Monday, May 23, 2011

Serving the whole

Forward-thinking library folks like us have proposed plenty of new directions and new services for libraries. One of the most profound barriers to such change is the fact that, right now, most of our traditional services appear to be as essential as ever. We still need to provide books and movies and computers because plenty of our users do not have the disposable income to purchase those on their own. However the profound need on one end of the economic spectrum is blinding us to the other end, where we are increasingly optional and approaching irrelevance. We're approaching an age in which, for those who have spending money, anything they could possibly want to do through a library could be done more easily elsewhere: getting (e)books, getting movies, getting online, getting answers. We’ve been fortunate so far that public libraries enjoy a platonic/nostalgic reputation as a civic asset, and are defended even by community members who rarely think to actually use the library themselves. This will not last forever.

With finite budgets and staff time, new services mean taking away from old ones. Thus the profound need for basic library services from a portion of the community is often invoked as an argument against novelty. This is noble, but risky in the long term. If bridging the technology gap is the cornerstone of our services, what service do we provide to the rest of the community? Public libraries exist to serve the public, and that means everybody.

I work for a very urban branch of an urban public library system, and I love what I do. I love knowing that I am truly helping the people I serve. But that cannot be our raison d'être. Otherwise we eventually become an information food shelf: a noble place, but not one that serves the whole community. Basic library services each first arose because they were relevant to the majority. Our services have to keep growing with our communities, even when entrenching with traditional services seems so justifiable.

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