Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Learning to love my library...when it doesn't love me back

How do you love a library that doesn't try very hard to love you back? It's a question that's weighed on me ever since I started using my local library again after a rather long hiatus. It's housed in a pretty building. It has lots of audio/visual materials and lots of meeting space and computer terminals. There's one kind of important thing it's lacking in though. They're called books.

Relagated to the perimeter of the main library walls, the hundreds of books on display seem like the worst kind of wallflowers, watching the Internet connections and resume building workshops happen just out of their reach. And the books that are there are older and out of date. And call me paranoid, but I think they're organization might be rather skewed as well. When I went there last week, for example, to pick up a book on HTML, I discovered that the computer books were in the same section as Magic and the Occult. Which leads me to believe either the librarian doesn't think books on HTML programming are very popular and therefore should be tucked away in the weirdo nook OR she thinks the web is run by Gandalf. As I stood there, slack-jawed in the stacks, I very nearly gave up on my library at that moment and dreamed instead of being swept off my feet by another bigger, more book-filled fella who could fulfill the deepest of my bibliophilial desires. Was I really that kind of girl?

And then I stumbled upon a very funny blog called Awful Library Books in which two Michigan librarians chronicle (in truly exasperated tone) some of the really bad books found in local libraries. In a TIME magazine article, the two women talked about how one of their aims was more serious: to highlight how underfunded libraries are and how they're forced to hang on to outdated books when they don't want to. And I began to feel some sympathy for my sad little bibliotheque.

I've been fortunate to have had some good libraries in my day. I grew up in a town that had a superb library, filled to the rafters with every fiction book you could want. There were seemingly miles of poetry and essays, biographies and histories, reference materials and magazines. My eyes dialated with joy just pulling into the parking lot. And then in college, our grad library had more than four million volumes, enough so you could just randomly pick a floor, walk in the door and spend a day browsing. They even had an off-site storage building for extra books, where I worked for four days until I got scared in the stacks and literally ran away without looking back -- damn "Ghostbusters" movie totally cost me that job!

So I always believed in my local libraries, and straying never once occurred to me. Sure, there were reciprocal benefits attached to my library card -- I could go have dalliances with the book lenders down the street, but I was always a one-library kind of gal. Sadly, I have explored reciprocity with my current library, only to find, like some 1970s housewife at a swingers party, that all of my other options smell like Schlitz and resemble a poor man's Mike Ditka. Which is to say, they have even fewer books than the library on which I'm trying to so hard to cheat.

But the ladies at Awful Library Books have helped me understand that the paucity of books is not necessarily my library's fault. I should look at the positives -- they have a section devoted to graphic novels and five different volumes of Evelyn Waugh. That's a good start, right? I'm sure it has to be frustrating to be a librarian these days, looking into your empty coffers and hoping to find enough for that latest Stephen King with maybe enough left over for a Complete Works of Moliere. It's like Sophie's Choice...you know, if they had that book on their shelves.

So I've pledged to show more love for my library and embrace its foibles. Who knows? I could learn a lot from a 1978 history of space travel, right? It'll certainly leave me wanting more...and that's really what the best books do: they make you want to turn that next page.

I still don't get that computers and the occult nonsense, though. What the hell's up with that?


Kerri said...

You aren't kidding that it's frustrating to be a librarian these days! (And blame Dewey for where HTML wound up in the 000s.) :)

susan said...

I'm sure you already know this, but since it took me a little while to get the hang of making my library work for me, most libraries let you interlibrary loan and even place loans and holds on line.
Sure, it kills the joy of just browsing the library, but if you know you want something it's one way to maximize the system.

The Science Manly said...

HAHAHA, "or the web is run by Gandalf."

Ohhh TheParkBench, you made me choke on my water. I'll have to abstain from drinking or eating when I read your blog. A safety warning would be much appreciated ;)

I also miss my libraries, which used to have books abound! I would leave with as much as my little kiddy arms could carry. But, I believe libraries began their descent into mediocrity when they brought in movies and music.

"Where da books at?" I remember saying.

So now, like many others, I buy my books. Maybe I'll open my own library someday. Someone will want to read various medical fiction/horror/science books, right?

Alex said...

"Sophie's Choice...you know, if they had that book on their shelves."

My mom is a public library director, and once found their copy of "Sophie's Choice" returned in the book drop, with an anonymous note (and several bookmarked pages) explaining why it was inappropriate and should be removed from the shelves forthwith.

Of course, Mom did no such thing, and also looked up the anonymous would-be censor in their records. Yes, libraries do keep track of who checks out the books.

Lisa said...

Sorry you had a bad experience at your local lib. Kerri's right: it's all about Dewey, a creature of the 19th century. When computers came along, the only place in his decimal system with room for a new field was the 000s, "Generalities."

On the one hand, some librarians feel like if we teach people how to use the catalog to look stuff up, it doesn't matter where on the shelf items are, as long as the number code takes the searcher there. Put them on the shelf in the order you got them, or by size.

Others advocate for putting like things together with the number codes. But then you have to figure out what "like" means.

A few public libraries are tossing Dewey aside for the Dewey-like divisions bookstores use (labeled with words, not numbers). And a very few public libraries use the Library of Congress classification, like universities do.

Meredith said...

Yeah, your public library uses Dewey, where Computer coding stuff is in the 000's (Generalities), and the Occult stuff isn't so far away in the 100's (Philosophy). It seems weird, but that's the reason they're close together. Your library may not have a big collection of either of those categories, which is why they seem so randomly "together" on the shelf.

(I'm an archivist, which means I have a library degree. In my case I don't mess with Dewey classification. Thank God. LC is SO MUCH BETTER. Sorry, Dewey enthusiasts.)

nancypearlwannabe said...

Sadly, html was before Dewey's time, so we librarians have had to make do with what he gave us. Or develop a whole new system of cataloging, which... shudder.

Lisa said...

I'm one year away from my Masters of Library and Information Studies (aka future librarian), so it makes me sad that your public library isn't very user friendly. I'm glad you're going to give them a second chance though! Maybe there's a suggestion box or eform on their website, I'm sure they'd appreciate your feedback!

Abby said...

Also a pre-librarian (I'll have my masters in library science in May of 2010) One of the reasons you may only see the "oldies" on the shelf is because the new editions are all checked out. If you have a very active hold system at your library (i.e. lots of people queuing up for books through the online catalog) the new stuff may never make it to the shelf. This is a common problem for people who prefer to browse to select their books. But like someone else suggested, you should talk to your librarians about what you would like to see/read. They may have it, and can put you "on the list" or, if they don't, they may be able to get it for you (either from another library or by purchasing it). Part of what you're describing in your email is a move for libraries to become more things to more people, especially important for keeping funding. This is why there are things like resume prep and the other "non-traditional" items and services. It's part of a larger philosophy that sees the library not as a book depository with a guide (your librarian) but also as a community hub. Rest assured, your library hasn't "given up on books"--we would be out of business far too quickly if that were the case.

kendra said...

As a shelver at my local teeny-tiny library I too have been having a hard time reconciling the gorgeous book-stuffed buildings of my childhood with the computer lab with book motif that we have today.

I agree with Susan that a big savior is the inter-library loan. Most libraries are grouped in systems, and often within a system there's only one copy of a book - sort of like a single library collection was broken into shards and the shards scattered on the winds and now you're on and epic quest to gather...wait...that was a video game plot.

Within a single library system, it's the matter of only a day or two to get books from the other branches. If they don't have it, you can usually also request books from bigger nearby systems - it takes about a week around here, but getting a 1970's book on knife throwing was TOTALLY WORTH IT.

I'm new to the blog, so I might have missed a mention of this, but there's a cool site called BookMooch.com that has filled a few library vacancies for me too.

Liz said...

Thanks for clearing things up on the Dewey front. I should have guessed that was the reason, but sometimes when I'm standing there looking at the books, I can't help but think that if it were me, I'd just be shelving things randomly to mess with people. :)

And great idea about the inter-library loans. That'll help enormously with specific books. I have a feeling I'll still be sad though when I go in for browsing. That was always the most fun for me as a kid: finding something totally random. Ah, well, it could still happen!

And Kendra, thanks for the tip on BookMooch. I'll have to check it out.

Josh said...

Thanks so much for tipping me off to the Awful Library Books blog — hugely entertaining, if sad.

And I have to get my hands on that Burt Bacharach "Book For Men."

Prosemonkey said...

Dewey is a necessary evil in our library. Since I work in an elementary school, I have to teach it ... but I don't have to like it.

I have taken it upon myself to group popular sets/sections out of Dewey order for more accessibility. This helps kids check out books easier ... for instance, in the mammal section, all the monkeys are together, etc.

I would rather put the HTML books in the 600's with technology but since it is a language, maybe it should be in the 400's?

Oh, Lord, my geek is showing ...

Stephanie said...

(It makes me ridiculously happy to hear other librarians talk. :))

Echoing the others on Dewey. The chaos it would cause in public libraries to switch to LC, though. The horror, the horror.

To get an idea of just how dire the funding situation is right now, I recommend watching the situation in Ohio right now. They're mulling over a proposed 30% cut in Ohio libraries' budgets. Libraries have already taken a 20% hit -- the extra 30% would force quite a few libraries to close and decimate the others. The libraries have gotten a lot of attention and managed to open it up to more debate. But the whole thing is truly frightening.


JulieG said...

This is also why I donate books to my library - they often don't have the budget to get everything they'd like. So if I can give them some barely used books of general interest, that hopefully leaves them enough money to get the more unusual stuff.

topazsfp said...

Yeah, I'm a public librarian. Thankfully I work in a system that is better funded than most; different towns/states have different funding levels, and it is often very, very obvious how valued a library is on that level.

Part of the problem, however, is that libraries are expected (and rightly, I think) to have lots of other stuff now - computers, databases, meeting space, programming - and the technology stuff, especially, is extraordinarily expensive. Taking into account persistently static or shrinking budgets, it's usually the books that get hit, especially new or unknown authors. Why take chances on new authors that (sadly) probably won't go out when you can order a few more James Patterson books that you know will? I've just spent the last 3 months going through my own branch collection, and it's depressing how concentrated the check-out numbers seem to be on a very small number of authors. I can tell you - libraries have limited space. If books aren't checked out, they go away. If lots of books aren't checked out, then the sections shrink and the management decides that the space would be better utilized by an internet computer or two that will be used constantly.

Honestly, use ILL (I do all the time), and libraries generally do pay attention when people request specific titles or authors, especially if they know that the requests are coming from people who do care about their local libraries. Might not have the budget for it, sadly, but we try...

The Pea Picker said...

My library recently had a meeting where people could come and talk about what they wanted from the library. It was also an opportunity to learn about the budget decreases and other problems the library is dealing with. I feel bad for the library now.

I've learned to use the inter-library loan and hold system. I'm currently number 34 in line for some book I've already forgotten the name of. But I remember I'm number 34. Who could forget that?? You can put holds on books that are so new they are on order. I just don't have the funds to buy all the new books.

When I was growing up, I never could get a ride to the library. It was on the north side of town. But there was an awesome used book store down the road where I practically grew up. Mom would head to the romance section and I would head to the sci-fi/fantasy/horror section. They just don't do it like that in the library. Back then I could get a couple paperbacks for a dollar and then bring two back and get one or something, so it was better than the library for me. I never have been a library browser because it doesn't work for me. I only go there to get specific things I know are there because I checked the catalog online or got my notification of a hold being held.

Anonymous said...

This is such a wonderful blog entry. When I was a kid in school, I basically lived in the libraries. College was such a joy because the library was so big that it occupied several floors and you had to use this very cool old elevator to get from floor to floor. Thanks to the consortium we were in, we also had access to the local branch of the state university and its 26-story tower of books, to say nothing of all its satellite libraries.

Grad school was glorious heaven on earth, because the university had THREE libraries, and when I was done with my homework or assignment, I would just go from floor to floor, browsing the endless bookshelves. Bliss!

I miss those days now that my nearest library is a fairly typical mid-sized suburban town library. But it's a surprisingly vibrant, useful place, with plenty of books, computer terminals, work tables, carrels in quiet corners, and a big meeting room on the basement level. The staff are just wonderful.

Love the worst-books list, too. Thanks for starting my day with a laugh!

ellen said...

I'm in the same boat as you -- my local library is in a lovely building and it's located at the end of my block. It's perfect for a afternoon stroll. But they NEVER have anything worth reading. Basically my library serves as the delivery point for the interlibrary loan and branch transfer service.

Graeme said...

I miss the library...I used to go constantly. Back when there were books, good, interesting books. Now it's a sad sight. A few reference books, lots of mainstream drivel.
I once found a copy of a limited edition Robert E Howard book in my old library, I was happy.
The sad days were the big sales that it had...5 books for a dollar. I grabbed a lot of out of print stuff, but it was sad that the library was downsizing it's books so much to make room for things that are very non-library. I suddenly found myself feeling very Giles-like in my opinion of computers.

crone51 said...

You mean the web isn't run by Gandalf?

I am fairly lucky in that our little town has a couple of good libraries. However, I can't use them because I have no memory and end up owning and paying for all the books I take out. It's embarrassing.

Wonderful post, BTW.

eye-shuh said...

Didn't you know? The internet is actually run by Satan. He wondered what it would be like if humans could stream porn and call each other bad names anonymously all day.

Rachel said...

You could give the library the benefit of the doubt - maybe it's mostly old books you see on the shelves because the library is so popular that all the new books are constantly on loan! Certainly in my massive public library system, where they bring in ridiculous quantities of popular new books, the only place you see them on the shelves is in the quick reads, which can't be placed on hold.

Or maybe it's just another massively underfunded library system. Sigh.