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Toby Greenwalt

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To Know the Library Is To Love the Library -- But Who Knows the Library?

Posted: 01/13/10 12:06 PM ET

"To know Lloyd Dobler is to love him," reads the tagline to Cameron Crowe's Say Anything. The film is considered a modern classic now, but was met with indifference (total gross: $20 million) when it first hit theaters. It wasn't until after its release on home video that it truly took off as a word-of-mouth sensation.

Libraries tend to operate the same way. I've been a public librarian for about five years now, and the contrast between our users and our non-users is remarkable. One group consists of diehard fans. Another group seems to think we do nothing but read all day.

All this has been reinforced in a recent blog post from marketing genius Seth Godin reflecting on the question of what libraries should do to "remain relevant in the digital age." He offers the suggestion that librarians work to "train people to take intellectual initiative."

This is an excellent question, and certainly terrific advice. But it has rankled many in the profession, given that it overlooks the ways in which libraries have been doing both of these things for years. You may read about how many ebook readers are coming out now -- but we've been offering downloadable collections for years. Did you get a new smartphone? Many libraries offer sites optimized for mobile users, offer answers via text message, and have even created apps for user convenience. We've become a proving ground for new technologies, and those who know us look to librarians for instruction and advice on a variety of digital tools.

This is not new -- at least not to us. If nothing else, it's simply an extension of our killer research skills -- our ability to use a variety of digital and print resources to help you find a job, an article, or simply something entertaining. You want Intellectual initiative? Drop one of us a line.

The people who do make use of these services love them, and for this we're eternally grateful. But there remains the question of those who don't, and Godin's post is a perfect illustration of this. We suffer from a major image problem, and it's putting the profession at risk. Budgets are being slashed at state and local levels across the country. Businesses are outsourcing their info-gathering needs instead of keeping a librarian on staff. The state of California implemented massive furloughs across the board, affecting public and university libraries alike. Many other libraries are cutting hours, laying off staff, and raising the question of closing altogether. Throughout it all, we are chided for wasting taxpayer money, because all we supposedly do is shelve books and tell people to keep quiet.

Short of standing outside our customer's windows blasting Peter Gabriel from a boombox, it has been a real struggle to change this perception. My colleagues and I can (and do) discuss this issue in print and online. But it all remains inside baseball until we turn to our current -- and hopefully future -- users.

So I put the question to you, Huffington Post readers. If you are a regular library user (and once again, thank you), what about the experience works for you? How would you push our services to non-library users?

If you're not a library user, how can we prove ourselves to you?

 

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