Thursday, April 03, 2008

Article Note: On use of public libraries and large bookstores

Citation for the article:

Hemmeter, Jeffrey A. "Household use of public libraries and large bookstores." Library and Information Science Research 28 (2006): 595-616.

Read via ScienceDirect.

To some extent, this article restated a few things that now seem obvious to most of us in the library world. From the abstract, "the study finds that large bookstores reduce the probability of household library use for some, but not all, uses of the library." I think that is pretty evident without the study. A caveat is that this study is based on 1996 data; yes, the data set is ten years old as the author is drawing on the 1996 National Household Education Survey (NHES) and some other items. I say it's time someone took a new look because a lot of the speculations or observations the author makes as being possibilities have already happened. If nothing else, this is an example of an LIS article where the content is already pretty much well known to librarians. In other words, it's a bit of a day late and a dollar short. Usually, I would not have blogged an article I do not find too useful or practical, but I did get through the whole thing.

Some highlights:
  • The author opens by recalling the economic theory where public services are often provided where the private sector fails to provide for a need (595). To which I say, in theory maybe, but the problem more often is that the market does not provide for X need, and it sure as heck does not do it out of any sense of common good. In other words, there are some things that if the public trust does not provide them for the community, they would never be provided. I am betting public libraries are one example. When it comes to the speculative question of having to start public libraries today, I tend to think the answer is probably no, mostly because I just don't see a sense of public good anymore, but I won't digress further.
  • An observation: "Modern super-bookstores offer books at low prices in a library-like atmosphere" (596). To which I ask the author, "have you been shopping at a super-bookstore recently?" Thirty dollars minimum for a hardback is not exactly cheap.
  • "Super bookstores, in particular, have begun to provide services that libraries traditionally offered" (598). Really? Such as? I don't see that lowly paid clerk moving to do any substantial amount of research assistance. I don't see bookstores either providing computers for internet access (sure, they may or not have wifi, but you do have to provide the laptop, which does indicate a certain level of income), or providing access points to various forms of government information. Story hour? A public librarian can probably do a better performance than the average bookstore clerk. I am sure one of my brethren in a public library could keep this little string going.
  • "Another potential problem is that bookstores and super bookstores might locate in areas with high reading activity, which counties with high library use are likely to have" (605). Well, I wonder a bit if there might not be an income motivation as well. Let's be honest. How many bookstores and super bookstores would locate in a rural area or an inner city where there may be a very well used public library? Just because an area has a public library that has a lot of users, it does not follow as easily that the bookstores would go there as well. The cynic in me is thinking more in terms of suburbs.
  • "The spread of the Internet increases the probability of library use for job search, work, and consumer information purpose, although the effect is quite small" (611). As any public librarian will tell you, the Internet also increases the probability of library use for MySpace, YouTube, Runescape, and the perennial favorite: porn. And before any L2 evangelist gripes at me for appearing elitist or other nonsense, let us keep in mind that public libraries ought to be about more than getting your social networking fix or your next hook-up. Balance, you know?
  • "Household in wealthier ZIP codes use the library somewhat more often than those in poorer ZIP codes" (611). Could it be because those wealthier areas can afford to actually subsidize a decent library with a good and diverse collection? Could it be than in the lower income ZIP codes that is not the case, thus the library may be some dilapidated place no one would want to use? I think this is not too different from the eternal debate about public schools, their locations, and their tax bases.
  • Something that already has happened: "The importance of A/V material relative to books suggests that use of the library as a popular materials center may prove to be a large source of future activity and expansion. The small, negative impact of library book collections is indicative of the public view of libraries as being warehouse for out-of-date books. This supports the general perception that households are changing their sources of entertainment and information from print media to more electronic-based media" (613). Well, maybe, maybe not. If you look at circulation stats for recreational reading, the view of being out-of-date may not be as bad, but overall, things have changed. See my remark above about the Internet.
  • This made me take a second look. It is talking about how bookstores, to stay in business, have to carry the latest manuals for job searching, computers, so on. "Additionally, most large bookstores have extensive periodical and job search sections with which a person can search for a job" (614). Really? Bookstores now offer job ads and extensive listings? Is that another of those services bookstores now offer that libraries used to offer? Seriously, do people really think bookstore when they think they need to look for a job? Sure, they may go there to find a good book on how to write a resume or career advice, but actual job searching? I have not seen the bookstore that does that yet, nor the library. And no, I don't think a little community bulletin board with a few local ads counts. I think the author may be stretching here a bit. Of course, for libraries, the catch is they have to have those up-to-date career advice books or else.
So, there you have it folks.

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