Monday, November 14, 2005


So a while ago I was doing a presentation for a public library that will remain nameless. Before my 8:30 showtime, I had a breakfast meeting with my hosts, a group of reference librarians and branch staff. We had a very pleasant discussion, and they were telling me about all the changes the city had been going through. The tax base was eroding, the formerly vibrant downtown had decayed and was seen as scary by the suburbanites, the demographics were changing so that the city was rapidly becoming minority majority.

After listening to this for a while, I asked (innocently, I swear), "So with all this change in the city, how has the library changed?" Dead silence. 15, 20 seconds, nothing but crickets. Finally, one of the librarians talked about how they were answering many more questions using electronic resources, and more people were using the website. But absolutely nothing about adding collections in new languages or themes, changing hours to reflect the users' needs, recruitment to diversify the staff, or much of anything else. I felt like a Victorian who had just inquired after the crazy aunt who lives in the attic: I embarrassed both my hosts and myself with an inappropriate question.

A long time ago, I worked in a branch of the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library that was in a neighborhood which had once had a large Polish population. The branch had developed an outstanding collection of Polish literature and English works in translation. The trouble was, by the time I worked there in the 1970s, the Polish population in the neighborhood was gone, moved out of the inner city to the 'burbs. The community was about evenly divided among African-Americans, Puerto Ricans, and Irish-Americans.

Libraries have been respected over the years because they are solid, reliable institutions. As always, though, our greatest strengths can become our most debilitating weaknesses. It's not easy to change the direction of a large institution like an urban public library. There's never enough money to overhaul collections or revamp or retrain staff. There can be political, bureaucratic, or collective bargaining reasons for not making change.

But every time someone looks in a library and doesn't see something or someone that indicates that this library is for him, we've missed another opportunity. And to face the 21st century with a 19th or even 20th century service plan is a tragic waste of scarce public resources.


Anonymous said...

Bleak, but all too real.

Ivan Chew said...

This is general comment -- not towards the library you mentioned. I wonder if it's ruder to ask an innocent question or to not tell the truth... Regarding change, I'm fond of saying that we cannot expect different results if we keep doing the same thing as we've done before. Then I realised that precisely why some people don't want to face up to change -- they don't want results (i.e. their environment) to be different. But we all haven't got any choice in this, have we?