Thursday, December 1, 2011

Libraries in America

I was moved by the essay in The Nation by William Scott about his experience in building and rebuilding the Occupy Wall Street Library.  In those words I read the struggle I am having with my own small job within what was once a wonderful and growing public library.

Our director blew in like a hurricane a year and a half ago, with a prestigious career (so he says) as director of the public library system in the wealthiest community in the country.  He is well read, not so much in literature and the sciences, but in library trends and innovations.  He is also a politician, and he has found, in our community, people who trust him.  With their library.

I am small potatoes in this job, a retired psychologist tickled to be working in a place where I can do good without having to battle big business (i.e. the health insurance industry).  Libraries have been my life, from my first library card at age 6, through volunteering in every library I could from junior high through college through my children's school years.

And now I am saddened to hear patrons with the same breath, tell me how much they love libraries, and how they remember their first librarian, and how wonderful it is that we are cutting costs with self-check-out.

Our director is bringing us into the 21st century, for better or worse.

So it was with less surprise and more the feeling of another shovelful tossed on the coffin that I learned that we are weeding our collection.  And not just weeding, but extreme weeding.  Because the consultants that were paid to come up with a five-year plan that pretty much endorses what our director has planned since he walked in the door, have said that our collection is too large.

They know because they used the scientific method.  They compared our library to libraries in neighboring states with neighboring demographics.  So, I guess libraries that are underfunded and facing severe budget cuts and have to prove that they are serious about cutting out "waste" in order to continue to get barely adequate funding.

What this means, and what our director is good at, is building up the programs that look wonderful to the public.  Programs is the catchword.  Children's programs is the winner.  Increasing the children's book collection while decreasing adult books, particularly the less popular non-fiction titles.  "Floating" our collection.  This means that books are not sent out to an owning branch, but all belong to the county library, and wherever a book is returned is where it stays until it is checked out again.  Or until it is thrown out to make space.

Because not all branches are the same.  We have small branches (that are called "large branches" much like Starbucks sizes its coffee), that should be made larger, as circulation has multiplied.  People tend to go to the larger regional branches where there is more selection to check books out, and return them to the smaller branch in their neighborhood.  And now that is where they stay.  So that we have, on our slower moving non-fiction shelves, three copies of a book, while we are throwing away a single copy of another because it hasn't circulated in a year.  Yes, one year.

So we are throwing out books. With abandon.  After several months of weeding like crazy, I read that the director has recently announced to his branch managers that he is now reading to really get to weeding.  I couldn't read another sentence.

Then I read this from William Scott's narrative:

Then at 7:30 pm on November 16, the People's Library
was again raided and thrown in the trash--this time by a
combination of police and Brookfield Properties'
sanitation team. The NYPD first barricaded the library
by lining up in front of it, forming an impenetrable
wall of cops. An officer then announced through a
bullhorn that we should come and collect our books, or
they would be confiscated and removed. Seconds later,
they began dumping books into trash bins that they had
wheeled into the park for that purpose. As they were
throwing out the books, a fellow OWS librarian asked
one of the NYPD patrolmen why they were doing this. His
answer: "I don't know."

At my library, I feel like that NYPD patrolmen who, when asked why he is dumping books from the People's Library, can only say, "I don't know."

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