Save Libraries?

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Save Libraries campaign so I asked YALSA’s Blog Manager, and high school librarian, mk Eagle to chat with me on the topic. The following is the transcript of our conversation.

LWB: Hi mk, I wanted to ask you about something I’ve been thinking about a lot do you have a few minutes. (And beware I’m going to poke, prod, and play devil’s advocate.)

mk: Absolutely.

LWB: I saw you have a Save Libraries Twibbon on your Twitter icon, I’m wondering why you decided to add that? I decided not to have one, you may have noticed.

mk: I saw a few librarians I follow on Twitter have added it. And honestly I’m a little lazy when it comes to library advocacy, but given the number of emails I’ve gotten from various listservs about libraries (school libraries especially) being threatened by budget cuts, etc., I thought this would be an easy way to show my support.

LWB: Yeah, I get that. We do need to get the word out about the importance of libraries. But here’s the thing I’ve been thinking about. As someone who consults and teaches librarians to be – Should all libraries be saved? I hear horror stories about libraries that provide really bad service and have really bad collections.

Do we want to save those libraries too?

mk: Well, is that the fault of the library itself, or is it symptomatic of leadership within the library or the community?

LWB: Either I suppose, but if we have the rallying cry of save all libraries will that change? Isn’t it a band-aid to save all libraries and then have the same service and same problems keep happening?

Why not save some libraries and be honest about the bad stuff that’s going on in some places?

mk: I mean, I have to wonder if that isn’t already happening.

The most vocal “save libraries” people are probably in communities where libraries are doing something right, aren’t they?

LWB: Yes, that is definitely true. But what about people who see the save libraries twibbon or read about the campaign and they are in communities where the library service isn’t great? What message do they take from that?

mk: Well, here’s what I see: For the sake of argument, let’s say that we can easily divide libraries into “good” and “bad” categories.

Both good and bad libraries are threatened right now, by budget cuts but also by a lot of other things.

And the media is covering the potential closure or cutbacks of these good and bad libraries.

Where the libraries are good, community members are much more likely to be rallying to support them.

Where the libraries are bad, there’s a much quieter rallying cry.

But everywhere there are libraries, there are some ignorant people whose response is always, “meh, libraries aren’t relevant, let’s close ’em and save the money.”

If the “close libraries” people are going to be vocal regardless of the quality of their libraries, shouldn’t we have “save libraries” voices in support of the libraries that are working?

LWB: Yeah, I get that, but I just wonder if the library people who are being vocal need to be more specific about their message and even say that in those communities where libraries aren’t as good as they might be that the community members should demand something else or something different.

Maybe say, lets save libraries that provide great service and if your library doesn’t don’t simply say lets save the money and shut it down say what can we do to create an agency that does support what we need and want

It seems to some that with Save Libraries we aren’t being 100% honest that we know in some places things aren’t so good.

mk: So you’d rather the motto be Save This Library, not Save Libraies?

LWB: Yeah, I think so, or maybe Save Our Library.

It’s the glomming together that makes me wonder.

mk: Well, I think that’s already the motto locally.

That’s clearly what it is for people like the Seattle Moms.

LWB: Yes that’s true.

mk: I guess the idea is to try to connect Save Our Library to the reality that there are a lot of Our Libraries out there that need saving.

LWB: Maybe I want it to be Save Good Libraries

mk: And maybe that’s where the issue is for some people–an unwillingness to be the person who draws the line.

LWB: Yes, there are a lot of libraries that deserve saving and perhaps this is also a chance to look at what people are doing well and promote that to those libraries/librarians as a way to be saved.

mk: Because if the idea is to band together, isn’t it divisive to say My Library Is Worth Saving, but Yours Isn’t Trying Hard Enough?

LWB: Hmmmm, I can see that it’s risky (got to get that in) to say maybe you aren’t worth saving. But, if we want to be about providing the best service possible to our communities then we have to do that..

mk: Well, maybe I’m just taking this a little personally.

LWB: Yeah, but you actually have saved your library in a lot of ways.

mk: Because if you’d looked at my library last year, you might have said, “This isn’t worth saving.”

Yeah, but if someone had made the call last year, that wouldn’t have been possible.

LWB: Yes, I’ve thought about that a lot actually. In your instance the principal knew that libraries could be something other than what was currently being offered.

That’s important.

mk: Would he have known that if there were a national trend to close down libraries that are underperforming?

I really think libraries are going to have to start thinking about this with the way education reform is happening in this country.

LWB: So, then maybe it’s save libraries but make sure if you are saving them that they are going to be good libraries. Save Libraries & Make Them Good

mk: A little harder to put on a Twibbon!

LWB: SLMTG

mk: I mean, if you think about it, this is really similar to the great weeding debate.

Is it better to have something on the shelves, or to have something good?

LWB: Really good point. And I’m always it’s better to have nothing than something. But, I don’t really think we don’t want libraries I think we want good libraries that are integral parts of the community.

Which is actually what I think for the collection too. We want good stuff that supports teen needs

mk: So it comes down to that judgement call–which looks a lot like the call school superintendents are making in their districts–if what we have isn’t working, do we shut it down, or do we hold out hope that the right people can change it?

LWB: Right, and that’s where we come in as professionals – helping to make the call and helping to make sure that the “right” people get hired and brought in to make the library in a school or a community the best that it can and should be. I really don’t think we should shut down libraries, I just want to make sure that what gets saved is really good.

mk: I guess maybe what worries me is who’s in charge of making the call.

LWB: Agreed and that’s why I think again we have to be honest about what’s really going on. If we simply make it seem like all libraries are great then we might not be trusted to make a good call. But, if we say, we know it’s not perfect but there is value if we work to make all libraries good and valuable and it’s worth doing that in order to serve teens then….

mk: Well, maybe what we Really need is some degree of honesty within the profession.

Because I think there’s a real tendency for us to want to band together, or to say, well, We’re all doing our jobs, but some librarians…

What if someone actually stood up and said “My library isn’t working?”

LWB: I know, and maybe then the community might say, what do you need to make it work? And what can we do to help? Because people do have this sense that the library is important – it’s in their heart – so if we did stand up in that way they might really stand up with us, and work to make some change.

mk: The problem there, of course, is that we’re all feeling really protective of our jobs. It’s a huge risk to admit that maybe you’re not doing well.

LWB: I know, and that’s what’s so hard about this whole conversation. It is incredibly risky and there is a tension between the web 2 concept of lets try things out, see how it goes, and revise and the need to be prudent (love that word) when it comes to your job and income.

mk: It’s almost funny, because the traditional workplace fear is “Okay, better not stick my neck out, because they can always just replace me.”

But right now I don’t know that anyone can Afford to just fire people at will, any more than they can afford to ignore problems within their business.

LWB: That’s right. In some ways it’s an opportune time to say lets keep the library but make change in order to be more effective – it’s a way to rethink costs as well as improve. I get the impression that to some extent that’s the fortunate situation you had when you started your job in September.

Your library really is a perfect example of why libraries should be saved, but not necessarily saving all libraries in the form in which they are today.

mk: Absolutely. And it’s also probably true that one of the reasons I have a purchasing budget is that I was hired as a new teacher, not someone who’d been in the system for years and was higher up in the pay scale.

LWB: Very interesting, and you’ve become a center of the school community within the year and as a result have demonstrated that saving a library is valuable as long as there is financial and administrative support as well as a realization that change is good.

Your position/hiring is more than a band-aid approach.

mk: I guess maybe I’m just an idealist, and I worry that with Save Some Libraries you’d close the doors on libraries that could still be turned around by the right combination of community support and risk-taking.

LWB: So here’s the new slogan – Save Libraries & Make Sure When U Do That They Work! SLMSWUDTTW

Great ring don’t you think?

mk: Rolls right off the tongue…

LWB: Thanks for letting me poke and prod and devil’s advocate on this. It’s been great to get your take on the Save Libraries concept.

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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9 Comments

  1. Honesty, I’m going to have to wait a day and come back to see if I’m as upset the second time I read this as I am right now.

  2. All libraries should be saved! If a library is not functioning as it should be measures should be taken to improve it. Once it is closed the door is shut for all the people who use it. We must fight for all libraries! I am very unhappy that school libraries are being closed and hours and services are being cut in public libraries.

  3. So, when a ship has a bad captain, we should sink the ship?

    Not to mention, underfunded libraries tend to be in rural and urban communities, the ones where the community can afford less.

    While I agree that certain libraries, and their staff, need more training in customer service (or a reminder that this is actually what their profession is) I’m not sure the answer is to write them off.

  4. For every library where one encounters a bad collection or customer service, there are 100s if not 1000s more that are offering someone an opportunity for change or to improve their lives. As I staffed the NYC We Will Not Be Shushed Read In on Sunday morning in Brooklyn, I was amazed at the number of people who didn’t know that all 3 NYC systems were facing huge cuts, including staff layoffs. So, we’ll take your Twibbon, your signature, your postcard as any sign of support. It may not always be obvious, but even at the so-called “bad” libraries, someone is working to make it better, and sometimes that person is a teen page, sometimes that person is a volunteer, and very often that person is a YA librarian.

  5. I have been thinking long and hard over the past several days about an appropriate reply to this.

    Reading this interview is the equivalent of watching a suicidal person being mugged.

    We’re fighting a battle on several fronts here: yes, we need to defend library funding, and continue to educate the public on what we do (I can’t tell you how many people I’ve astonished by showing them how databases really work, or how to download an e-book for the first time)

    On the other hand, how do we handle burnout on the job, to stay fresh and energetic and best help our patrons? Let’s not pretend that libraries are the only institution that ever suffer from burnout… it’s common in many helping professions, and there ARE methods and training tools to cope with it.

  6. Francisca Goldsmith

    How about reframing the issue with Make Your Library to Be Its Best? Share both the credit and the responsibility fot being a “good” library with both library professionals and their communities.

  7. This provocative post asked some very tough questions. I appreciate the honesty and bravery it took to put yourselves out there and give voice to a difficult reality.
    School librarians are also fighting for survival. I offer another perspective that was influenced by and links to this blog post. It is titled Close the Library? The link is below.
    Regards,
    Robin Cicchetti

    http://concordcarlislelibrary.blogspot.com/2010/06/close-library.html

  8. Chris Shoemaker

    Advocacy time, when we look at our services and uncover numbers to highlight accomplishments and justify funding, reveals our strengths and points to areas of improvement. It’s an interesting blend of library marketing and standardized testing. While I am not suggesting that libraries be forced to take a test, or that tests are an ideal method for universal evaluation, the facts and anecdotes that come out of the campaign may provide a snapshot of a community’s opinions and knowledge of library service. When reading through the interview, one of the lines that popped out of me comes from LWB: “it’s an opportune time to say let’s keep the library but make change in order to be more effective – it’s a way to rethink costs as well as improve.” Did anyone mention the yearly annotated video list or did they mention the e-resources? Maybe the printing costs and staff time can be allocated to training on e-resources. Increased effectiveness is something that organizations always strive for, but when there’s an abundance of funding, it can be difficult to implement changes. When the budget decreases, it becomes easier to cut things that aren’t vital: printed lists can go online as PDF files that are accessible to a wider population, face to face meetings can become Skype video chats, training videos can be recorded to capture experience from retiring staff.

    It’s difficult to acknowledge that something isn’t working, but when our sports stars, politicians, and actors can admit that what they’ve done isn’t working for them anymore, isn’t it time that libraries acknowledge that too?

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