to be "the best kept secret." And I'm not talking about doing a poor job of advertising a storytime or a film festival. I'm talking about the failure of the public library to communicate its core values and mission to the majority of the public.
The other part of the problem? The failure to convince those with enough money to always use the bookstore that the government needs to maintain libraries for the benefit of those who cannot afford a computer, database access, or books.
Our professional organizations should be getting that message out to the public -- what are libraries have and offer. Why it's important. Tell the public why public libraries matter -- what public libraries offer -- instead of assuming that the public should know, that the public should value the institution just because we do. A real advertising campaign is needed, on a national level, at the same professional level of advertising as for-profit companies.