by Philippe Cloutier
A few years ago Punk and Librarian comparisons gained some traction. At the heart of this argument are some simple points, in particular:
Neither cares too much about packaging or exteriors—it’s what’s on the inside (your heart, your need) that counts.
Libraries (public, private, and academic), tackling 21st Century access and patron needs, are constantly striving to deliver quality information and reliable resources- no matter the format or space. A no brainer, society is constantly changing and the library with it. Librarians across the world are working diligently, especially in the face of a recession and booming circulation and electronic needs:
Public libraries in many major U.S. cities continue to see circulation rise, with Seattle leading the way with a whopping 50% increase in the past six years.
Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised but The Daily Beast article, America’s Public Library Crisis: Who’s Reading the Books?, falls short in explaining what is actually going on in libraries, preferring anecdotal tales and dreams of yesterday. The article even looks at our very own Seattle Public Library:
The presence of stacks is even more absurd in buildings such as the truly spectacular starchitect-designed 2004 Central Library in downtown Seattle, funded from the tax rolls of software billionaires…. When the people of Seattle paid Rem Koolhaas his pricey design fee for the eleven-story structure, could they imagine they were paying for obsolescence? Despite the attempt to contemporize traditional stacks by creating a Book Spiral as the building’s spine, the books in the interior were as untouched as they were in Indianapolis and silenced by the energy circulating through the library’s mod outer coil. How can books compete with all of those comfortable couches?
Let’s close the SPL doors, sell the computers, burn the books, and fire the librarians: Jon Reiner spent a few moments in the library and determined that the books were going unused. People only want couches, cafes, and computers, so why bother with the rest. If Jon cared to take a look at the holds stacks he would see the voluminous amount of titles being circulated, in just one library location nonetheless. Books are for brains, couches for asses; both of which are being serviced by the library, competition need not apply.
Reiner also offers this observational gem:
The overwhelming majority of the [Indianapolis] library’s users populate the bright open spaces encircling six floors of stacks—laptop stations, lounges, coffee bar, lunch café. They could have the same experience in the food court of the new Indianapolis Airport.
Boiling down a library to, “laptop stations, lounges, coffee bar, lunch café”, excludes the range of services being offered to the unemployed, the researcher, those meetings and studying, and those without computers/Internet or even a home. If Jon is using the library in the same fashion as he is a food court, no problem there, but he’s missing out. And if Reiner continues to champion the book, “…new libraries had gotten it all wrong. Maybe people would still touch the book if they didn’t look so pitiful…”, he’ll find himself largely working alone or with luddites. The library understands that the information ecosystem is developing and we aren’t going to force materials onto patrons. We serve at their pleasure and tax-paying patrons demand a range of materials in an array of formats.
Lastly, Reiner asserts that, “libraries’ efforts at cultural relevance are blueprints of doomed good intentions… breaking clean from the past, but in the process of burying their heritage, they’ve lost what made them special.” I hate to break it to him but nothing remains unchanged, better said by J.D. Salinger: “Maybe everything is tragic and temporary.” Hearts may break but libraries aren’t the same as when we were kids or when Ptolemy ruled. They are no longer just book storage facilities and cultural memory kingdoms. Jon need not fret however, connections with heritage and the past still exist in books and museums.