The End of the Public Library (No, really, I mean it!)

Tuesday will be my birthday. Saturday will be Judgment Day.

Since The Rapture will take place on a Saturday, I’m a bit concerned for staffing on Sunday (although from my own experiences at conferences I believe it is safe to say that the reference desk will still be fully manned). And, unless I’m picked up in that Rapture as well, it looks like I’ll still be presenting at the Northeastern Pennsylvania Library Association Spring Workshop on May 27th since the world won’t actually end till later that year. This wouldn’t be the first time around for such absolute certainty about the end of the word. October 22, 1844 is called The Great Disappointment since it did not actually mark the Second Coming of Jesus. Heck, you can’t swing a Google cat without hitting results about other end-of-the-world predictions that date back hundreds of years. And let’s not forget what awaits us in 2012 (note: the website features a countdown clock!)

I would guess that the majority of my readership would think that these kinds of events are completely unfounded and/or silly speculation, but I’m wondering why some of those same people get all riled up by people who write the same sort of dire pieces about the demise of the public library. I have yet to read a strong argument for closing public libraries; most revolve around “everyone” having Kindles, Google, and the internet. That sort of reasoning doesn’t even make me get up from my seat anymore. It’s usually a cover for the real argument of “I don’t want my tax money being spent on things that I don’t personally benefit from” which is a whole different ballgame.

So, why do librarians give such credence to any person who writes about the end of the public library? Is the profession really that insecure? Or do librarians have our own irrational fear of an impending public library apocalypse?

10 thoughts on “The End of the Public Library (No, really, I mean it!)

  1. The current combination of conditions makes libraries more vulnerable than usual:

    1) The economy (and/or things along the lines of property tax / tax reform) is putting pressure (a lot of pressure in some cases) on revenue sources

    2) The perception, whether accurate or not, that you can find anything on the internet — thus, libraries are a luxury not a necessity

    3) Most public library budgets are not under the direct control of the library. That is, the library is part of a larger fiscal agency — city, county, etc., or that the library budget is subject to approval by another entity or perhaps even directly by the public via a millage vote, etc.

    Although we have faced tough budgetary times before, this downturn has been particularly severe. Mix this with a more potent “library as luxury” sentiment, and you have a more challenging scenario. We have all seen directly or indirectly cuts (or freezes) in staffing, hours, services, branches, and even libraries.

    Individually, we typically have very little control over any one of the three items mentioned above. And, even if it is an illusion, we like to feel we have some control. When that is not the case, and we can see evidence of negative things happening, I think that raises the level of concern.

    So, while there may not be an impending public library apocalypse overall, I don’t think that is of much comfort to those who may very realistically suffer the local negative consequences of the current climate.

  2. Because a lot of librarians feel like they’ve been getting away with something for a very long time. They feel like the other shoe is bound to drop. I mean, how much should they get paid for showing someone where to type in the address bar? Or for writing a schedule for their clerks?

    No, the believe because they know they have been getting paid for not doing a whole lot of work. They feel guilty for this and realize that someone else must figure this out one day- and that will be the end of the public library.

    • Interesting comment. So, what do you do at your library, if I might ask?

      Based on the feedback from my basic computer classes, that kind of information (showing them where to type in the address bar) is rather valuable. While it may be easy to me, it’s not to other people; they talk about it as it will give them confidence to go online, email, and be more active online with their kids and grandkids. But I guess that’s basically stealing from taxpayers, right?

      • I am a public service and reference librarian. I was a corporate librarian before. I understand the benefits of adult technology education, but I also see- every single day, all day long- the same people with the same problems that don’t learn- because they don’t want to. I see people demanding that I dial the phone number for them. I see a babysitting service provided by employees with Master’s Degrees. I see employees steadfastly holding on to the past instead of realizing that THEY must change for the institution to still have meaning.

        I’m on the front lines of the digital divide. It’s not ebooks here, it’s DVDs, Plenty of Fish and free online MMORPGs. We are not providing education, but entertainment. We are already a community center/homeless shelter/daycare.

        NONE of these things require a librarian- or at least a librarian’s education and training. So, old guard wait to retire while bitching and putting their heads in the sand. The young turks are worn down under the weight of the institution. We are left with the ones who are happy with things the way they are- and what does that say about any profession when you’re left with the ones who are happy with things the way they are?

        The old guard KNOWS what they used to do and how much work it was. The young turks LONG for more work. The rest treat the patrons like they’ve interrupted an important task. The rest have convinced themselves (and maybe they really believe) that what they do is important. They are sure that they are the torchbearers- but the flame has been dying for a long time now. Most of their job duties are JUSTIFYING their job’s existence- and they’re ok with that because they are IMPORTANT.

        That is what I meant.

  3. Technology really has changed the playing field and in a hurry. Imagine the arguments that one would make to support public libraries in a world without Wikipedia and/or Google. Now, consider how many of these arguments are challenged by the existence of Wikipedia and Google.

    Suddenly, libraries seem to be a solution to the problem of the digital divide. This is a very different thing than what we used to be, a solution to the problem of information scarcity.

    Given the pace of change and given the current crisis in U.S. public budgets, something has got to give, thus we have professional anxiety.

  4. Can you imagine how the librarians around at the time of the invention of the printing press felt? Or how about the librarians around when the codex came into fashion? Technological advancements and changes in format always freak people out and have them crying out that the end is nigh. I think public libraries still have lots of roles to play in communities and aren’t going anywhere. That’s not to say they won’t change greatly in the coming century.

    On a fun note, I’m celebrating the end of the world on Saturday. Well, not the end of the world. I’m going to celebrate the laughs crazy fanatics give me and the fact that the world won’t be ending for a long time (when does the sun go flooy?) I’m going to drink lots. Happy end of the world.

    • Thanks for your comment, Melissa. There certainly is room for people to take a deep breath and then work towards the new set of goals. It’s not the end of the world, but it is if you’re lazy and/or set in your ways.

  5. It’s not fair that down here in New Zealand – where our calendar puts us a day ahead of you – the news of this Saturday’s End of the World was only announced yesterday. I thought we had until sometime in 2012!

    Seriously, StuartSpencerSmith has a point, though I disagree about address bars and clerks. What we (the community – I’m not a library worker) have in public libraries is SO GOOD, the thought of someone taking it away is terrifying. The threatened cuts in libraries around the world these days look a lot worse than paper cuts.

    My city’s libraries introduced free book reserves last year when the public libraries amalgamated to form a single 55-library system. It resulted in a huge increase in book issues. Can they sustain it? I really hope so.

  6. It’s not that people don’t use libraries any more– they always seem pretty busy when I’m there. But libraries disproportionately serve the poor and students (formal and otherwise), while fiscal policy is disproportionately created by the monied with established careers, and it just seems to be true that people take themselves to be normal. Policy makers are liable to say “I don’t use the library, therefore they serve no purpose.” It’s probably useful to remind them that different people have different needs.

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