Public Libraries Matter: And We’re Already Trying to Do More

Last week, David Vinjamuri posted Part II of his two-part series on public libraries. I had some serious criticisms of Part I, so I’m happy to see that he goes some way to redeeming himself this time around.

Why Public Libraries Matter: And How They Can Do More by David Vinjamuri

His essay hits several nails squarely on the head, most especially his vision of libraries as community spaces and central forces in the ecosystem of reading. And he’s correct that libraries must establish larger cooperative communities between disparate systems.

This is not to say, though, that he gets everything right in Part II.

For example, he starts off with this statement regarding libraries and publishers:

[Libraries] account for a small percentage of book sales, but bleed off more sales by lending bestsellers promiscuously.

In fact, the data on book sales and libraries is very clear and very well established – libraries boost book sales. Libraries are one of the best established venues for publishers to promote and market books and authors. This insidious and persistent belief that libraries “bleed off more sales” is inarguably incorrect. Correcting this misapprehension is a major task and Mr. Vinjamuri does no one any favors by blithely repeating it here.

Which makes it all the more curious that just two paragraphs later, he writes:

Big six publishers limit public libraries’ access to eBooks at their own peril. They fail to see that public libraries are an integral part of the fragile ecosystem of reading in America. Without libraries to encourage new readers, foster book groups and promote communities of reading, publishers will find fewer readers for their biggest titles, and readers will have more difficulty discovering works not on the bestseller list.

This is the important take-away! And it’s absolutely correct. A humble suggestion, Mr. Vinjamuri – next time, please lead with that and not with a restatement of a belief that’s patently false.

Also – statements like this one drive me a bit crazy (especially as he specifically mentioned publisher’s “biggest titles” in his earlier point about the essential role libraries play in promoting readership):

By focusing too heavily on giving patrons access to bestsellers and popular movies, libraries risk missing the significant opportunity afforded by the explosion in the number of new books published each year.

But he makes no mention of the funding challenges and community pressures that required libraries to behave this way in the first place. Over the past couple of decades, libraries have increasingly been asked to prove their worth to Boards of Directors, local governments, and other stakeholders in order to ensure continued funding. The expectation has been that libraries demonstrate their worth in market terms, using measurable statistics and monetary figures. When the people who hold the purse strings understand the value of libraries purely in terms of monetary ROI, it creates some unique difficulties in proving the value of core missions like increasing general readership and promoting discovery of unproven products.

Namely, best-sellers are safe investments – how do you convince funding sources to invest in untested supply? How do you prove patron demand for titles that no one has even heard of yet? This is the catch-22 that libraries have faced every single day for a long time now.

Libraries didn’t drop the ball here – we had little choice if we wanted to survive in tough economic times, and with the true value of libraries being questioned from several sides.

I’d like more acknowledgement from Mr. Vinjamuri of the real-world difficulties we face when we try to make the sorts of changes he advocates.

Mr. Vinjamuri isn’t wrong in his assertion that libraries need to reconsider the amount of resources that we devote to popular titles and retool ourselves into spaces for the discovery of new works. But if he paid more attention to the conversations taking place in the professional library world, he might see that librarians have already been discussing all of these ideas for years. These are all things that we’re already planning and attempting.

We want to do these things. We’re already trying to do these things. It’s proving, though, to be an almost Sisyphean task.

When libraries are beholden to combinations of public and private funding as we are, convincing our stakeholders that such evolution is worthwhile constitutes an exhausting uphill battle. Without their support and backing, such evolution becomes nigh impossible. It’s a case of too many chefs, too much politics, too many people trying to leverage their support to advance their private agendas. Public libraries get held hostage to too many peoples’ differing visions.

And it’s the library’s job to try and satisfy them all. So the solution to our problems isn’t that easy.

On that front, high profile articles like this in Forbes can be a tremendous help in counteracting entrenched beliefs and systems. I realize that Mr. Vinjamuri wrote his articles to try and influence a non-librarian audience, and that he needs to summarize the issues and concepts for them. But I also feel very strongly that he doesn’t give libraries and librarians nearly enough credit for what we’ve already done on these fronts, what we’re trying to do, what we’ve dreamed and conceived and planned.

Despite his good intentions in these articles, he portrays libraries as being less progressive, less thoughtful, less creative, and far more complacent than we really are. Such characterizations aren’t fair and do little to help.

It’s not enough to convince publishers and market forces that they’re wrong in how they treat libraries. He should also show how hard libraries are working to try and make these things happen, to serve our communities better. His apparent failure to comprehend that frustrates me.

It’s like this blog post says:

When we want to change the status quo, we need to approach it from the knowledge that someone had a good reason to make the decision they made. We should honor that.

Please, Mr. Vinjamuri – libraries and librarians deserve more honor than you’re showing us.

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