Notes of a Binge Thinker

Thoughts from NTLP's Executive Director

Is Your Library Essential?

Is your library essential?

This is the question that occurred to me as I listened to a radio report about the City of Fort Worth‟s Budget Retreat. The reporter told us that the city was going to be determining which city services are essential. He was interviewing a city official and the official said something like (I am paraphrasing), “For example, are the library services essential? Do we put them in the column of non-essential services, or essential services? This is what we will need to figure out…”

Recently, Dallas has made some radical plans to shave off budget deficits by reducing central library hours from 44 to 24 per week, eliminating 96 positions. We are facing some difficult times ahead and now more than ever we need to look at the services that we offer and determine if they are essential to our communities.

This recent trend ties in nicely to my next installment of the identity crisis series: Do we realize value by giving what the community wants versus what they need?

I sent a series of questions around to my usual listservs. I received a number of responses and most tended to fall on the side that we can give them both. There is no reason that we can‟t have a mixture of services that addresses the basic needs of a community and gives them what they want. “We can do both. Many (if not most) “traditional” library services are still needed and wanted by our patrons. A few are disappearing slowly (ex. traditional reference), but others are moving in to fill the gaps. Our patrons are forced (via taxes) to support the library. Our duty is to make sure that we are giving them something in return that they find valuable.” Jesse Ephraim, Director of the Roanoke Public Library, wrote to me. He went on to write, “‟Wants‟ and „needs‟ are both important. The key lies in accurately assessing what they are for a particular community, rather than relying on what we THINK we know about them. We don’t need to say we are going to be traditional or modern – we need to be a blend of both, tailored to fit our individual communities.”

There were some that felt that it is arrogant of librarians to assume to know what the community needs. “The value of the public library is assigned by the people who use it and pay for it, not by the staff,” wrote Cathy Ziegler, Director of the Plano Public Library.

Some individuals disagreed. “Librarians are educated professionals who should be able to analyze the needs of the public for  library services rather than simply responding blindly to the expressed wants of a clamoring minority. We, too, have the obligation to provide for the good of society as a whole. We have not done that. The concept of “give em what they want” has meant catering primarily to pop culture tastes rather than taking on the more challenging role of providing the information needed by citizens to maintain a healthy democracy.” Mike Baldwin, Director of the Benbrook Public Library wrote to me.

Mike went on to warn me of the potential costs in providing just for the community wants. “That‟s one of the reasons people were not sufficiently informed about the health care issue that will now cost them billions without significantly improving health care. People wanted cheap mortgages they couldn‟t afford. That has thrown the economy into recession and created a wave of foreclosures. People want fast food that is killing them. People want drugs, and that has been poisoning the nation for many years. People want cheap wasteful energy, so we went to war with Iraq to control its oil and trusted oil companies to monitor their own operations in deep water drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. People want escapist reading rather than real information, so they are losing their democracy. Yes, people know what they want. They most often don‟t know what they need. It is not arrogant for us librarians to provide for their needs, it is our duty. We are currently and for many years have been shirking that duty. Now would be a good time to become serious, responsible professionals.”

Once again, a common piece of advice given in the responses was that librarians need to be more flexible and open to change. “Librarians must redefine themselves. We must let go of seeing ourselves as mainly reference providers. We must hone the skills of teaching computer literacy classes, doing selection that results in maximum circulation, finding and working with community partners, performing successful grant writing and offering programming that brings the community to the library,” Cathy wrote. This piece of advice seems to the undercurrent of my identity series. Librarians are facing an identity crisis in much the same way of their libraries.

To me, the true question is the one I started my column with: Is your library essential? When city/counties get together for a budget retreat, is what your library providing considered essential to the well-being of the community? I see both sides of this hot debate. I can understand that giving people what they want builds value into the minds of your patrons. At the same, we must find a way to balance this approach with giving something to patrons that have value in the minds of the individuals who determine our budgets.

Mike‟s warning message is well-received when considering the question from the point of view of elected officials. Is it more essential for a city to give a patron something recreational to read, or is it more essential for a library to hold forums on the latest civic issues? Computer classes? Classes on finding a job? What will the city/county consider to be fluff and can easily be cut without the community being damaged? What will your city/county official find to be essential? Is the library essential enough in their minds to not be classified in the “non-essential” column of a budget worksheet? These are the questions you need to be asking yourself as you move forward into the next decade.

Read my entire column here….

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Written by amwlkaw

June 3, 2010 at 10:51 am

Posted in Misc

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