Monday, January 9, 2012

The Final Chapter for Libraries?

In conversations among fellow librarians the topic often arises on whether there is any "life" left in our beloved institutions and professions. With Ebooks finally making a permanent mark right around the time that many libraries of all types are facing economic challenges does not boost morale among new and veteran librarians. Suffice it to say, everyone is trying to figure out if libraries will have a happy or tragic ending. One set of experts will gloat that the idea of the library is certainly outdated and outlived its usefulness. While another experts will point to the idea of a community "meeting" place as the library's new role. Both of these ideas are wrong. Why? They are based on false premises. If libraries continue to follow either one of these ideologies then surely the final chapter will be written.

Libraries are not outdated. If they were, there would not be a single computer in the building, library websites with 24/7 access would not exist and companies such as Overdrive would not have libraries as clients. It is quite amazing how many people fail to realize that the libraries have come into the 21st century and willing to face a bright digital future. Don't think this is true? Ask a librarian how many times a patron walks into the library and asks to see the card catalog because they haven't been in a library in over twenty years. Yes, they are talking about the old little drawers that held three by five cards organized by either title, author or subject. The surprised reactions of the patrons on finding what they need on a computer is quite amusing at times, but in reality it is a sad statement on the society. Libraries continue to miss the opportunity to boldly take their place in society. Which takes this discussion to the second theory built on faulty logic.

Libraries have always been places to share information and knowledge. To claim that libraries will make wonderful community centers in the future is similar to saying that libraries would make wonderful places to store books for anyone to use. This is a job that is being performed in libraries everywhere. What else is library programming then an attempt to bring everyone in the community together to learn together, read together and relax together. Name one library that does not offer a "educational" program that informs patron about a topic of local interest. Name one library that does not offer story time for little ones and their families. (Academic libraries don't count.) Finally, name one library that does not promote programs that involve entertainment and fun. This could be in the way of music or gaming. Face it the future of libraries as a community meeting place is already here. What hasn't happened yet, and the trend is beginning, the merging of park and recreation department, and senior centers into the library space. This is where libraries may lose their identity.

If both of ideologies are flawed, what is the solution for libraries' survival? To answer this question, one would have to believe that libraries are on life support. There is no doubt that this is the case since many changes are happening, it seems, at once. However, this is not prepping for a obituary for libraries in general. It is a step in trying to find the ailment and seeking a cure. For many, what hurts libraries the most is the damaging image as an outdated institution. As stated previously, this is FALSE. What hurts libraries the most is an inability to decide what direction to pursue for the future. Will libraries hang on to hard copies of books or dive completely into digital only? Can libraries provide services for every age group under the sun and still be able to manage to stay financially solvent? Are professional librarians with Master's degree on the way out because full time work is not available due to shrinking budgets? The answer to all of these questions can be summed up with one answer. To remain professional educators to the public, libraries must not settle for anything less than degreed full time librarians doing what they do better than anyone else in our society. Retrieve relevant and reliable information to the patrons. Forget the idea of a fun meeting place or being everything for everybody. It's time to get back to the roots of librarianship. That is providing reference services to all. If this can be accomplished,than the final chapter for libraries can hold off a bit. The best part of the story is just about to begin.
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