The Library, Once More Into the Breech

We had a staff meeting this morning re: the new direction libraries are headed and what that will mean for our own library within the next 10-15 years. I expressed my trepidation regarding the ongoing fight between publishers and libraries in a previous post and the more I think about it the more I'm even more angry what I see as a knee-jerk reaction to a period of new technologies.

Department by department, we visited other area libraries to see what they've been planning and have already implemented. Universal changes included: elimination of reference books (including the Brittanica and OED), new and better displays for DVDs, CDs and magazines (organized by theme, consolidating shelving units, etc.) and adding more digital, online databases.



Cool Magazine Display

Others involve eliminating circulation staff – or, at best, severely cutting down positions – because now there are conveyor belts that take incoming books and sort them into big bins for re-shelving. Here's an example of a really large, sophisticated version, unlike any I've seen in real life:



It looks pretty cool, yes? Wonder what that costs, and how long it will take to pay for itself with the money saved by firing all those circulation clerks.

Then there are the vending machines – like the Red Box model – where patrons can check out popular books and DVDs without the necessity of involving an actual person. Books ordered from outside the library can be tucked in there, as well, for pickup by patrons who put the books on hold. Slide in your library card and POOF! There's your book.


Library Media Box Vending Machine


Coffee and snack vending areas are another popular patron request, as are more quiet places to read and study. And I'm all for that, assuming users aren't spilling coffee all over the books and computers. Especially the books…

Most of these ideas seem pretty cool to me, aside from letting go of the OED and Brittanica, on general principle. But then again, the Brittanica is ceasing print publication anyway. The set we have will be the last we can purchase. It's seldom used anyway (it's all available online) but the OED? Ouch.

What I find most disturbing is the new mentality involving book buying, which we in the library refer to as "collection development." Because the reading public clamors mostly for genre novels, and less and less for more literary books, justification for purchasing more dense, complex, heavy-hitting books is less of a priority.

Want to know the most popular library books checked out last year? Here are some 2011 figures from The Guardian (UK). This is a British list, granted, but the U.S. lists are quite similar. If libraries devote large chunks of their fiction budgets buying, say, James Patterson's books where does that leave readers of literary fiction?

And it isn't just readers. It's already nearly impossible making money as a writer, save from that slim majority who hit it big. It could be argued authors aren't in the business for money – sure, because that pays the bills – but spending a huge amount of time producing a well-written book should surely be compensated. Or am I entirely off the mark? Is there something I'm forgetting?

Ours is a disposable society. Will books follow that example? If libraries bring reading materials down to the lowest common denominator, pandering only to mass market "airport" or "supermarket books," will the rest of us need to be content reading quality books published before the decline of literature?

Maybe I'm an alarmist. I certainly hope so but I'm also on the front lines, a librarian who's hearing all this first-hand. Worst of all, the official library stance from the Powers That Be is "go along with all the changes or perish." All the fight appears to have gone out of the profession, at least from what I've seen.

Or, if it hasn't gone out, it's most definitely gone quiet.


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