What is a Library?

The father of library science, Dr. S. R. Ranganathan, defines the term ‘library’:

“A library is a public institution or establishment charged with the care of a collection of books and the duty of making them accessible to those who require to use them and the task of converting every person in its neighbourhood into a habitual library goer and a regular reader.”

Oxford defines a ‘library’:

“A building or room containing collections of books, periodicals, and sometimes films and recorded music for the use or borrowing by the public or the members of an institution.”

Cambridge definition:

“A building, room, or organization that has a collection, especially of books for people to read or borrow, usually without payment.”

Wikipedia definition:

“A library is a curated collection of sources of information and similar resources, selected by experts and made accessible to a defined community for reference or borrowing. It provides physical or digital access to material and may be a physical location or a virtual space, or both.”

Nowhere are the words ‘programs’, ‘events’, ‘performance’, ‘show’, or ‘hub’ mentioned.

It is a sad day when a library collection is being arbitrarily shoved aside to make room for random artists to show-off. And these significant decisions are being made not by ‘experts’. Not by Library Professionals. Not by the people who are educated and qualified and comprehensively appreciate the importance of a properly functioning library with an appropriately curated collection.

A Library is not a hall, or a meeting place, or an auditorium. It is not a place where individuals ‘perform’. That is a different place: maybe an Arts Centre, or a public hall.

In trying to reinvent themselves to assure a slice of public funding, public libraries have done a disservice in trying to be all things to all people. Basic storytime has morphed into miked-up performance to a large crowd expecting a ‘show’. While you can’t deny the popularity of storytime sessions in every public library across the nation, it has raised the expectation to put on a show for every single event, week, cause, and celebration.

Science Week becomes an opportunity for a Science Show complete with explosions. Children’s Book Week invites character dress-ups, but also another “show” based on the theme.

These examples are relevant in the library space, but now “they” expect this every week for every random idea or theme. Libraries exist on the premise of inclusivity. But where are the ‘collections’ in all of this? Where are the books? Where are the spaces for investigation, learning, study, and contemplation? Where is the avenue for the Self-Initiated Lifelong Learning Experiences?

I don’t believe all people are lazy and mindless and willing to sit back and be delivered an idea through a performance. All people are creative and wish to activate their own thing.

I believe libraries need to focus on the very core definition of a ‘library’ in order to reinvent themselves, and not accept the current coercion that reduces the library to a day centre, performance space, community hub, and marketing opportunity.

I am a book lover and perpetually curious about this life. I love to read and investigate. I can do some of that online, but I also like to delve into a physical book, being unplugged, sitting under a tree, holding the book in my hand, turning the pages, absorbed in the unfolding story. This story inevitably leads to further investigation and more reading resources as I delve and learn further.

Public libraries need help from everyone as public funds are being redirected and usurped into other areas by people not qualified, or educated to understand the elemental and crucial function of a ‘Library’. If there are no books, regardless of the format, it is NOT a library!

Me and many other Library Professionals like me have worked hard and conscientiously for libraries for many years, but I fear that public libraries won’t be there when I am retired and looking for a good book to borrow.

Public Libraries RIP.

 

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The Treasure Box

The pink and silver striped tin held lollies: chocolate cubed violet crumbles, or perhaps colourfully striped liquorice all-sorts. But that was not the reason I was drawn to my grandmother’s cabinet. There were interesting treasures behind the locked glass doors; bright objects that caught the eye of a small girl.

I remember the Toby mugs of varying sizes, stern faces, coloured coats, white stockings, buckled black shoes, and handles on their backs. Also elegant porcelain ladies with full skirts feathered with lace folds. A Japanese fan that revealed a pretty painted scene when unlatched. The family of small black elephants with white tusks always proved to be safe play things for children. Tea sets; elegant glasses; crystal bowls; decorated plates; and small decorated boxes that could hold hidden treasure, but when opened revealed – nothing.

cabinet_1

The thing that always attracted me the most was a beautiful silver coloured tea set. It was modern in design in comparison to the other objects held in the cabinet. But I didn’t know anything about that then. My grandmother told me that I could have it when I grew up. This embarrassed me, as my appreciation of her things was just that, and so while I continued to admire her treasures, I stopped declaring this.

My mother inherited this cabinet minus many of the treasures within. My grandmother did indeed give me the silver tea set for a significant birthday. And over the years I have collected my own treasures. These things have been in boxes for the last 2 ½ years and it is only now that I am able to unpack them and put them into my grandmother’s cabinet that I inherited from my mother.

cabinet_3

My mother collected small elephant figurines. I don’t know why. Perhaps this love grew after the time she spent in Thailand. She had many of different styles, colours, materials, and sizes. At her wake my father said to offer them around to the people there. So I placed them all onto a tray and went around offering them like a plate of sandwiches. And almost everyone would say, “No I can’t take that one. That is the nicest one and everyone will want it.” People were drawn to the different elephants and almost all of them found new homes and a memento of my mother.

It is interesting to me the value that we place on objects. Why do we do that? Sentimental reasons and nostalgia count for a lot. What might have value in the market place might not be valued by me at all. I became an Industrial Designer because I appreciate well-designed good quality objects. Once I saw the ugly cheap plastic reality of mass production I bailed from this career path, not wanting to add to the already drowning plastic fantastic universe. “Form follows function” is the dictum of Industrial Design. And yet how many ways can we construct a chair? Or a tea pot? What do we actually need in our lives?

I cherish the memory of admiring the objects in my grandmother’s cabinet. It was a pure delight not yet tarnished with notions of monetary value, possession, greed, or competition. It was a small girl’s wonder that is precious in itself.

Book Club Lists

One of the joys of my job is being able to choose books for the book clubs to read. The existing Book Club Collection I work with has currently almost 150 titles. And there are about twelve book clubs using this service.

My job in recent months has been to trim the existing list by analyzing whether titles were unpopular and not likely to be read, as well as what titles were already read by our clubs. I decided on ten titles that I offered to other library services and these were all gratefully accepted and moved on.

At the same time I began a new list of possible contenders for the 2015 list. This list grew to about 25 titles that we read and debated about, although we didn’t get time to read them all. One is not yet published. So there is an element of educated guesswork and relying on published reviews.

My colleagues and I agreed on ten titles and these we have ordered to add to our collection for 2015. We also add ten titles from the SLV Summer Read from last season. Add two titles that we picked up through the library swaps, and we have 22 new titles to add to our Book Club Collection. You can see the list here.

Now all I have to do is find time to continue to read the ones I haven’t yet read.

How does your library grow?

In keeping with the National Year of Reading, I continue to write about the monthly themes, and for September it is “grow”. My focus is on public libraries.

Many people assume that public libraries keep all of their books, and when not being borrowed, they sit on the shelf or are kept in storage somewhere. However this is a myth. In reality public libraries have very limited space and books don’t often remain in any one spot for very long at all. It is a dynamic process of purchasing, processing, sorting, shifting, distributing, displaying, shelving, re-shelving, retrieving, loaning, issuing, returning, re-shelving, repairing, evaluating, sorting, boxing, and at the end of its use – selling in a book sale or sent on to some other need. There is often not a mysterious “stack” of old books preserved for prosperity, unless the library is the National or State Library.

Public libraries attempt to manage this dynamic process with a Collection Management Plan that addresses the demographic of their users to try to predict demand. This plan offers guidelines to manage donations, weeding, purchasing, and when used in conjunction with a clever Marketing Plan, should maximise the collections full extent.

Often people generously offer their pre-loved books thinking the public library will cherish them as much as they have, whilst in reality they are often boxes of dog-eared, smoke-saturated, food-stained paperbacks that only add workload and obstacles to an already jam-packed library work space and work load. The local public library does not have the capacity to “grow” to this extent. There are exceptions of course, and sometimes the books donated are real treasures.

Direct request from customers for popular books and other resources proves to be a useful way to grow the collection while responding to local demand. But it can’t be the only driver because often there are fantastic things that exist that people aren’t aware of, or know that they want – yet. This is where the librarians craft comes into play and they can shape the collection with their expertise, worldly knowledge and creativity.

The Long Tail is a concept coined by Chris Anderson in 2005 and when applied to the library collection is easy to understand. If a library were to buy copies of the latest popular release in quantities to supply the demand and responded each time to every best seller, the shelves would soon be lined with multiple copies of last year’s bestsellers and little else, and look like a short stumpy tail. It would be like a drinks refrigerator filled with one brand of beer, or just beer. Which might be fine for beer drinkers, but not so for those who prefer champagne or tea or green smoothies. The Long Tail theory shows that by offering an array of many different titles on a diversity of subjects that often the quirky niche subjects get a space on the shelf that will be justified when it is inevitably matched with the diverse and quirky interest of a customer. And to paraphrase Tim Flannery, “The continued existence of the species depends on diversity.” When you apply this to humans then our existence depends on a diversity of attitudes, interests and knowledge that can only be gained by offering a wide range of topics for investigation. A browse along the shelves of the non-fiction section  will show books about beekeeping, how to work a room, bushcraft, Hagar, heavy metal music, the cats pyjamas, work abroad, survival, ideas, Shakespeare (of course), Henry Lawson, travel, art, architecture, computer help, languages, pregnancy, health issues, etc, etc.

The serendipity of browsing library shelves is a well-known and enjoyable pastime and many have commented on this human behaviour. Bryan Loar of Brave New World says that by using the online catalogue and reserving items ahead of time then “self-directed discovery has been lost”. Professor Todd P. Olson of Berkeley in California values the experience of browsing the library’s shelves so much that he has launched a fundraising campaign towards the “continuation of library collections to ensure that the joy of discovery will continue for generations into the future”. Steve Penn talks about how “you walk around the shelves and suddenly find something that you weren’t looking for but seems just right for you.”  Maria Popova of Brain Pickings worries “that we are leaving little room for abstract knowledge and for the kind of curiosity that invites just enough serendipity to allow for the discovery of ideas we didn’t know we were interested in until we are, ideas that we may later transform into new combinations with applications both practical and metaphysical.” And I could go on…

So eBooks and other electronic resources seem to offer a solution to the problem of relieving limited physical spaces in libraries, but restrict the valuable and enjoyable experience of browsing for the serendipitous find. Again I try to imagine the library space where much is only available as an electronic file or online. An electronic collection can grow beyond imagination, storing and preserving every book forever! Of course the preservation of electronic files is another complex issue altogether. But as Seth Godin tells us “Librarians who are arguing and lobbying for clever ebook lending solutions are completely missing the point. They are defending library as warehouse as opposed to fighting for the future, which is librarian as producer, concierge, connector, teacher and impresario.”

Well Seth Godin doesn’t have to convince me that libraries are not just warehouses for books, but if our buildings are not growing with new physical materials, and our collections are “hidden” in the “connected” cyber-world, then who and what is in the building? And how can the average Joe Blow discover, develop and grow with that serendipitous ah-ha moment of stumbling across that book that will change his life? I think it was Og Mandino who told the story about how he was destitute, homeless and was on his way to buy a gun to kill himself when he stumbled into a public library and this “saved” him and turned his life around. That weird unkempt, smelly, apparently homeless person who visits your public library every day might just stumble across his/her saving grace.

In the past I have thought that perhaps the library could display images or video on large screens of these hidden resources. Libraries do this now and have been for some time. And although it might create visual interest, it is just another screen in a world where screens proliferate. And the images would be limited and could not portray the full extent of the collection. And these have tended to be rather static displays even with the inclusion of video segments. Library catalogues could be (and perhaps are being) developed whereby the screen is used to display current catalogue items in a way that is more dynamic and interactive, uses multi-media, and has the ability to display at random or by selection, when not in use by a customer.  Perhaps the items displayed could be recommendations that respond to the person who passes by based on their past loans. I am sure the current technologies in Library Management Systems and RFID could already do this, however then we get into the murky waters of intrusion and privacy.