Thursday, June 16, 2005

The changing role of libraries

The Cincinnati Enquirer (online) for Friday 5/27/05 reported on its online edition about the changing role of libraries as they begin to cater more to patrons who want more DVD films and audiovisual materials. In "Libraries Turn the Page," readers will find a summary of the ongoing issue for libraries: as they face budget cuts and hostile governments, they have to find ways to become relevant. The article also discusses how many patrons view the library as a convenient place to get a good current DVD for the kids or themselves. While one of the library trustees as the Public Library of Cincinnati is quoted as saying that the solution could be "don't carry movies less than a decade old," the reality is that this is not going away. The trustee argues, as many administrators do, that the public library should not be competing with the video stores. However, librarians can argue that providing the DVDs is another way of providing access to information as well as entertainment. The article also discusses how some places are considering charging for videos as a result. In a rare moment of agreement, I have to agree with President-elect of the ALA, Michael Gorman, who is quoted in the article. He makes the comment on the context that some suggest videos like Spider-Man 2 have no educational value and therefore there should be charges for such. "Gorman asked what makes a Danielle Steele romance novel more educational than "Spider-Man 2." 'Once you start making that kind of judgment, what you're really doing is imposing your taste on a community,' he said." I have to admit, it is a good question. And while I am not one of those librarians who believe blindly in "give them what they want," I can certainly see two things. First, the value of collecting items from popular culture for entertainment as well as for access and preservation of a cultural record (I believe we can learn a lot from popular culture, not to mention it is fascinating to study it). Second, libraries are about service, and providing these materials not only provides recreation, but it is a service as well. I think the parents that can find something good for their children with some convenience provide more than enough reason to continue such efforts. Havind said, I don't think libraries should be buying the 68 copies of Spider-Man 2, then again, I don't think they should be buying dozens of Harry Potter either. You have to draw the line of fiscal responsibility somewhere. As for charging for internet access, that should not be even considered. This is one of the true examples of public libraries providing a service to everyone in the community. The public library should be the one place where anyone, regardless of income, should be able to have free access to information. To begin charging for services does amount to segregation: those in the upper social classes will pay for it, and those who can't will be deprived. A public library is exactly that: a public library. It should be for the benefit of all in the community, not only those with a good pocketbook.

At the end of the day, issues like this come down to a balance. Libraries should not be competing with video stores; that is not their mission. Yes, they should however provide some access to items that serve the recreational needs of their community, be they in print, online, or on DVD. That does fall within the mission of a public library. I don't use my public library as much as I could. In part because I work at an academic library, so I end up getting a lot of my reading material there. But we often take our daughter to the public library to find her books to read and the occasional video. It is a great comfort to us as well as a pleasure to know that there is a place where the family can go, find things to watch, a book to read, maybe a CD to listen to as well, check the e-mail. There are not that many places left that are as family friendly as a public library, and where a small family, who is by no means wealthy but making ends meet, can find some entertainment as well as information. Do we forgo renting movies at the video store? Not really. We understand a public library will not have everything; we don't expect it to. But we understand there is a place, a good place to find many things. And I like the idea that at the end of the day, a public library is the great equalizer; it is the one place where anyone with a library card, regardless of wealth, class or any other traits, can find something to be educated as well as entertained.

Note: Reminder as always, that newspaper article links usually expire after a while. However, you can often get an older article from a library. Another thing libraries provide is access to many databases. Let us hope they keep that access free as well.

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