There’s an article in the Los Angeles Times about libraries reinventing themselves for digital content when this quote popped out at me:
Some traditional librarians worry that experiments aimed at making libraries more accessible could dumb them down.
“If you want to have game rooms and pingpong tables and God knows what — poker parties — fine, do it, but don’t pretend it has anything to do with libraries,” said Michael Gorman, a former president of the American Library Assn. “The argument that all these young people would turn up to play video games and think, ‘Oh by the way, I must borrow that book by Dostoyevsky’ — it seems ludicrous to me.”
For me, there are a couple of things wrong with this quote. First, when the library can attract anyone into the physical building (teen, adult, kid, senior), you are given any number of opportunities to market other materials and services to them. The teens might not borrow that Dostoyevsky book, but it works to build a relationship between the library and that age group. These relationships and experiences carry forward beyond the teen years in adulthood. This relationship model applies to the other groups I’ve mentioned and works towards the life long relationship that libraries as a whole want to build with people.
The shortsightedness of Mr. Gorman’s quote is that it relies on a notion that there exists an instant or short term conversion of a single interest patron (only checks out DVDs, only attends video game programs, etc.) into a multiple interest patron (starts borrowing other materials or attending other types of programs). That the single purpose of forming a relationship with a patron is to move them into utilizing as many materials, services, and programs as quickly as possible without regard for their current needs. It’s the equivalent of asking someone to marry them on the first date. Just as we look to the future of the library with longevity, so must we give the same consideration to patron relationships. It doesn’t mean we can’t do a hard sell every once in a while, but keeping perspective on the relationship as an ongoing and growing connection over decades.
Second, the tone of the quote is rather dismissive of experimenting with new formats and ideas. The game rooms that Mr. Gorman is lamenting today might be gone in a few years from now because they really don’t further the library’s mission, they fail attract people to the library, or they are simply be untenable for continued funding. Some experiments work, some don’t, but not trying is also not discovering and stifling to innovation. Even in failing, there are insights to be gleaned for future attempts or avoidance of certain strategies.
I would not consider dismissing Mr. Gorman’s quotation because he has only worked in academic libraries all his life (and not in a public library) so I would hope he would give a little more consideration to different ideas being attempted in public libraries for attracting patrons. It is this process of change that leads to a better overall service and product, but there are going to be many missteps along the way. It may be a game room, it could be video games, but it’s going to take many ideas to figure out which ones are good or bad. Hopefully, in the end, this will bring the results that these libraries are looking for: people walking through the door, ready to see what the library has to offer them today.
(h/t: Resource Shelf)