Don’t Judge Libraries With Future Forecasts

This is the third year of huge proposed budget cuts to the public library systems in the city of New York.  The budget gets negotiated between now and June 30th between the mayor and city council. I’m observing a lot of complacency in librarians and patrons that are just tired and sarcastic about this process. I am very sure that the final cut will not be as large as the proposed 30 or so percent, but I feel the fact that a cut that large is on the table at all makes the matter serious.

For the overall city budget the mayor did not suggest cuts for teachers, and police. Those services are needed, and I’m glad they are not threatened. Excluding libraries in that safety zone means that the perception of libraries as a community service is not as highly regarded as those fields. Basically they classify libraries as a want and not a need. Also for this third year in a row, one has to assume the cuts are more than simply the economy.

First I’ll state the libraries are needed in communities these days. For school kids after school and during the summer it is the only truly free resource to supplement or add to their education.  If kids need help with school assignments they go to the library to study, use computers, get books, and look up things.  After twelve grade people are on their own to pay for college. The public library is the only place people can become self-educated.  Adults can study for the GED test or the GRE test through the library. There are programming, adult literacy, and several things going on at libraries.  Libraries have a broad range of services, and are being utilized now.

Secondly, people always point to technology as a reason that libraries are becoming less important.  A few years ago a few people stated to me that everyone would have home computers, but people still greatly need public computer access at the library. I don’t know about ten years from now, but I can’t predict the future. In the last year the popularity of ebooks has skyrocketed, and some people say to me no one will need to check out books in the future. Already I think that technology has effected circulation in libraries. There is a legitimate question of how ereaders will affect libraries in the future. I think the focus has or will go away from evaluating libraries on print materials, and the focus will be on other services. Programming, information access, adult learning, recreational clubs, and the library more as a community space might be the future. The public libraries will have to adapt to technology.  I believe I’ll have a full career as a librarian because the field will be able to adapt, because libraries have adapted to plenty of changing times.

Lastly, with this budget and future budgets I ask people to evaluate libraries on today’s services. Evaluate libraries on how it helps communities today. Do not judge libraries by ‘what if’ scenarios and forecasts of the future. In ten years a lot could happen to a lot of fields. Technology will have more effects on how people work, and I hope libraries will have a valuable place long into the future. But people stating and thinking that in the future libraries will not be needed is irrelevant to what we are doing today.

18 thoughts on “Don’t Judge Libraries With Future Forecasts

  1. I think I’ve asked you this 15 million times: what do you think libraries will be in ten years (btw, the only adults who use computers at the library are nutbags, deadbeats, and very old people. Al of which the library could and should do without)

  2. Joe, did you even bother to read my blog? I specifically say that we should not be judged by what could be ‘ten years’ from now. All of that is speculation. And what you say about people that use public computers is insulting, a whole range of people use the public computers.

  3. Joe, if you don’t want to deal with the nutbags, you should get out of Rego Park. Normal people go to the library, too. The library will continue to be relevant. Information is a kind of currency and how people access it has changed–the need has actually grown. To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, if you want to call yourself a democracy, you need to have free and equal access to information

  4. Well look very closely for the next week…Of course I read it. But it’s worth thinking about. I mean one hand by that attitude you seem to say that in 10 years the library won’t be worth supporting, but on the other you display confidence that the library will still be ‘just fine’ in 10 years. I’d like to know your vision with at least some concreteness

  5. Kristin, thanks for your constructive and informative comment.
    Joe, I’ve explained my theory to you several times and for whatever reason we don’t agree. I think that the library’s future can be thought of with this key word, ‘adapting.’ Libraries are going to have to adjust their services based on society’s and the community’s needs. Most public libraries have on their mission statements that libraries serve these three needs in their communites: education, information, and recreation. Those three things give so much adjustability in services, that almost any service could be justified through the library. So if everyone uses ereaders, the focus won’t be print materials. I think libraries as community centers focusing on what people need that they can’t get elsewhere. Libraries will have to be creative and try new things. But libraries adjusted to tons of changing times. Radio, television, and the computer to name a few. We will survive this technology change. I think librarians definitely need to plan for the future, and think of ways to stay dynamic.
    But I think judging libraries on what could happen is a dangerous ground of evaluating. We are relevant today and do so much, There is a need now, and that should be the focus for funding.
    Hopefully that’s a better expanation, it’s how I’ve felt for a long time now,

  6. Well, of the six libraries I’ve worked in I think the nutbag aspect is universal. Guys I’m not an enemy of libraries, jeez I think I have more time in then you guys. The reason I come off as harsh is I’m trying to make a point. Other than people who use the library for traditional reasons (like checking out books), people who come to use computers (more and more so) look it closely, come ask ‘reference’ questions, they almost all fit certain demographics, the ones I listed earlier. Perhaps I was hard in describing them but the fact remains it’s those demographics that we as librarians serve and those demographics are declining rapidly. You guys really don’t grasp that? Ask yourselves this question: when would people like us (and not just that we’re librarians) have any need for a librarian? I’ve had to listen a million times to people at Central lament that 20s and 30s somethings don’t go to the library (you probably can add 40s somethings too), then hear something like ‘well they’ll come back when their seniors’. Are guys content with that? Simply to help people who can’t use a computer and don’t work (and not always for simple unemployemt reasons, in fact often)?
    Take the next few days and write down everything you do at the reference desk and at the end ask what it amounts to, every question, action, everything. See what it’s worth, how much you feel you contribute to. If your honest I think you’ll face the fact that it’s not much of anything (nothing that needs an MA at any rate)
    And it raises a further question: Matt, it’s not hard to envision the public library not closing. It remains a popular institution even for people who don’t use it (most people that is) and there’s no serious movement to abolish it. Even conservatives seem to repect it. I wouldn’t bet on it closing, it doesn’t take a genius to make that prediction. But the question ultimately what should it become and will it be worth it. You describe those three things ‘information’, ‘education’, ‘recreation” (another word for crap really in this context) as broad. Well is there anything that could come out of those those things that you would oppose and if it came to it say that the library isn’t worth anything anymore? Would you be content to have kids playing video games all day on a Wii type system? Would you oppose some kind of movie theater happening all day? See what I’m getting at? At what point would you say that having a career at the public library is less important than what actually goes on everyday? Is there a point? I want public librarianship to mean something now and in the future. Now unfortunately it doesn’t mean much at all. The library is used mostly (adults I mean) by dying, nonproductive demograhics and even technologically is way behind the times (both in terms of people and technology). This had better change very quickly…Joe

  7. Love the library; always have, always will. Have frequented the library my entire life and donate to the library. I’ve lived in places where they’ve shut them down (in smaller communities) for budget reasons and it’s not a good thing — that’s one place they’re needed the most for the reasons you’ve stated. I’ve seen fine, upstanding members of the community at the library. I’m one of them. The library near me as all sorts of programs and happenings throughout the year (including writing seminars, classic movie showings and music.) I’m not a librarian and I’m sure you know way more than I do about the subject, but it’s just an observation on my part. Great relevant post, Matt!

  8. Thanks Brigitte, I’m glad you utilize the library, and get value from it. I’ll catch up on your blog entries soon, you write too fast for me!
    Years ago in a interview I was asked to rate the top 3 library services and why I rate them that way. If I was aksedthat today this would be my response:
    1. Free access to resources (print and online)
    2. Programming of all kinds
    3. Special services (Adult Learning Centers, Job Information Centers, Homework Help for after school)
    Those would be my top three. When I was asked that years ago Reference was the third response. I will not do as you suggest and record my reference questions over a certain period of time. You are right it would be lackluster, and perhaps not intellectually entertaining. Reference for a long time has been less important. Think about pre internet, if you wanted to know any sort of statistic, you would have to know what book to check it. Now most fact based reference questions can be verified online. If I wanted to double check what years Ted Williams took a break from major league baseball to serve as an airpilot in World War II I could find that out easily online. In 1980, someone would need to find that answer in the print resource. That sort of fact checking that used to be done at libraries is gone. A lot of information can be found online or assesed with relative ease. What libraries can do with reference is help evaluate what sites patrons should go to. Like with tax forms people should go to the IRS site or the official state tax site. People can easliy accidentily go to a shady pay site for a lot things. So reference changed up ten years ago, and will keep changing.
    Again, I don’t think reference is the future. I think evaulating resources, and services that communities need is the future, and yes Joe it might include things I don’t care for. But for true blue library philosophy if anyone in a community has an interest in something the library can consider getting resources for that interest.

  9. I’m a children’s librarian, so my perspective is probably a bit different than that of people who work primarily with adults. I do actually help a lot of customers in their 20s and 30s, but I’m helping them find books for their children. They’re the parents who bring their kids to my toddler programs or for homework help or crafts. Maybe they’re not coming to adult librarians with their own reference questions, but that might be because they’re following me or someone like me around the children’s room looking for books to read with their kids.

  10. Kelley,
    Thanks for reading and posting a comment! I appreciate it. The range of library services are so varied that it’s hard to explain it all in an easy way to understand. At one library I was at we didn’t have a children’s librarian for a year, as a manager sometimes I had to fell in with story time and crafts programs. I was not good at all, and it takes skill to do children’s programming and services well.
    Joe and I have known each other for 8 years now, and have debated this quite a bit, especially during the budget seasons. Our opinions are not exhaustive, and probably be considered just opinions. I wonder if I took that thought about reference not being as important as it used to be a little too far.
    But I’m glad these comments on my blog turned into a type of debate and made a few people think.
    Thanks again,

  11. Here’s my last word: I think reference is over, or it should be In fact I think the computers should be fazed out starting very soon. Matt, you didnt get into my demographic point. I think you should keep that in mind. Let me extend it a bit: the question again is what can a librarian (not the library itself now) do for a guy like you, or me, or I Imagine the others who have commented. I’m pretty tired of the idea that our main job as librarians is to ‘provide information’ to people who can’t do Google searches (this should be obvious but still we find ourselves doing this stuff all the time). People who can do that can evaluate what web sources to use with little problem. I’ll take it a step further: the adults who are our main customers now- old people, housewives, nannies, the umemployed (or the frankly unemployable especially), they shouldn’t be and deliberately should’t be. Our main customers (and collegues in a sense) should be professors at all the different universities in NYC, the scientists doing health research, social workers and community organizers, etc. Everyone would benefit. Instead we get DVDs, Romance Books, Google searches, and other such junk. That shouldn’t even have a future in my opinion.

  12. Joe,
    I didn’t comment on your demographics opinion because you are making huge generatlizations and creating stereotypes. Plus I think you are wrong, and all sorts of people use the library. Yes some people are self efficient these days, but that doesn’t mean people that are not shouldn’t recieve help. There are less and less social services now in this country and city, and I’m glad library serves people in need. Academic people have things called universities.

  13. That wasnt really what I meant: what I meant was, with the help of the people I listed, we should be enriching the lives of the people you refer to, not catering to their taste for crap fiction, DVDs, and online coupons (all that’s on the way out anyway as far as people needing needing the library for them). Answer me one question that I’ve asked several times: what can you as a librarian do for someone for someone like yourself?

  14. Free resources. Books, ebooks, databaes, and the rest of online stuff. As you say more people are self reliant. A self reliant person can do so much self education through public library systems it’s unreal. The libarians role might not be as direct as with traditional reference questions, but more assessing and figuring out what the needs are for the community. The librarians need to know what should be available through the library. For the articles you write for counter punch and elsewhere Joe, you do research. Have you ever used library resources, print (books) or other, to help flush out your ideas?
    With programming, people need to bring in a variety of stuff for interests. I think the sky is the limit with programming.

  15. Libraries – future and present. Not to be too self-serving – but come out to Lefrak City on Monday, April 30th at 6pm. The key to preserving libraries now and in the future depends on how well we turn information into knowledge. Information is data – knowledge is a human characteristic.

    Here’s how we’re attempting to do that in Lefrak:

    Join us at the next Open Forum, when we make sense of data on health, education, crime, money, and more. We’ll also look at a report on how our community has changed over the past decade.
    What’s the leading cause of premature death in Elmhurst, Corona, and Lefrak City? How do our kids’ test scores in math and English compare to those of other students in New York City? We’ll explore these questions and more, and ask how they relate to topics that have been raised since the Open Forum started.

    Every last Monday of the month Queens Library at Lefrak City hosts an Open Forum that makes it possible for neighbors to meet one another, explore community concerns and develop ideas. Whenever possible, we also attempt to host one level of government.



  16. Matt, I do tons of research: my question to you was what do I (we) need librarians for? I distinguished libraries and librarians earlier. What does that self-relient person you desribe need a librarian for?

  17. Joe, read my comments. I believe I answered you already. Librarians decide what as far as resources and programs are in the library and provided by the library. They decide what people like me have access to. For me I check out books mostly to read, I never buy books anymore. That little service, being able to check out materials, I value. And don’t downplay the research, books interloaned, articles assessed, that you do for your writing. Without the public library you would need to pay tuition at a college indefinitely for the same access.

  18. Eric,
    What you are doing at Lefrak City is great. His attendance goes from 60 to 100, and this is monthly. You thought out a program that is unique to libraries, were able to tell the value of it, promote it and you made it happen. This is what libraries will need to do in the future, find ways to bring people in. Find ways emphasize the physical space for communities even when the needs for materials decline. Your’s has value to the community too and informs people. There is room for things like this and popular concerts, zumba, or whatever people want.
    Your civic program is wonderful, I just wish I didn’t work every late night, so I could check it out.

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