How the public library looks these days

library I completed an annual ritual this week—the renewal of my public library card! I almost exclusively use the library for ebook borrowing these days, but my local library system still insists on that antiquated ritual of the card renewal. You must show up at a branch, in person, at least once a year with proof of your address in order to maintain your borrowing privileges.

They have renovated the library branch I go to since my last visit, and it was interesting to see what they’ve done. In no particular order—

1) The librarians seem to be serving different functions these days. You can still check out books via the large checkout desk where the librarians live, but they have added some self-checkout kiosks right near the door too. And the signage seems to be making an effort to rebrand them a little as more of an information source and less of a flunky who signs out books. The various displays near the ‘checkout desk’ exhorted me to “ask” the librarian about children’s programs, English language classes, the library book club and other things. They definitely seemed to be de-emphasizing the whole ‘line up here to check out your books’ thing.

2) More ‘white space.’ I guess the librarians needed more room to run these programs I am supposed to be asking them about, because a couch-filled lounge area on the first floor has been replaced by a large glass-walled ‘program room.’ They also replaced the reference books area (does anybody still use paper phone books and encyclopedias?) with about six large multi-person table groups, each of which had a power pod in the centre for plugging things in. I am in favour of that change; I always struggled to find a seat when I visited this branch in the past!

3) More computers, fewer magazines. The formerly large magazine area has shrunk to a single wall display, and the saved floor space has been allocated to computers. I feel less positive about this change. I know they are a necessary tool, and a vital skill. And I know that some people do not have the luxury of internet access at home and they reply on the library computers to keep up with family overseas or to apply for jobs. But I wonder how much of the time librarians are supposed to have for all the programs I should ask them about is going to be sucked up into the black hole of maintaining those computers and teaching clueless patrons how to log onto them.

Overall, the renovation was a nice one: more space to sit and work and read, more space for special programs and activities, more publicity of said activities to actually get people into the branch, and a more modern glass-and-brick open concept feel.

I like the apparent rebranding of the librarian. I have had some wonderful experiences with reference librarians in the past who really showed me how much more there is to the job than just signing out books. I feel like that menial task can comfortably be outsourced to technology with no loss to anyone. And I applaud the goal of converting the book-signing out time to time actually spent getting people in there. Several teachers at my school have taken classes over to the local branch, where the librarians run a wonderful program to get kids reading and using the library. That, to me, is a much better use of their time.

I did lament, for a moment, the things which got taken away in the service of these grander goals. I recognize that, on a purely practical level, the internet is a way more efficient and user-friendly way to look up phone numbers and start a research process. But the nostalgic side of me winced at the loss of those beautiful old books.  And I do think the magazine display got well-used and its shrinkage will be a loss to the library patrons.

I still appreciate the library as a place I can go and work without having to pay money. I do a lot of coffee shop work in the summer, and I enjoy it but spend perhaps more than I should on fancy food and drink. At the coffee shops, you have to pay to stay. The library remains a bastion of accessibility, with no cost at all—other than the minor inconvenience of presenting oneself, in person, once per year.

3 Comments on How the public library looks these days

  1. On the topic of Magazines.

    We have fewer and fewer because:
    A – Fewer people come in to read them in house. People come in, get what they want and tleave.

    B – We subscribe to Zinio and other services for online magazines. No budget to purchase both.

    C – There are fewer magazines each year worth keeping in the library.

    I can say that in our County we have customers renew every 3 years or so in person. That is to ensure that you are still alive (you might be surprised how many keep on using the dead mother’s card) and that you still live in the County. If you are outside of the County there is an annual fee to use your card.

    Here in Broward there is an undercurrent around that. Miami Dade County to our south looks to be gutting their library system.

    How do we serve those people appropriately? None of their tax dollars are going to help fund our system. Our library system already is far superior to theirs and the gulf will only widen.

  2. CommonSense // July 12, 2014 at 4:40 pm //

    My Kindle and Kindle Fire are my library. I’m a lifelong bookworm who spent a good part of each summer at the library when I was a kid. I also worked at our library as a young adult and at a large state research library for 10 years. I grew up loving libraries and that excited feeling I got browsing the shelves and discovering books. Nowadays, I only physically go to the large city library to do genealogy research. I do check out ebooks from them online, they have a superior collection compared to my county library. For anything else, including book discovery, I can use my Kindles or my PC.

    Like other businesses which are made irrelevant by technology, libraries need to reinvent themselves or disappear into history. It sounds like your library is making an attempt in that direction, becoming a community information center.

  3. I find the annual renewal a bit annoying, especially since you can’t find renewal expiry in the online account status. But then, Toronto remains blessed with a lot of local branches so its a minor annoyance. More to the point, libraries have morphed into vital community centres with an impressive array of activities aimed at the local residents. And most of those programs are about the mind, ideas, exchanging and challenging information, about discovery: and they’ve managed to grow this social aspect while maintaining the traditional functions and expanding the online ones. Given budgets, and rate of change, the Toronto system has done a great job under financial, political and cultural pressures.

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