Metal Objects Replace Librarians

Photo by fensterbme/Flickr

Or so you would think the Wall Street Journal article was implying when detailing the plan for libraries to use lockers that can be accessed by the public after hours or kiosks and vending machines to distribute library materials at different locations. The line saying that these kinds of outreach will redefine what it means to be a library mean that this is a relatively new concept to the writer and the WSJ. However, for those in the business, the practice of remote services (mall locations, kiosks, vending machines, and so forth) is relatively old hat.

I can understand why some library directors and supporters are a bit apprehensive about the lockers and vending machines. They are afraid that budget administrators will see it as a replacement to workers and hours rather than an enhancement of service. I might be naïve in thinking that there still has to be someone who orders the materials for the library to purchase and that someone is most likely going to be a librarian, but I don’t see this as a shrinking of the library. I see it as a way to reach people in new ways and make the library a part of their life, even if they don’t step through the front door. There are libraries out there now that mail materials to patron’s homes; I don’t see anyone writing about how that is the end of the institution.

One of the things I don’t see is the fading of physical library as a location. Even in the worst case scenario, there has to be a location where the materials can be distributed from and a system in place to coordinate orders, holds, retrievals, and invariably dealing with patrons and problems with their materials. With that level of staffing, I see a building that resembles a hybrid between the current library and a post office. There are postal type areas that allow for remote access to materials for people and then there are library areas for people to browse, take classes, attend programs, and read a daily newspaper or magazine. In this incarnation, the library morphs into a place that is truly available twenty four hours a day, both physically and online. The mission doesn’t change, but the look and feel of the physical location does.

I guess this begs a question: how can libraries expand out space outside of the library? What other areas can libraries get ‘remote outposts’? What enhances or diminishes service outside of the library?

14 thoughts on “Metal Objects Replace Librarians

  1. It would be nice to see librarians imbedded within community spaces other than the library. For example, having a kiosk at the mall, the hospital, the post office, etc. If we could bring ourselves (and perhaps one or two computers) to the public, that would enliven our services more than bringing our stuff to the public will. It’s not that I am against the metal kiosks, but hardcopy stuff we offer is not, and should not be the main focus of survival for us. We should focus on the communities’ needs and pop up where we are needed. Librarianship is truly about people: both librarians and members of libraries. Our stuff’s format continues to rapidly change, but we, as people are the main constant within all of the flux. Doing outreach that involves people to people contact will be more effective than kiosks that will be a handy novelty for some, but ultimately, will be short lived. Do you really think that there will be Red Box’s twenty years from now?

    • Thanks, Stacey. In an online class I just learned about examples of embedded librarians in the community, and love the idea that outreach is targeting more than just those individuals who can’t get to the physical library. By becoming active members of local organizations, librarians are increasing the visibility and vibrancy of library services and collections.

      RCN in the San Francisco Bay Area

    • I don’t see an issue with the lockers. I have talked to plenty of people who have been disappointed with library hours and not being able to get down to the location. I’d love to be able to offer them an alternative and that would immediately address it.

      I see it as another tool, not a replacement for the human element. I can see placing a person at one of these public places to give the human element to it.

      You bring up a good point about the Red Boxes. I think at the price it offers, the answer is still ‘maybe’ unless Apple and Netflix can think of a way to edge them out. Not everyone has broadband or high access speeds, which is a limiting factor for those two companies. But anyone can put a card into a Redbox and put it in their DVD or Blu Ray player.

    • “Do you really think that there will be Red Box’s twenty years from now?”

      In their current incarnation? Maybe not. But kiosks which deliver cheap, convenient entertainment even there’s no staff member available to help the user? Absolutely.

      “It’s not that I am against the metal kiosks, but hardcopy stuff we offer is not, and should not be the main focus of survival for us. We should focus on the communities’ needs and pop up where we are needed.”

      Stacey, I understand where you’re coming from (libraries are not just about checking out books) but I think the point is that for this particular library system, a vital need WAS about getting hardcopy to customers at hours that would be difficult to staff.

      I don’t think I agree with you when you mention that “we, as people are the main constant within all the flux”– by “we,” I assume that you mean librarians. But I don’t think librarians are the constant. The need for information, regardless of format, is that constant: and that is a much older and deeper and unchanging constant than the concept of the library is. If libraries don’t fill it, something else will. And right now print is still the most efficient and most (legally) resusable of information mediums.

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  3. As we shift to electronic books, etc., I think we shift from “collection” development to “connection development.” If we value knowing available materials well enough to booktalk/handsell/connect the user, either in person or online, we will continue to offer a valuable service to patrons that is not replicated elsewhere.

    However, if that knowledge of materials is not valued as a professional role, then yes, we are in trouble. And, yes, I do see that knowledge (and it is knowledge and a skill set) undervalued in some online library conversations.

    I am hella busy. Do I think my life should revolve around the library’s hours and what type of reader/patron they want me to be? No. I like this model because it asks, “what do some patrons want” and listens and delivers that rather than asking “what do patrons want” and responding “um, now we need to work to have those silly patrons change the answer to the one we want them to give.”

    • Connection development. I think I need to steal that term. And a very accurate observation and lesson about attending to the needs of some without impacting the overall picture.

  4. My dad sent me this article, and my first response was that paraprofessional staff, not librarians were being replaced. Then I decided that someone had to pull the books and put them in the metal boxes, and that would likely be paras.

    So the headline should *really* read “New Library Technologies Dispense with Circulation Clerks”. But who’s going to read that article? I thought it just proved that the WSJ is relatively clueless about the inner workings of libraries.

    I love your spin on things – very thought-provoking.

  5. Thanks for bringing this to my attention. I think it’s a great idea – I’ve been thinking for a while (and I’m clearly not alone) that libraries have huge untapped markets of people who are too busy to be at the library location during opening hours, but who would like to borrow books, and would probably be willing to order them online and collect them later from a convenient location (the train station perhaps?). With a remote, distributed service, the importance of a good catalogue becomes all the greater. It would have to do more to mimic the serendipitous ways people often find books in libraries.

    • Now, I should say that after writing that, the words of Leslie Burger started to haunt me. Of course we want to bring people to the library so as we can show them what we are offering. I wouldn’t mind a secure lobby location that would allow people to access these metal lockers surrounded by our advertisements. This is not to say that such things couldn’t be included to people with items at a remote location, but the point is to get them in contact with the staff.

      Hmm. I’ll have to ponder a more nuanced position on this technology use.

      • Indeed – Leslie’s point is a really good one. But maybe lockers, wherever they are, wouldn’t bring people in contact with the library service who weren’t interacting with it much or *at all* before. Once you’ve lured them in with books they’ve ordered to the lockers, they could be more likely to take the trouble to visit the actual library, or interact with staff online. Is this sounding a bit like a drug pusher? Get ‘em hooked and then keep ‘em hooked? Might not be a bad thing: Library services: an addiction for the 21st century!

  6. Lockers! Lockers would be a major improvement for my local branch. 100% of my use of the local branch is as a place to pick up and return books, and its hours are inconvenient, so lockers would be straight-up improvement. In fact, replacing the library with secure lockers would be an improvement.

    This, of course, is not a statement that lockers are a threat to libraries, but that they are a threat to bad libraries. My local branch is poorly signed and in need of significant renovation, near-impossible for people with day jobs to get to (per those inconvenient hours), and the staff are nonentities except for that one time we got into a huge argument. I’m basically cool with replacing that with lockers.

    When I want to actually go to a library, I typically go to the one two towns over that has space and light, and awesome study carrels, and a fun children’s room, and ever-changing but often appealing local art on the walls, and little tiny fish. If they let me bring lunch or coffee, I’d be there all the time. Oh, yeah, and sometimes I pick up books there, too, but you couldn’t replace it with lockers.

    For expansion outside the library space, I keep noticing missed opportunities for the public library to engage with town events. Like there was a big festival over the summer in a nearby park, with a bouncy castle and music and facepainting, sponsored by the city with some participation from local organizations — why did the library not have a storytime tent set up there? (Everyone sometimes wants a place to sit down at a big outdoor party; have some shade, maybe some fans, and people will flock to you!) Or — our city has a really useful web page with all kinds of stuff on it; why have I never noticed libraries there before? (I checked it right now and I found that, hey, they’re there and maybe I never saw them because I never looked…but maybe they should be more prominent? Like somehow the second people move here they get notified when their trash day is, but they don’t learn where their library is.)

    In fact I was thinking about the personal librarian programs that some universities have adopted, and was thinking it would be awesome (if admittedly maybe implausible) if new residents got a personal librarian. And they could get some kind of nice welcoming graphical brochure (not the two pages of dense text in the library brochure on the city web site…) with a real person’s picture and an invitation to ask questions.

    And there’s a million coffeehouses around here, and all kinds of undergrads and grad students and computer-nerd coffee addicts. There’s some obvious synergies between libraries and coffeehouses; why are there no superhero teamups going on?

    Or they could make like that local alderman who does community office hours — just sets up a table on a high-traffic street somewhere with a big sign. Especially with mobile technology, you could run a pretty decent service that way.

    I think what I’m saying here is — I would really like my public library to reach out to me, to demonstrate that there would actually be something lost if they were replaced with lockers.

  7. Andromeda, I think public personal librarians would be an interesting idea, but the people who use lockers won’t necessarily be the people using them– I rarely visit my public library unless I’m returning or picking up books. But a 24 hour (or at least 16 hour) reference desk could be useful.

    I’m surprised that no one’s brought the “library as place” debate up with this article, because this touches right to its heart.

    • I definitely agree that the metal-lockers crowd and the personal-librarians crowd are unlikely to be the same (maybe a little overlap, with people who discover, via the personal librarians, that they *can* do other things than just pick up books, but I agree, not much). All the better reason to do it, though! One, appeal to multiple patrons. Two, if your only patrons are the metal-lockers patrons…you really don’t have a library any more. (Not even a meaningful place.) So if you’re going in for lockers, you almost have to go in for other, aggressively-marketed, services too…

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