All things to all people

Now we know where that red book you
were looking for is shelved.

Looking at the outpouring on librarian blogs and in library trade publications, you’d think that librarianship has always been in crisis. Every new piece of technology for the last several decades has, according to some, spelled the end of the library. I’ve come to the conclusion that technology will change libraries and librarianship, but as long as people need help finding and evaluating and using information, we’ll be there. Probably covered in cat hair, but there for you nonetheless.

As I follow the librarian chatter, I see blurbs about conference presentations and articles about makerspaces and innovative library services and ebook lending and radical militant librarianship and on and on. Libraries are experimenting with anything to bring more people into the building, hoping they’ll check out a book or two.

It all looks great, because I’ve always believed that libraries were meant to be something like a commons for people to learn and explore. But there’s been push back against this, though not from the crotchety stereotypes you’d expect. It’s coming from some of the very people we’re trying to lure into the library. During finals week at my library, a patron came up to the Reference Desk and told me it was the loudest library he’d ever been in. He was nonplussed when I explained that our first two floors are designated as noisy floors and the other three are quiet study floors.

Last March, I read two articles complaining about what libraries have started to evolve into. There was this one, from BookRiot, about people creating private libraries just so that they can have quiet places to read. Another, from Gothamist, reports that people are complaining about too much technology in their library. The idea of libraries as warehouses for books is a firmly embedded, though somewhat antiquated, notion in people’s minds.

The makerspaces and workshops and technology are bringing people into the library and driving others away. We can’t win. We can’t be all things to all people, no matter how much we try. Maybe the fact that we’re trying is the important thing. To me, all the librarian chatter reveals that there’s a crisis in what a library is and what it ought to be. Those of us who are currently librarians are going to be the ones who decide what our future is going to be. It’s a hell of a challenge.


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