proving our relevance

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So it’s probably been a while since the latest article hit an important newspaper, where some rich guy questions the relevance of libraries, and how libraries are trying to ‘prove’ their relevance to the public by offering ‘grasping’ services like dvds, public computers, and video games. After all, Google has replaced old-school reference librarians. Why do we need libraries anymore? How in the world are we going to stay relevant?

I’m not going to prove our relevance. I don’t need to.

The gap between the haves and the have-nots has widened. The places were a person can go to simply exist (without paying for something) are gone. The places that welcome teens for hours on end are gone. Public community space is gone.

Except at the library.

The face of the library has changed. We’re still here at the information desk, poised to answer your reference questions, but we’ll also help you with your resume, show you job search utilities, and walk you through retrieving your email password.

It’s easy, if you haven’t been on the receiving end of those services, to dismiss those as unimportant. Until, of course, you need it. Then suddenly we’re invaluable.

The first time I ever helped a 70+ year old patron with his resume, I was struck with sadness. Here was a man with a full and rich history of employment, and he was overwhelmed because almost all job applications happen online, which is a foreign and scary world to him. Here was a man who couldn’t retire, though his body was surely ready for the rest. He couldn’t afford to, obviously, or he wouldn’t be here at the library asking for my help for the third day in a row, counting out change for his two copies with his shaking, knotty fingers.

Then it happened again with another elderly patron. And another. It didn’t take long for me to realize how completely unisolated these events really are. By unisolated, I mean common. Routine.

We have some groups of teens who frequent our library. Day in, day out, they come to our Young Adult programming, they play Minecraft for hours on end–from the minute they get out of class till the closing announcement. Sure, they occasionally try to sneak food upstairs, and sometimes they don’t stop chatting, but what kind of home lives do these kids have that they’d rather be here for six hours at a time than go home? Where else can they go?

An unsurprisingly large amount of middle-aged para-professionals are starting over in growing careers like nursing or healthcare. I recognize them right away when they come in–they’re just a little terrified of online classes, and they’re a lot terrified that they won’t be able to keep up with the coursework. They want so desperately to succeed in this new path, because they’re sacrificing so much to go back to school. I wish there was more I could do than point them to the right books. I’d tell them I’m cheering them on, but that would sound creepy.

It’s January, so at least fifty percent of the calls I take are about taxes and finding free and low-cost tax help. Thanks to budget cuts and lack of qualified volunteers, the places to get free tax help have dwindled. There’s a certain amount of desperation in the voices of these callers. Taxes are scary. Accountants are expensive. And if paying for one was an option, they wouldn’t have to call the library.

If not here, then where would these people go?

Some librarians lament that instead of coming to read, our patrons come to get on Facebook. I’m okay with that. I figure, you’re willing to brave the cold (10 degrees and below) in two inches of snow, and wait for your bus, and then walk several blocks from the bus stop to here… if Facebook is really what you want to do after all that, then that’s what you really need. Fine with me! Please come.

We have a strict no-discrimination, no-harassment policy and we enforce that. Sure, businesses have those policies too, somewhere, but I’ve never once felt comfortable approaching management at a coffee shop when I was getting creeped on. But the library? We’re trying to keep an eye on that for you. Safe spaces are few and far between. Not every library is a safe space, but this one is. Please come and work/study/read in peace. Our coffee is quite a bit cheaper than that franchise across the street, too.

There’s also the issue of programming. A conversation within the larger library community is how to we get more people to come and participate in our programs. Obviously, we always want more community involvement, but it’s not to ‘prove our relevance.’ It’s to serve our community. Sometimes, our programs have no-shows. Others, the sign ups max out. I celebrate each and every program–whether it’s a jam-packed two hours of board games or a tablet 101 workshop with one participant. Each patron needs us. Each library has the responsibility, the commitment, and the joy of best serving their community.

As for proving our relevance? There are a lot of people who haven’t set foot in a library since their senior year at a private college, and those people don’t have a solid picture of what the modern library looks like or even that other people might need them. I’m not going to say you’re missing out–because honestly, if you can afford your own books, your own dvds, your own computer and internet and printer–well, good for you. But there are a growing number of people that can’t. Every year that gap gets a little wider. The poor get a little poorer. The community we serve gets a little larger and a lot more desperate.

Actually, I changed my mind. You are missing out. Our Star Wars day is a ton of fun, and your kids will love it. So will you! There’s also a fantastic writers’ group that meets here, several book clubs, public speakers, kids’ crafts galore, and SCORE is about to launch this year’s Business Start Up classes. Among other things. And if you can honestly look through our programming and you don’t see a single thing that sounds remotely interesting, let us know what you are interested in. We love feedback.

I can’t prove our relevance. If you’ve already deemed that no one else needs public services because you specifically don’t need them, then there’s no convincing you otherwise. Because that’s essentially what you’re saying, when you question the relevance of libraries.

But I do sincerely hope your situation stays as stable as you think it will. I hope that you come and enjoy the library because you want to, not because you need to.

We’ll be here, arms open. For Grisham’s latest release, for Facebook, for resume help, for eBooks and DVDs, for self-education, for a quiet space to work, and for whatever else comes our way.

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3 Responses to proving our relevance

  1. natfee says:

    I love this so much, my heart is bursting! Libraries are really the best. Well stated, Barb.

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