Beyond the Bullet Points: It is Time to Stop Trying to Save Libraries

Close the crisis center. Take down the picket signs. Please proceed to un-occupy the library. It is time to stop trying to save libraries.

No, this is not another bait and switch act of verbal irony about how libraries are obsolete. This is about the messages we send. I became aware of this recently when two colleagues I respect greatly and I were talking about the employment in libraries and the economic downturn. We quickly started talking about opportunities for librarians outside of libraries [an idea I support regardless of the employment in libraries]. It wasn’t until I thought about it afterwards that I realized this was akin to talking about getting as many passengers off the sinking ship as possible.

Where did they get the idea that libraries are sinking? These are smart folks, and not prone to the sky is falling “libraries are relics” rhetoric. Then, to my horror, I realized it was me! I set the premise for the whole conversation. I was the one that felt libraries are so important and librarians so crucial that we must save them. To save anything assumes that they need intervention and are at dire risk of being lost.

This messaging is insidious. For example a few years ago I stated adding these lines to the beginnings of my presentations:

“Best Days of Librarianship are Ahead of Us
We are the Right Profession, Uniquely Positioned to Lead in the Knowledge Age
However, We won’t get there Following Current Trends and with our Current Focus on ‘Recorded Knowledge’ and Buildings”

It looks initially as a nice little uplifting piece of fluff, but it is really an implied threat. IF you continue down this path there will be no bright futures…listen to me so I can save you. The minute that we talk about libraries in the context of threats we reinforce the premise that libraries are in crisis and heading into the sepia color of memory:

We must take on Google (or be like Google, or build our own Google) to save libraries!

We must be on Facebook (Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest, MySpace, Geocities) to save libraries!

Screw that!

To be sure libraries need more funding, they need modernization, they need a shifted identity in the minds of our communities. To be sure there are some libraries that need to be saved in the most literal sense from closure, but the whole profession? By taking on the mantra of saving libraries, we are assuming that we weak. Worse, it plays into the whole idea that we are wounded or broken.

I have spent the better part of the last two years talking about advocacy within our communities and stressing that we must give up a deficit model and embrace the aspirations of the community. Rather than talking about how the community can’t read, or research, or access the Internet, we need to talk about how reading, researching, and accessing the Internet can help our communities unleash their potential. We should be asking how libraries help our communities thrive. If we can put together that vision in a compelling way, people will support libraries out of self-interest, not out of pity, charity, or a sense of obligation.

Find a thriving library. They are not thriving because they are the best at running around yelling the sky is falling. Playing the role of the poor little library is not endearing, it is, frankly, embarrassing. Even when there is a financial crisis, or even when the community has a crisis of confidence, we should ask for support based on a track record of service and support. Run on your record not the promise to do better (or worse more of the same) in the future.

Now, as you know I define the library as a platform of a librarian – a platform for community learning and innovation. That means, that the problem here is not the library, it is us – librarians. I have, for example, played the crisis in libraries card. I have played the libraries are like broccoli and good for you card. I have played on fears as much as aspirations in my time. Worse, I have sat back and let others in and outside of the field do it. I must be the first one to change. I do so humbly pledge to do so. You’re next.

First call me on it if I fall back into the “save libraries” narrative, and then pledge to reject it yourself. Let us also pledge that “Hi, I’m a librarian” doesn’t sound like an introduction at a 12 step meeting, but instead rings like a declaration of pride akin to “I’m the Goddamn Batman!”

I believe the future of libraries is bright. I believe that libraries improve society. I believe that libraries are key to positive social transformation. I believe that librarians are facilitators of knowledge. I believe that librarians are the most important assets of any library. It is in my demonstration of these beliefs that I help ensure the future of libraries and librarians. I don’t need to save libraries. Libraries have survived for over 3,000 years. Libraries have survived famine, plagues, prejudice, censorship, and anti-intellectualism well before either of us came along. I don’t need to save libraries, I need to help transform them. The test of that transformation is not in a building, or a collection, or a service, or even the librarians; it is in the achievements of the community.

And I am the Goddamn Batman.

37 Replies to “Beyond the Bullet Points: It is Time to Stop Trying to Save Libraries”

  1. thank you again for wise input! Am eagerly awaiting my copy of the New Atlas…the publisher has run out!

  2. I always think that if we need to save something; it must be ill or broken. I think one of the most important points you made is about the community getting involved, not out of pity but because they want to participate. I think if we create an environment in the library that people think is worthwhile and they see a value, they will be their to support it because they believe it is for the greater good. Great blogette.

  3. Hi, I am a Librarian and have the pleasure of working in an environment with the brightest, most fearless , most creative people I know in a community that not only values but LOVES their library. Dave, thank you for reminding us all ,once again, of the powerful, positive force we all are in our communites.

  4. Which is part of what I’ve been trying to say by attacking the “public libraries are closing down all over the place” meme with some actual research, as documented in the April 2012 and May 2012 Cites & Insights–and why the focus of my next project, Give Us a Dollar and We’ll Give You Back Four, is on evidence to help public libraries improve and retain funding–building from strength as unusually efficient public institutions.

  5. Thanks for telling people to stop the handwringing, look at what is actually going on and be proud of their work. Our small-town library gets busier every day. (We have the numbers to prove it.) We are a vital part of our community; constantly growing and changing to meet our patrons current and future needs..And we do it all without a utility belt. Batman could learn from us!

  6. Your ideas and essays are always thought-provoking – thank you for brightening my day!

  7. Thank you! I had a great conversation today with an amazing colleague along these very saves lines: stop spending time strategizing and lamenting about (insert librarian-as-victim-statement here) and go be awesome for profession and people.

  8. I have an image that I use in my presentations that reads “This is the last time you’ll hear the word ‘crisis.” It’s a good reminder!

  9. I’ve tried to focus on this kind of message the last 2 to 3 years. I want to be part of this transformation. The problem is I’ve watched the foot traffic in my library dramatically decrease over those same years. The numbers are just bad, double digit declines in circulation and gate counts. The materials budget is less than half of what it was seven years ago. I can’t transform the community if the community stops coming.

  10. Great mission statement, Dave. I love my profession, am glad I chose it, and wouldn’t change a thing about getting my MLS…as trends ebb and flow, Libraries (with a capital “L”) have always been there to help the community cope with the unfamiliar and assist patrons with transitions to new skill-sets…our elasticity and ability to re-form is one of our greatest strengths…keeping up with what our communities (schools, towns) care about is so easy with input from our patrons…not too many professions have that flexibility or ability to respond on a dime, as the Library does… “you want a chess club, well let’s meet this week and make it happen!” … etc. It’s the “go be awesome” presence stated by the poster (Carlie) above that will attract patrons, supporters, and funding.

  11. Years ago the state librarian was complaining that legislators didn’t know what the library did for them. I said, “How can that be? Every piece of research you do for them is stamped “From the State Library” right? And every piece has a card attached that says the same, right?”

    “It will now.” he said.

  12. “They are not thriving because they are the best at running around yelling the sky is falling. Playing the role of the poor little library is not endearing, it is, frankly, embarrassing.”

    I can not agree more! IT IS embarrassing.

    We are a service industry. It’s all about survival of the fittest. Focus on clients/users in proactive and positive ways, anticipate their needs and provide the most relevant and effective services. Stand up and shine, stop the hand ringing!

  13. Thank you, Dave! One thing that I’ve been doing is sharing information about how vital libraries are to everyone in our society. I had a few minutes to chat with a receptionist the other day and told her about the NOVEL databases that are accessible and she was amazed! I recommended that she pay a personal or a virtual visit to her local library!

  14. So, when they threaten us with hundreds of layoffs and dozens of library closures and libraries end up having open hours like 5-8 PM, I’m supposed to do what? Not fight for my library? This happens to us YEARLY. I understand what you’re saying, but I’ve also been a NYC librarian for the past 3 years. It hasn’t been pretty. What you say makes sense in theory, but not so much in practice. Here are some of our efforts, along with those of Oakland, CA:
    I am a blogger as well, and I have a thin skin and sometimes I feel like people are personally attacking me when they disagree with my blog-posts, but I have to. It’s been a hard couple of years here. It hasn’t been like, oh, we can’t order more copies of Diary of a Wimpy Kid. It’s been, oh, we have 200+ vacancies in Brooklyn Public alone and we haven’t hired a new librarian or clerk in 3 plus years and we’ve had to cancel XYZ and classes because there’s no one to teach them anymore.
    Thanks for writing this article, though and opening up the dialogue.

  15. And stop “advocating” and sell to them. This is an economic transaction. You have services that might be of use to them and if they deem them valuable they will pay for them. Its like carpooling or public transportation. Very few people take these up because they want to save the environment, people take them up because there are economic advantages to doing so.

  16. I’m a librarian and have worked as such professionally for five years but have twelve actual years of library experience. I have worked in academic libraries, government libraries, school libraries (elementary), and in public libraries. The one main constant that I have found throughout all my experiences is on the fiscal side of things; the first place counties, cities, etc look to make budget cuts is in library services or the library. I guess this is a fact of life that most get used to after a while, but it still blows my mind when other government agencies (welfare offices, health offices, employment office, etc) send their customers to the library who they insist will do what they are supposed to do: assist with finding jobs, filling out forms, etc. And I agree with you, sir, when you say we, as a profession need to stop with the whining and such, but please tell me who at the ALA, our ad-hoc governing body which is ALWAYS spouting off about how libraries are in danger, how libraries are closing, and such, will set the tone for this new positivism for the profession? Until they take the lead about this, and until librarians and libraries across the country start taking credit for the things we do by necessity as well as because we can, libraries will still be considered “leisure” or “recreation” facilities instead of the necessary community educational facilities that they actually are.

    1. I agree that ALA has a role to play here. I think the tone of ALA is starting to change. I was part of Molly Raphael’s president’s program at Midwinter last year that focused on positive advocacy. I can say from many conversations with the president elect Barb Stripling that is where her head is. I also believe that the current president Maureen Sullivan gets it. Now, having this message filter down throughout the organization is another matter, but I am hopeful.

  17. Thank goodness you are Batman!! I am so tired of people talking about the doom-and-gloom of libraries’ fates instead of realizing the transformative presence it has on our communities. No one wants to hang out with Schleprock. They want the good times and positive feelings. The Katy Perrys that remind us to have fun. You can be Batman, and I’ll be Robin the … Girl … Wonder.

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