Nostalgia is Not Going to Save Libraries

I was driving down the FDR into NYC listening to the Buzz Out Loud podcast and feeling frustrated about the traffic. All of a sudden the podcast hosts read an email from a listener who asked fellow Buzz Out Loud listeners to rally around the Philadelphia libraries to help guarantee that the main library and branches would not be shut down permanently. The email spurred a conversation about libraries amongst the three hosts of the podcast and all of a sudden my frustration turned from being focused on the traffic to being focused on the hosts. I started yelling, out loud, in the car – where I was all by myself – at the hosts.

The yelling took off when one host responded to the email by saying (this is a very general paraphrase) she realized it was hard for libraries to maintain funding because they had big buildings to maintain and perhaps no longer provided services that were necessary for the community. So, maybe, if libraries started focusing on being the repository for cultural heritage that might help them to survive and to make better use of their buildings.

Then another host talked about how he has a three year old child and he likes going to the local branch library because they have a great big children’s room, storyhour, and lots of books. But, he didn’t really see the library being a place that was needed beyond something to support children and families in the community.

For a couple of minutes the conversation went on like that and I was ranting at the radio while trying not to have an accident. Then, one of the hosts, Rafe Needleman changed the conversation, at least in my mind, with one very simple statement and that was, “Nostalgia is not going to save libraries.” At that point I stopped yelling and thought to myself, “OMG, that’s it exactly.”

That statement resonates because as we work with teens we have to be very aware of the fact that the library of the past – one focused on books and traditional programs – will not work for teens today. As teen librarians we can’t try to sell programs to teens based on what used to work or a focus of history and of the library’s historic place in the community. We can’t expect that the love of books that we might have had when growing up is what teens currently love and what they need, or want, from the library.

Similarly, the statement resonates because if we want to gain support for library teen services from community members we have to talk about what the library of the 21st century can do for teens. I think about the three hosts of Buzz Out Loud, who are not all that old, and think about how they really don’t have a clue. (Sorry Buzz Out Loud hosts but you didn’t really have a full sense of what the library can be about.) That’s not the hosts fault actually, to a large degree it can be seen as the fault of the libraries in the communities in which they live and grew up. If none of the hosts have seen what a library can really do for teens and a community then how can I, or anyone else, expect them to understand?

Obviously, one of the hosts has a preschooler and doesn’t think the library is of much value beyond what is provided to children. We have to change that concept, and the way for libraries to do that is by demonstrating a strong connection to the future and not the past.

Now I’m curious, what are blog readers techniques for advocating for teen services that go beyond the nostalgic feeling that a library might bring out for some community members? How do you sell what you do as relevant for today? Nostalgia is not going to save libraries! So, what are you doing that is?

About Linda W Braun

Linda W Braun is a YALSA Past President, the YALSA CE Consultant, and a learning consultant/project management coordinator at LEO: Librarians & Educators Online.
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7 Comments

  1. I’d like to experiment with becoming more embedded in the community, so that teens (and adults) could more easily see what libraries can do. For example, what if we took a cue from vendors like Redbox and placed vending machines in malls & schools. You could stock them with books, but also laminated cards with URLs for library services like downloadables, e-books, articles online, and more. Making our services more visible and tangible to more people could be one cure for this library nostalgia/malaise that the nation seems to have.

    Also, we need to reflect on the fact that libraries offer an unfamiliar form of consumption to this generation. Consumption is important to them, and maybe if we offer a way to consume library materials that *looks* more like the consumption they do in other places then our services and materials can be of greater use to them.

    Check out a sample vending machine here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/erindowney/3934877113/

  2. Why are newspapers in trouble? People stopped supporting them (buying them) as the newspaper’s content became more freely available online. The more newspapers’ revenues dropped, the more staff they had to cut, the less original content appeared in the newspaper, and the more people decided that a subscription to the actual newspaper was unnecessary.
    I see the same thing happening with libraries, as non-users believe everything we provide is available online or soon will be. If we position ourselves primarily as a provider of resources and Internet access to low-income populations, we run the risk of any social service agency of being the first onto the budget chopping block. Middle- and high-income populations don’t need libraries on an economic basis.
    I think libraries need to position themselves as educational institutions, centers of lifelong learning for all ages and incomes, populated with staff that is knowledgeable and quick, so that even non-library users will believe that libraries are worthy of public support. I think that’s the most effective way of winning support for teen services, as well as libraries in general. Libraries provide more than books and Internet access, and education takes place outside of school buildings. We need to get that message out.

  3. Great post ! I am super nostalgic about my time in libraries, but dwelling on that really doesn’t have a place at work. I feel frustrated when I meet people and tell them I’m a librarian and they say how much they loved the library as a kid and what fond memories they have. But then they admit they haven’t been to a library in years, as if libraries exist to just be a sweet memory. We talk a lot about how libraries change to meet changing needs of its users, but our marketing needs to change to let people know that.

  4. I think public libraries need to work to understand the community they serve, tailor programs and services to the community, and then target influential people in the community to make them library users.

    I remember watching a video about libraries at a recruiting event for an MLS program. They talked about a rural library that lent out fishing poles — not useful in NYC, for example, but perfect for this town. This got people into the library, and then they used the services. This past cold and snowy winter, the library in the small town where I live advertised itself as a warming center: “Save money: turn your heat down and come to the library.”

    Translating this to teen services, we need to identify the programs that meet the needs of the teens in our community. Then we need to convince not only them to come but also the community needs to be convinced that such a program is worthwhile. It’s easy to sell gaming to teens, but you also need to address the members of the community who are going to write letters to the editor saying it’s a terrible waste of resources.

  5. I was visiting Scottsdale this summer and as a YA librarian I had to stop in and see the “library sites” and was delighted with the Scottsdales Public Library’s Knowasis for the YA’s in their community—a “third” place for them to hang with guitar, books, snack, games, mags, manga and a very “hip” look! Delightful—wish I had such a zone to go to when I was hanging at the library as new arrival to the “U.S.”. Hats off to Scottsdale for their ‘awareness” of the YA of today. It was the end of summer and it was “populated” with YA’s! Check out their programming!

  6. I love this idea of being a place to just BE for a teen. There are so few places for teens to congregate where they won’t get in trouble and don’t feel unwanted…and where they don’t have to buy anything.

    I have to also say that we live in a society that thrives on being able to own stuff. I myself really didn’t use the library and just bought my books–perhaps because I grew up poor and didn’t have much, so owning my books was important to me. It took me awhile to graduate to going to the library instead of buying books. And it’s addictive being there, knowing that I can walk out with an armful of free books and movies. I often go in intending to just run in and pick something up but rarely do I leave without having spent at least an hour browsing. I think the library really needs to use this current unfortunate downturn in our American economy to capitalize (haha) on the fact that Americans currently may see less consumerism as a good thing, rather than a lack of things. To me, the library is about economy rather than the luxury of nostalgia.

  7. At the Canadian Library Association’s 2009 conference in Montreal, they had a session called “What’s Cool at Your Library”. The presenters had just 15 minutes a piece to talk about what constituted cool (or should I say “kewl”) and it made me want to visit these places – living libraries where you could “borrow people” to talk with them about their topic (e.g. a person who was HIV positive), or the Oshawa Public Library that ran a zombie night and had a professional makeup artist come to teach the teens how to make themselves look gross. This was fantastic and made me want to participate. The problem? This was a conference for librarians – preaching to the choir, so to speak. If you aren’t a library visitor, how do you get in the door to find out that KEWL stuff like this is going on? I’m lucky – I’m in a school library so I have a captive audience. It can’t just be the librarians singing the praises of library events. When my students insist on more open time during recess to study / read / talk / play cards, or when a team of pre-teens ask me to re-start the Twilight Club because New Moon is coming out in November – then I know it’s not nostalgia keeping the library alive.

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