Thursday, 19 May 2016

Libraries are lost, broken institutions and that sucks

I
There is a problem with modern libraries. It is the same problem across society: the people responsible for maintaining our institutions have forgotten the original purpose of those institutions.

Recently I asked my local library to purchase a book which wasn’t on their catalogue titled “The Process of Government.” But the librarian declined to order the book because it is more than 70 years old (published in 1908), saying: “since this is a public library, the priority is to purchase books that many people will read.”

That sounds like a reasonable policy, but I’m going to argue it’s not. Choosing to feature content based on an estimation of its consumption, rather than importance, is a terrible idea. But there’s little point arguing with someone who thinks state institutions should listen to the public. Most people have no idea why they think the things they do, and even less knowledge about where those ideas came from.

This is an issue in media as well. I have the debate so often that I now decide whether a conversation about media is worth having if the other person thinks it “only exists to make money.” Take my advice, it’s not worth the energy. And if a journalist takes this position, run away. Media may have become a business, but that was not its original purpose and I suspect is precisely why the institution is failing.

My librarian’s next response, however, was first time I’ve heard someone even approach the solar system containing the solution to a library’s problems: “People expect libraries to solve, or at least contain, social problems that go far beyond their mission.” This might have been true in the past, but the grim truth is that most people do not use libraries anymore. And the reason they aren't is because librarians have no idea what libraries are for.

The fact that people pour into libraries when the economy is struggling proves they don't need libraries. If they needed them, they would have been using libraries all along. It might be that people need entertainment, but when they can't afford it they turn to libraries to provide it for free.

Over the last century, growth in the entertainment industry has effectively been exponential. And yet, the number of places offering culture and knowledge of elevated importance has not changed, or at best grown sporadically. Libraries have a niche in the latter. They should play to that, and make it a strength. But they are not.

II
Every good businessperson knows when an organisation is stressed, the first thing to do is define the organisation’s purpose. Only then can the leader define what the organisation must become. Libraries and librarians have not done this. They can no longer articulate what the function of a library is in society, so they believe it should serve every social function anyone can construct for it.

Are libraries a repository of scholarly knowledge? Of course. But then why are there shelves after shelves of Norah Roberts and Stephen King? Is it a place for students and others to conduct research? Definitely. So why do libraries allow people to hire pop music CDs and DVDs of Hollywood movies? Is it a place to provide access to computers for the underprivileged and the unemployed? Then why are there so many books and so few computers?

My librarian’s thought process assumes that institutions should deliver what the public wants and if that means buying 20 metres of Tom Clancy, so be it. But if the people want pornography, will libraries stock that too? Choosing more Tom Clancy might mean less Foucault. More Nickelback might mean less Ligeti. Basing choices on poorly informed customer demand means librarians are not making informed judgments about what serves the public interest.

Everyone talks about taxpayers as consumers needing to be served. But the average taxpayer only uses libraries because they are strapped for cash. So applying a market calculus ("we provide what they want") to a class of consumers with no money to pay for the service is flawed. No consumer is going to support raising their own taxes to increase funding for libraries which they only use because they have so little spare cash.

It also isn’t clear that the public agrees Tom Clancy constitutes the items whose free availability results in a net gain for society. In fact, I’d suggest the free availability of such content is a detriment to society.

Consider how junk food is bad not because of its poor nutrition but because it is cheaper than real food. Junk food should be more expensive than good food, not less. The same is true of books. And who gets to decide? Librarians. A librarian is not a cashier or a clerk. They are paid to make judgments about what a library is supposed to hold, and in so doing define what a library is. They should exercise some judgment extending beyond what will increase patronage (which is exactly the kind of cultural lowest-common-denominator effect libraries were set up to thwart).

A library is a store of knowledge and information. They should be like a holy place, venerable and slightly imposing. It should be a place someone can pull any book, video, or CD off the shelf and reading, viewing, or listening to it will make them a better person and a better community citizen. It should be a place that is decidedly not commercial, not defined by fleeting tastes or fads, but rather driven by informed and intelligent judgments.

Most people think libraries are special hallowed places, but can't articulate how or why they are special. The problem is here: define a library in a way that is different to anyplace else. If you can't do this, or if libraries can't do this in a way that makes them more than an entertainment discounter of last resort, then they will vanish as the latest casualty of budget cuts and cultural indifference.

III
The problem seems to be with the inability to reconcile an increasingly costly institution with failing to charge an entry fee. There is no free lunch, and who- or whatever has been picking up the check might soon say "no longer." It would then be time for patrons to pony up. If this stuff is so important, then it must be worth paying money for.

Before you attack my comment, consider for a second that music stores disappeared because although people still need music in their lives, they didn't need a store to attain it. The same thing is happening to libraries. People just don't want to accept the similarities.

Certainly libraries can offer free access to computers and wifi, and even coffee if that’s important. And yes, they can offer Norah Roberts and Tom Clancy too, but people should have to pay for these. Important material should remain free to access because libraries are places of high-knowledge. But the implicit message should be that all the other stuff is crass, base, frivolous, trivial and should be restricted – and money is the easiest way to restrict anything.

The way for any organisation to compete with electronic media is either to digitise or to impose surcharges for the privilege of dealing with physical media. You like browsing the stacks? Pay for it. You like perusing back issues of magazines? Pay for it. You like watching crappy movies, having reading rooms with big tables or anonymous broadband access to the internet? Pay, pay, pay.

A big chunk of New Zealand households already pay for the internet via cable, satellite or fibre. That means 83% of households pay at least $60/month for electronic media, even though everyone can get TV for free. If they choose to spend $720 a year for this media, then surely, if these same people need libraries, they can pay $50 or $100 per year for it.

A library should not replicate what Netflix or iTunes already does. If someone is so "underprivileged" that they can't get movies from Netflix, then they probably don't have a DVD player or time to watch movies anyway. I can't understand how anyone would argue that Netflix, which is a library of nearly every film ever released to DVD, is expensive at $20/month.

And in any case, the argument about cost makes no sense. Water and electricity aren't free. The bus ride to the library isn't free. So why should access to the books in the building you have to pay to get to also be free?

IV
Another obvious problem is that, in cities, libraries are the de facto social service provider for the "underprivileged," which is code for the homeless and mentally ill.

These people do not need libraries. They need homes. And hospitals. There was talk a while back of installing showers for the homeless, because libraries are the logical place for that. Why not offer an in-library travel agency and manicurist as well? We don't know what the hell to do, so let's do anything!

Why don't homeless people hang around police stations, the IRD, or the WINZ offices? Because those places throw them out. Not libraries, they welcome everyone with open arms. There are books and computers there, so of course the homeless are welcome to masturbate in the bathrooms. Duh. This is madness.

Libraries are a convenience store of knowledge. Convenience stores charge higher prices than regular stores because of the convenience. The stores routinely toss out loiterers, lunatics and the homeless because they interfere with the convenience of paying patrons.

With the same logic, libraries should not be accessible to all manner of people who do not wish to consume books. The shopping mall is accessible, and those are going out of business as well. Any commercial enterprise built on giving people what they want is failing, because people are coming to realise that they don't know what they want.

V
Now, if libraries focus on stocking the things that encourage the lofty social goals of storing knowledge and stop providing access to popular material for the underprivileged, there might be a drop-off in patronage as those people move on to chase their cultural drug of choice from retailers.

But I suspect this will make library a special place once again. Every person of every class will know that it is special, and that what resides within was not achieved easily or quickly. Patronage may decline if it is measured quantitatively, but the use of the library will increase qualitatively. Greater numbers of people will have more intellectual experiences than do so currently, and for that reason, they will probably sacrifice other things (money) to preserve it.

By the way, I bought the book from Amazon and it now sits in my own well-stocked library.

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