Library users love their libraries. Shutting down libraries seems unthinkable. To library users, anyway. But it’s happening. More than 300 libraries have shut down in the UK over the past six years.
One major library shutdown recently happened in Oregon. Some people think there should be even more library closures. They’re the ones who don’t use libraries and have no idea what they’re for.
Actually, one librarian thinks a few library closures here and there might be good for libraries in the long run. The reasons he gives show what libraries and librarians ought to be doing to prevent any more library shutdowns.
A recent library closure
Last fall, voters in Douglas County, Oregon rejected a modest property tax increase. As a result, the entire county library system had to shut down. The county of 107,000 residents, which is nearly the size of the state of Connecticut, had eleven library branches at the beginning of the year. Now it has none.
Located three hours south of Portland, the county enjoyed prosperity while the timber industry thrived. Not anymore. With the demise of the industry, Douglas County is one of the poorest counties in the state. A quarter of the population receive food stamps, and the per capita income is only about 80% of the state average.
The ballot initiative that would have saved the library system would have added about $6 a month to the average property tax bill. But it coincided with the presidential election. Donald Trump lost Oregon by more than ten percentage points, but carried Douglas County by a margin of two to one.
The presidential election, in other words, attracted the voters who oppose any tax cut for any reason.
Some letters to the editor of the local newspaper declared that, with Google and iPhones, the library had become an unaffordable luxury. Even some library users decided they couldn’t afford to add the price of a fast-food meal to their property taxes.
Libraries have temporarily closed for budgetary reasons in the past, but Douglas County is the first in the US to shut down an entire system permanently.
Librarian 1, library shutdown advocate 0
The ridiculous notion that computers have made the library obsolete has been around longer than Google.
Andre Walker, a New York newspaper columnist, recently advocated shutting down public libraries on the grounds that nobody goes to them anymore.
I came to the conclusion long ago that it doesn’t take much knowledge to write a newspaper column. It only requires the ability to string together grammatically correct sentences and churn out pieces of a certain length on a regular schedule.
Walker didn’t write his recommendation in his column. Hardly anyone would have noticed. He should look at circulation statistics for newspapers if he wants to see what nobody reads anymore.
No, he decided to make his comment on Twitter.
Library users follow Twitter, and plenty tried without success to acquaint him with reality. Then Alex Halpern, a librarian in Portland, Oregon, entered the fray as TheAngriestLibrarian. The day of Walker’s first tweet and the next day, Halpern sent off a series of profanity-laced tweets that went viral. HIs first tweet garnered 51,000 likes. He got 1,500 new followers over the course of his rant.
Walker got the last word. He capitulated.
Dear (and I can’t believe I’m saying this) all 110,000 people who replied to my tweet about libraries, Your sheer numbers have proved the point that libraries aren’t as unpopular as I believed this morning! Please stop replying!!!
I would hope it doesn’t take the online equivalent of screaming filthy language to make the point, but libraries provide a service that most people appreciate and many desperately need.
Halpern acknowledged at least two in a tweet I can quote without bleeping anything out. Replying to a teacher who met her homeless students in the library, he tweeted, “This is a fact, and one of the reasons I became a librarian. Libraries are one of the last govt spaces trusted by marginalized people.”
How come so few people recognize how many other people rely on library services? Probably because those who do know don’t say much about it publicly. That, it turns out, is probably the biggest reason for threats of library closure.
An upside to shutting down libraries?
A reference librarian in New Jersey, who identifies himself only as Andy, published a contrarian blog post a few years ago saying that maybe some public library closures are not entirely a bad thing. He made four major points:
Need for good customer service
First, librarianship needs a philosophical shakeup. He sees transliteracy and customer service as the two most important areas of focus.
Libraries have long paid lip service to customer service. But, Andy says, no library school trains for such important aspects as conflict resolution, dealing with different personalities, or social diplomacy.
Some librarians represent the profession very badly by actively excluding certain groups from receiving service. Some have insufficient patience with patrons who require too much of their time. Or those from a different culture.
Here’s a recent and highly publicized example of a librarian representing the profession poorly: A school librarian in Massachusetts very publicly turned down a gift of Dr. Seuss books from Melania Trump. Why? She said it was because Dr Suess was a racist. More honestly, she could have said it was simply because she hates the Trumps.
The job description of a school librarian includes curating a collection of materials with diverse viewpoints and helping students understand their context. Instead, this one chose to put her personal politics and animosities first.
Both public service librarians and the paraprofessionals at the circulation desk ought to advocate for the library by the spirit with which they do their jobs. And when occasion arises, with words.
Need for better relationships with funding bodies
Second, too many library administrators fail to develop good relationships with funding agencies. Most elected officials have no clue what the library does. No wonder they cut budgets for agencies they don’t understand.
It may be necessary in some places to reevaluate the funding model. That won’t happen if the library administration constantly asks for more money, but has no good working relationships with the governing bodies.
Reestablishing a library once it has been defunded can be difficult. But, Andy says, take a longer view when a jurisdiction shuts down a library. A groundswell of public support can eventually force the local government to reestablish it. The new library will be stronger.
I once worked for a temp agency that sent me to a project at a large bank in Chicago. A few years earlier, the bank had decided it didn’t need its archive and gave the archivist only a couple of days to box everything up.
She had not thought it part of her job to advocate for the archive. People who made the budget had no idea what it was for or who used it. They thought they had better use for the money and space. But when bank staff needed access to the various papers, they found it hard to hunt through unmarked cartons in the warehouse. They demanded a functioning archive.
I and one other person spent more than two weeks in a warehouse hunting through boxes to find everything and sort it. The agency had other people who knew how to reconstruct the finding aids and whatever else had to be done. It must have been expensive to reestablish that archive. I’ll bet the bean counters have remembered that expense and looked elsewhere the next time they thought they needed to eliminate a service.
Maybe Douglas County’s public will decide in a few years that it can’t function without its library system.
Need for better library advocacy with the public
Maintaining good relationships with government officials means nothing without vocal public support. Andy says that too often, library public relations only reacts to threats. If the library seeks public support only when it needs money, the public can get compassion fatigue.
Not everyone uses library services. Not everyone knows what the library has to offer them. It’s hard to get people to use services they don’t know about.
Library users can more effectively get the word out than any formal public relations campaign. That is, if librarians have strong enough relationships with patrons to encourage them.
A strong relationship between the library and the public can also help it with collection development and in determining the most needed and wanted services. Public help with maintaining adequate funding becomes not the goal of library advocacy, but a byproduct. But nurturing such a relationship is not part of the library school curriculum. It needs to be.
Need for an up-to-date vision of library services
It concerns how to keep the library running or how to modify some program. Left out is any overarching discussion of what a library is our ought to be.
It’s like trying to value how much gold will be extracted from the ground without knowing where you will be mining, nevermind whether there will be any gold to be found. The question for me remains as this: what will the libraries of the future look like, act like, and what is their place in the community? The closing of public libraries should bring this question into sharper focus. And the answers, when discussed across the profession as a whole, should give better direction and purpose to those in the public library profession.
In short, this author believes closing libraries has some potential silver linings. How, in that case, can we be sure that the “right” libraries will close, and only the least proficient librarians will have to find another line of work?
Whether or not he’s correct, libraries will continue to face pressure wherever their administrations fail at any aspect of library advocacy.
Society needs its public libraries. And school libraries. It takes both the library administration and the public to make sure that government officials never consider shutting down the library.