Library Services – or, What Makes A Library Valuable?

An Attempt to Bring Together a Variety of Recent Issues

I know the hoopla about Terry Deary is old news already, but I keep thinking about it, circling back around to it.

Despite my powerful and vociferous reaction to his statements about the value of public libraries, there’s something about this situation that still isn’t resolved in my mind. And I think I know what it is.

Terry Deary is absolutely, 100% wrong about the “concept behind libraries”. Which begs an essential question:

How did a well-educated, literate man come to view public libraries so wrongly in the first place?

Mr. Deary looks at public libraries and all he sees are purveyors and panderers of popular entertainment. He doesn’t see our research resources, our literacy initiatives, our job search assistance, our government documents collections, or our social services. He doesn’t see our partnerships with local school systems and cultural institutions. He doesn’t see community use spaces and safe places to for people to hang out. He doesn’t see a champion of informed democracy and self-improvement. He doesn’t see librarians as curators of information, experts to guide people through society’s myriad information resources.

Why not?

The obvious reason is because Mr. Deary is driven by self-interest as an author and he views libraries as competition for paying distribution channels. But he’s far from the only one who views public libraries this way… and most of the people who share his view don’t depend on popular entertainment to make their living. How is it possible that our core mission, the values that drive our services, have gotten so lost to so many?

At this point, my thoughts come back to a question I asked in my post on patron privacy and ebook lending:

Are we too eager to give people what they want? Have we allowed this desire to please to undermine our responsibility to provide people with what they need?

Patron driven acquisitions is one of the Big Ideas du jour in library-land. It presents some very real benefits – it’s a powerful way to deepen our connections to our communities by making our patrons direct stakeholders in their library systems.

The cynical curmudgeon in me wonders if PDA puts too many of our resources at the mercy of fad and fashion. After all, wants aren’t always needs – and whim is not a good policy for collection development.

There’s a reason why librarians go to school to learn resource evaluation skills and develop the expertise to select the most beneficial. There’s a reason we need to be credentialed to do collection development. I’m not sold on the idea of turning too much of this authority over to people who don’t have our training.

(Yes, I know that collection development librarians still oversee and evaluate PDA systems and we’re not turning the asylum over to the inmates. But I’m trying to make point here!)

I think PDA presents an attractive short-cut. While it’s appealing in the directness with which it allows us to get patron input, there are better and more meaningful ways for us to interact with our patrons. I think this lies at the core of my misgivings over PDA: it’s a one-way channel – it’s not actually a method for communicating with people.

To bring this back to my larger point, PDA is representative of how our relationships with our communities are changing.

I fear that we’re in danger of over-valuing the desire to keep our patrons happy at the cost of under-valuing our responsibility to provide truly substantive and useful resources. That we’ve started down a path of prioritizing wants over needs.

I think that’s how people like Terry Deary come to see us so wrongly.

I’m not knocking popular entertainment. It plays an essential and important role in all our lives. But libraries are only one of many institutions that can fill this need.

There are resources and services that libraries provide that other institutions can’t. These are the services that give libraries real value – not our popular fiction collections. These are the things that show Mr. Deary how wrong he is about us.

Through all the excitement about new technology and the many wondrous things it makes possible, through continued attacks on our usefulness and questions about our relevancy – now more than ever, we must hold to our core principles and original missions.

Where technology serves those missions, we need to embrace it – but still with care to ensure that we’re not undermining our ultimate responsibilities to our patrons.

But we can’t allow ourselves to become distracted from the things that make us unique and truly valuable in our zeal to be all things to all people.

[Author’s Note: See this post for an example of me defending libraries’ rights and virtue in providing popular entertainment to our patrons. Because I’m nothing if not somewhat confused.]

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