Friday, August 31, 2007

What the hell is wrong with libraries? (Nothing.)

I think I'm going way back to the original mission statement with this post.

Here's a quote from an article I just found that you might agree with:

From "Our Public Libraries,"

Our most valuable libraries are not popular, and our most popular ones are not extensive enough to be strictly called valuable.

It's a comparison of different libraries in the area. And if you're trying to guess when that was written, here is a clue via style:
(Referring to a specific public library)

It, moreover, keeps pace with current literature in a very halting fashion, and holds the more recent reviews beyond the reach of ordinary readers for an unreasonable length of time.

Any guesses? (click and drag below for answer)
Our Public Libraries (letter).
New York Times; Feb 4, 1870; ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851 - 2004)
It seems that libraries have always been struggling between being seen as useful and being popular. So, of course I get pissed when I hear the criticism that "Libraries are not intuitive." And thus, not popular.

I'm tired of hearing this. Grocery stores are not intuitive. Department stores aren't. But people ain't starving and people ain't naked.

They have signage. And the people figure it out. People are not completely stupid. To say that libraries need to change to become more like bookstores or Amazon just says to me that you think people are too stupid to figure out libraries.
A library is a place that serves the function of librarianship. And the role of the librarian is to catalog and organize information in a meaningful way, that hopefully, can be accessible to others. The form of the physical library serves the function. Just like the grocery store serves the function of getting food into your cart.
To say that libraries need to move away from this form is to say that there's something wrong with librarianship. That the model is outdated. But there is nothing wrong with the effing model.
If you have problems with people finding stuff in your library, put up some signs:

(the Spanish is just a guess)

You might say that signs don't address all the subjects that might be in the area, but when you go shopping, all the store directory says is "Shoes." It doesn't say they have sandals or boots or slippers, but they do. People are able to learn this. All you need to do is get them close to what they want.
Some people make this seem like it's an impossible step. I think it's because every librarian wants guidelines. We want to see something work well before we accept it.

I understand that customers/patrons don't have any reason to learn Dewey. Fine. But some librarians want to group all their related library materials together into little domains. (I sometimes want to put all the computer repair and software and desktop publishing books together, but I wouldn't think of doing it without the appropriate links in the catalog and maybe some theme park type map:
"Technopod," "Travelpod," "Investpod," "Craftpod," ...yeah, right.)

But guess what, the grocery store doesn't put fresh fish near the canned fish or near the frozen fish just because it's all fish. Customers learn where to look and they remember. We just need to do a better job of teaching them where and how to look.

Libraries are always trying to chase after their customers by mimicking other businesses, but they should be working on what customers want from libraries: ample parking, no pedophiles, no videos playing on the PCs of people fornicating, books on clean shelves, short checkout lines, new books and CDs and videos that aren't covered with stains and don't look like crap, available staff to help them when they need it, and clean restrooms (again, without anyone fornicating or doing their laundry in the sink).
This is what people want from libraries. Only a-holes want to walk around the library with a hot cup of coffee and a chocolate croissant.

Book stores credit some of their success on not being like libraries; they're bright, modern, convenient places to shop. That's a great image to copy. But we don't charge fees for what we do, so the comparison should stop there.
So what about People say they like Amazon because they find what they want. That's a freaking lie. You don't find what you want, but you find something that's close enough. It's just that most people don't know what they want, so they're satisfied with the results from an Amazon search. Unless I have an ISBN or other identifying number, I'm rarely able to find what I want on the first try.
Amazon prefers the shotgun approach in that a display of "wrong" results with colorful pictures is better than no results for a bad search. That's because they sell shit. For example, Amazon now sells Rosetta Stone language software; it's what they are promoting right now, but if I do a basic search for rosetta stone now, look at all the stuff I get:

Books (5,403) Software (212) Music (22) Office Products (14) Home & Garden (11) Health & Personal Care (4) Video Games (3) Apparel (3) VHS (2) DVD (2) Beauty (2) Jewelry & Watches (1) Everything Else (1) Electronics (1)

Jewelry & Watches??? But if I wanted a book, I still have 5000 to sort through, and Amazon uses a Relevance ranking that I don't understand, maybe it's a keyword count, dunno, but without accurate subject headings, I have no idea how long it might take to find my book.
If Amazon does its job correctly, you get more hits because for a retailer, "more is more." But for a librarian to do her job correctly, "less is more" because fewer accurate hits means you've cataloged your items properly.

A bookstore's marketing strategy is totally different from a library's. When libraries adopt online catalogs that mimic online retailers, which are keyword and recommendation based and less accurate, then they risk losing one of those cornerstone characteristics of the profession: authority. And then the point of cataloging things accurately no longer means shit.

Have you been to LibraryThing? Have you seen some of the tags people are using to "catalog" their books? Look at Gone With the Wind:
Tags used to describe the book
20th century(16) america(25) american(41) american civil war(30) american literature(41) american south(22) antebellum(8) atlanta(23) Civil War(250) Classic(178) classic fiction(11) classic literature(11) classics(100) epic(17) favorite(17) favorites(16) fiction(562) film(16) georgia(40) gwtw(19) hardcover(18) historical(50) Historical Fiction(191) historical romance(20) history(18) Literature(49) love(15) margaret mitchell(8) Mitchell(10) movies(9) novel(61) old south(8) own(38) pulitzer prize(42) read(64) Rhett Butler(13) romance(156) scarlett o'hara(15) slavery(23) southern(85) southern fiction(17) southern literature(11) tbr(10) the south(22) unread(26) war(34) women

I've actually seen posts where people claim that library catalogs will follow this model in the future. If this is the future of libraries, is anyone ever going to find anything ever again?

You know, you people f**king need me. I am rethinking this whole, ending-my-site business because I don't know what the f**k you'll do without me. Your libraries will just be full of porn and dog fights and the librarians will be behind razor-wire fences and bullet-proof glass.
And that's the good news.

So what the hell is wrong with libraries? For now, nothing. Let's keep it that way.