Punk is Dead, so is the Library

By , May 25, 2012 1:31 pm

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.



5 Responses to “Punk is Dead, so is the Library”

  1. Amy Eaton says:

    Great piece Philippe! The comments on the article are inane – you need to post this over there too.

  2. Jon Reiner says:

    Sorry, Philippe, but you’ve missed the central point of my essay. If research libraries are transitioning to the digital era by simply competing with Google and the online search engines for digitizing content, and Starbucks for coffee and couches, what will they have to offer that distinguishes them from Starbucks, or any environment where access, power, coffee and toilets are available? Their historical mission and resources differentiated public research libraries, but if they choose to physically remove and warehouse their collections, what will be left but a large, expensively funded coffee bar? As stated, libraries are severing themselves from their past in an effort to embrace the future — but it’s one in which their mission has been diminished by their own decisions. You might want to read my entire essay rather than cherry picking pieces for your own argument. I love libraries, as you should have gleaned from reading the essay, and I hate to see them seal their fate.

  3. Newsletter-Blog says:

    Hi Jon, thanks for taking the time to respond to my article. I read your article several times but did not have the time to go through line-by-line and answer or comment fully. Instead I chose the nuggets that stood out. In my experience Libraries are not, “…simply competing with Google and the online search engines for digitizing content, and Starbucks for coffee and couches…”. As I stated in my post your view extensively, “…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.” I understand your “classic library” stance but am heartily disagreeing- it is not beneficial for libraries, librarians, or the patrons we serve by focusing on being a museum. You might be interested in seeing Seattle Public’s Strategic Plan to gain a better understanding of where we aim to be and typical library goals:


  4. Robyn says:

    Great piece, Philippe. You nailed it on the head by saying it is the range of services provided by the public library that provides the most universal value. One only need to take a quick look at a branch library’s calendar of FREE events (http://www.spl.org/locations/ballard-branch/bal-events-at-this-branch) to realize the value goes WAY beyond the books on the shelf. Libraries remain the cornerstones of neighborhoods (at least in Seattle). And you’re absolutely right, actual circulation figures paint a much more accurate picture of “use” than a glance at the spiral of stacks.

  5. Jon Reiner says:

    Hello, again, Phillippe. My essay seems to be generating interest and passions from all parts: This morning I debated on the CBC about the future of libraries, and the head of security from the Portland Library wrote to me to follow-up on the incident that concludes my essay. I’m pleased, but not surprised, since affection for libraries transcends the intellectual and is a matter of the heart, as it is for me. I worry about the existence of libraries the way a prior generation — rightly — worried about the existence of the great train stations. Their institutional value rivals that of libraries, and their demise was determined largely by the federal government’s master plan for the interstate highway system. In my view, there’s a useful, and treacherous, analogy for the role that investment in the information highway will contribute to libraries’ eventual irrelevance as a special place where the next generation’s sense memories would have been cultivated. I understand the pressure that trustees and library directors are under — change or die — but I think the path chosen, for expediency and relevance to a laptop culture, is hallowing out the institutions themselves and will lead to their reduced mission or outright elimination, as research assets move incrementally from warehouse to liquidation to pay for the next needed round of funding. It’s a slippery slope, and I’ve chosen to speak out, as have the more than 1,000 of my peers who signed the letter protesting the renovation plan of the NYPL.

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