Monday, November 2, 2009

The Future of the Library Café.

Is your library a Library? Or is your library a Community Center? Or is it a Café?

I'm not asking what your library is, based on its appearance or the hygiene of your "guests," but what is your Mission? Is your library here to educate or to entertain?

I'm asking because I think there is an important difference.

First, I am not a lawyer. I don't want to be a lawyer. If a lawyer bit me and infected me and I transformed into a lawyer, I would hope I still had enough of my wits to throw myself into a wood chipper. But first, I would file some lawsuits because that sounds like fun. So I haven't studied law. But I think I know a little about behavior and motive, having watched so much Law & Order.

Before automated materials acquisition, it probably took a month to get a new book processed and entered into the library catalog. Now we get bestsellers the same day (or in the case of the last Dan Brown novel, a few days before) they are available in stores. We can get most library materials processed and ready for the public to enjoy pretty near the same time the local stores have them for sale.

So libraries didn't used to be in direct competition with local merchants. Sure, libraries purchased the works of bestselling authors, but if someone was impatient, then the local bookstore made a sale. Otherwise, library patrons waited.

Also, we used to purchase educational materials. We bought videotapes for the stuff Blockbuster wouldn't carry because their customers didn't want it. We had tapes on 'how to learn Esperanto' or on 'a virtual visit to the Chicago stockyards' or 'how to display your shrubbery.'

We didn't pre-order the latest Pixar movies and have them the same week Target got them for sale. Libraries bought classics and art films and opera. Now we carry the unrated version of Turistas when we used to only have Tony Bennett and Woodie Guthrie with the London Philharmonic.

And the reason why I think this is important is that Libraries are given many protections because they are seen to support the educational needs of society. Not the need for fun. We are allowed to copy things and to loan things because our motive is to support an educated public.

The industries can complain about how we loan out books, music CDs, and DVDs for free, but since our primary mission is to instruct, inform and educate, we are protected from attack.

So what happens when the mission changes? What happens when your library transforms into an amusement center?

The Annoyed Librarian says (that boozy broad says lots of things - did I ever tell you how much she talks in her sleep? but it's not like we get much sleep. wokka! wokka!), "'The Library' doesn't have to be about books, but it has to be about reading, literacy, and education."
[fyi: I started writing this before I saw her column on that.]

She, AL, argues from the perspective of the taxpayer. But what about the library's competitors? We've crossed into their marketplace.

And this is my point. Libraries CANNOT become Unlibraries. We have way more to lose than we imagine. If your library mission is not to educate, then your library is not keeping its bargain with society. Movie theaters entertain, and shopping mall food courts are meeting places.

Target, WalMart, Amazon, Barnes & Noble: these are the places to get all the newest stuff, not the library. Should we compete directly with retailers and take sales from them?

Yes, we buy the books and DVDs we loan out. Sure we might buy 500 copies of The Lost Symbol, but those copies circulate 4,000 times. And we bought our copies for 40% off. So to a publisher or retailer, that's forty-thousand dollars in lost sales for all the copies they might have sold if the library had only slowed its acquisition process down.

Do a search and you'll find libraries boasting how their DVD collections are more popular than Netflix. Or that they dare to use Netflix to fill in gaps in their collections. Sure, the library has a legitimate Netflix account, but does Netflix want me to borrow something that I then loan out to someone else? Of course not. They want each user to have his own account and pay the monthly fee.

In these real examples, libraries cost businesses money.

I know libraries were less popular when we just loaned out 16mm films on Canada, Our Friendly Neighbor to the North, Bob Newhart comedy albums and copies of Little Women, but maybe that's all we're supposed to do.

Well, maybe not that. But I wonder how the business world is starting to view us. As a threat? Now that people spend their days here on the Internet instead of wandering the shopping malls and making impulse purchases. And downloading books and audiobooks. And borrowing current movies that the stores are trying to sell for $22.99. Especially in this economic slow-down? If so, what will they do?

I think AL's argument is more realistic, that taxpayers might see us as chair-fillers and time-wasters, twittering nonsense into the void. I don't even know if the business world even knows that libraries exist.

But since my fears are more insane, mine are the ones that will probably come true.