Going to the Boneyard?

The Boneyard - Where Russian MiGs go after their planned obsolescence I have to say that, like a number of other people, I was struck by Mark Hirschey’s piece in Lawrence Journal World decrying the state of the modern library. I certainly understand and appreciate Sarah Houghton’s retort–it sums up my initial reaction by taking inventory on many of the great, innovative, and worthy services libraries do provide their communities. Michael Stephens also points out some of the intrinsic value of libraries.

However, I can’t help but think that we’re missing something really important here–that Mr. Hirschey is exactly the type of person we need to be listening to. While I fundamentally disagree with his conclusions, he’s raising a number of very serious and reasonable concerns. While his opinion may not be shared by the majority of his community, it’s an indication of what’s to come. He will not be the last to raise these same points–critics of libraries are only going to get louder and their arguments stronger. Why? Because, as much as we do not want to admit it, there is some truth to those arguments. Libraries are neophyte marketers in a world where perception and opinion trumps logic and truth. So we can circle the wagons and remind ourselves how important we are, or we can be pragmatic and do something about this.

I was on a conference call the other day with several people talking about a new web site and the topic of public perception came up. I relayed some comments I heard on an AM radio talk show I had been listening to in a waiting room somewhere. The radio personality was talking about the piece of legislation we know as DOPA and was being highly critical of librarians, insisting that libraries were standing with and protecting child pornographers and pedophiles. When I heard this, I got so angry that I think I swore out loud and earned a few glares. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that libraries, and certainly the ALA, is virtually incapable of doing spin control. Some might argue that it’s not the job of libraries to do spin control, but the sad truth is that it’s an unpleasant necessity.

Marlo Stanfield, HBO's The WireI faithfully watch a fantastic show on HBO called The Wire that is now in its fourth season. One of the main antagonists is an untouchable drug dealer named Marlo who, when confronted by a security guard after stealing something from a convenience store, says, “You want it to be one way, but it’s the other way.” I thought that was a brilliant line. Do we want it to be one way when it’s actually the other? I think some of us do.

The problem with Mr. Hirschey’s argument is not his reasoning, but the conclusion he arrives at which is, “don’t build a library.” He writes:

We need to embark on an aggressive plan to bring broadband access to the doorstep of each and every home in Lawrence. There is no need to do anything in west Lawrence, the private sector has already done that in the newer part of town. It’s east Lawrence, the older part of town, that desperately needs access to new information technology.

He’s absolutely right, and again here:

Don’t expect kids, seniors, and everyone else to trudge downtown for the convenience of librarians. Put information technology at the fingertips of every kid, and every senior in Lawrence. Because low incomes limit the ability of some to connect to high-speed access, even when it’s brought to their door, the city might give low-income families computers on a needs basis. Otherwise, offer reliable Internet access at small 24/7 City of Lawrence Free Internet Cafes (“libraries”) that are broadly distributed for easy walking access by kids and seniors.

I agree on both points, especially with the “Don’t expect kids, seniors, and everyone else to trudge downtown” part. But let me ask you this, is there any reason why a new library initiative couldn’t encompass all those things? Why not subsidize wifi hot-spots around town that default to the library web page when a user first logs on? If you don’t have the money, raise it. Why not have our libraries represented on planning commission boards so that we can push for ubiquitous broadband access? Why the hell are we not the ones spear-heading these efforts? Let Mr. Hirschey answer that: because many libraries are “monument[s] to 19th century information technology.” Those of us in the biblioblogosphere might not fall into that 19th Century category, but we all know that for every one of us, there are five or ten of our colleagues (who are excellent at what they do) that plug away just as they always have, blissfully unaware of the storm outside.

I think that this is changing, too slowly, but changing nonetheless. The problem is that libraries are not typically aggressive beasts. I’m afraid we need to be now or we will be quickly trumped by other sources of information that will have the ability to distribute information much more efficiently and rapidly. I’m afraid that, at some point, Mr. Hirschay’s conclusions will be shared by enough people.

So, where and how do we get aggressive?

Damage Control

I used the DOPA example to illustrate the need for libraries to do spin and damage control. We need people at the national level (and the ALA is the likely place for this) who are talented marketers who can sell the nuances of our message. We just don’t have enough of this right now. Yes, I’m talking about talking heads–everyone else does it, we should too because the alternative is that we get chewed up on issues like DOPA and the Patriot Act. We’re not really unpatriotic child pornographers, but there are a lot of people who are painting us as such.

I understand that this seems like selling out to the very media we’re trying to provide an alternative to, but if that’s where the “message” and the people are, why are we not there? I mentioned in a previous post that I didn’t believe that there was a moral equivalency between what we do and what those who would limit our rights are doing. I still believe that, but we’re not doing a good job of taking the fight to where the fight is. What do we do? We take our licks, then come back to the flock to spread our message where we’re met with approval and acceptance. Good, if you want to delude yourself, bad if you want to explain yourself to a confused public.

Radical Change

More specifically, the tolerance of radical change. I think as we push further into the 21st Century, a lot of librarians are going to have to reconcile their expectations of what they think a library should be with what a library needs to be. This is hard, because in order to effect the changes needed to do business in this new, emerging market (yes, we’re part of a market), and find a place among the commercial giants we need to be much more nimble than we are now.

Every organization is like a piece of raw material in that each one has its own flexural strength–that is, you can subject a group of people to a finite amount of change before something ruptures and causes the group cohesion to break down. I love libraries, but they are not very adaptable organizations. They could be, however. Through a regimen of conditioning, hiring practices and managing expectations of staff, libraries can eventually get to the point where they are more flexible–injured athletes do the same thing with their bodies in physical therapy. We are out of shape and complacent and its starting to really show.

Aggressive Lobbying

Does the ALA have a strong lobby in Washington? Well according to this page, which only gives data up through 2002 (but the numbers are basically flat), “ALA lobby expenses average $173,000 for a six-month reporting period or about $350,000 per year. Expenses are primarily incurred at the Washington Office based on time reported by staff.” Considering that the New York Library alone spent $80,000 of its own money in 2004 on lobbying efforts, what does that say about this particular priority? ALA has opted for a cap of $1 million on lobbying, which has not come close to to being approached. For six years, our First Lady has been a librarian–have we used that to its full potential?

We need to be investing in this effort now so that we can secure our ability to do things in the future, such as distribute content electronically, maintain our right to determine our own filtering policies, or collect whatever material we want. Right now, we are severely hamstrung by an extremely vague fair use clause that prohibits libraries from coming to the same party as the likes of iTunes and Rhapsody. The legality of sharing electronic content is our biggest impediment. Without more flexible distribution options, there will be no long tail for us.

Activism, not anger

I predict that we’ll start seeing more and more library opponents like Mr. Hirschey. We have the choice of reacting with anger and disgust to their views or engaging and talking to them directly to find a way to meet their needs and expectations. After all, if Mr. Hirschey walked in to our library and asked us directly if we could do X, Y, or Z, we wouldn’t shout or laugh him off the premises–it’s not the way we conduct business inside our libraries. That same approach to customer service shouldn’t stop at the threshold of our front door.

The best defense is a great offense, and actively addressing the very same concerns he talks about–chiefly the issue of providing broadband access to low-income families–should be a major concern of ours. He’s not an asshole, he’s genuinely concerned for a group of disenfranchised people–perhaps more concerned than we are. So you tell me, why are we not doing anything about connecting up low-income families? Perhaps if we were a little more proactive about addressing the needs of our community, we wouldn’t be subjected to some of this negative public perception.

The real story here centers on a few simple questions. Why should we get those dollars? Are we entitled to the money we get because we’ve always gotten it? I’m not so sure–it might do us some good to scratch and fight for our sustenance–the people Mr. Hirschey wants to help certainly do for theirs.

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