Monday, November 24, 2008

I'm Obviously Clueless About Public Libraries

Disclaimer: Not being a degreed librarian but merely a corporate library manager, I only understand public libraries from a patron's point of view. Read the following commentary keeping that in mind.

I read an interesting blog post by Kathy Dempsey about a missed opportunity to market public libraries within a 4-part series on Examiner.com called "Top 20 things librarians in public libraries wish patrons knew or did". I agreed with her, it was a sadly missed opportunity for marketing the "gee whiz, I didn't know you did that" things that libararians can do. One comment on her blog post chided her for criticizing another librarian by failing to see that the article was intended to humanize librarians. Certainly, public librarians must deal with a lot of unfortunate, inconsiderate actions from library patrons that probably make them feel like screaming, "Show some manners, people!" but I have to admit that the title of the article series made me think that something other than a list of wishes for better library etiquette was to follow. I was disappointed that I found myself reading tips for common library courtesy, which, in all fairness, must be not so common if the interviewed librarians overwhelmingly brought them up. I'm guessing, though, that a more thorough probe by the writer of the article into what the interviewed librarians really would like patrons to know/do would have produced 20 more interesting things than the top-of-mind ones listed. Kathy Dempsey alludes to some of those more intriguing concepts in her comment after the last installment of the article.

A friend who is currently looking to re-enter the library workforce recently offered me her insights on various libraries at which she considered seeking employment. I am amazed at how "old school" many of the public libraries which she has considered appear to be. These old school libraries seem to view themselves as an extension of ivory tower academia, rather than operating like organizations responsible for providing value to their taxpayers. Not that they don't provide value, but they can't articulate it. Their visions are weak. They have no marketing plan. Gosh, even universities are acting more like businesses these days because no one wants to plop down big piles of hard-earned cash if they don't see that they are going to be getting good value. People want cutting edge for their money, especially when it is to gain knowledge.

My friend's anecdotes confirm that, like any other type of profession, the library biz has a few innovative thinkers and many who are solidly pedestrian in their thinking. The trouble with the pedestrian view is that it leaves you out on the sidewalk when the window of opportunity begins to close. Sure, information is all the rage and that helps the image of libraries at present, but librarians who don't demonstrate their unique value now will be left in the stacks as end users develop a grass-roots understanding of information through the empirical approach to dealing with it afforded by the post-Web 2.0 world. The more information savvy the end user perceives himself to be, the less he will value a pedestrian-thinking librarian who doesn't see -- or maybe CAN see, but can't describe and market what they do with pizzazz -- beyond the bookshelves or children's story hour.

Librarians connect people with information, wherever it resides: in other people's heads, books, online, or in other media. They can take the increasing amounts of relevant content available to us and help us to extract the best value from it. Librarians who can demonstrate and articulate this unique value will relate to these new self-made information patrons/experts. (Thus, the value of Learning 2.0 and the 23 Things.) And, after all, the new self-made experts pay taxes. In the not too distant future, the millennials who already believe themselves to be savvy about everything, including information, will be deciding the fate of libraries with votes outnumbering those of the boomers. Are the millennials hanging out in libraries (physical or virtual), or are they bypassing them? I don't know the answer to that because I haven't researched it, but it seems that someone must have. In any case, shouldn't public librarians be listing 20 things that appeal to the the information savvy or, at least, to information-savvy wannabes? I'm guessing that reminders to respect personal space and refrain from sneezing on the reference desk don't really resonate with the current information generation. But, I could be completely wrong.

BTW, if you want to read a practical article on basic tips for using your local library wisely, look here. It is written by Jeff Scott, Library Director for the City of Casa Grande Public Library (Casa Grande, AZ).

One fabulous take-away from the "Top 20 things..." article, though, is the reference to The Book of Bunny Suicides. I, of course, have at least a dozen people on my Christmas list who are now going to get that book!


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1 comment:

Jeff Scott said...

Thanks for the link.

Articles like these are controversial for libraries because it shows the librarian as a bit authoritarian.

It also deters you from going to the library because of what people do there, and for librarians who are very cranky because of it.

Overall, public libraries don't have this many problems. Some librarians tend to focus too much on the negative.