A shrine, a rant, and zombies

(Sorry to have been quiet lately; I’ve been out of town a lot.)

Today’s thought-provoking post is Outreach is Undead over at In the Library with the Lead Pipe. (I mean, seriously thought-provoking; it has a bibliography. And I? Have academic journal access. Oh yeah.) And if you’re not into thought, it has Bela Lugosi. How can you lose?

OK, so seriously, what it’s talking about is outreach, and how an attitude of outreach (marketing, community connection) needs to permeate everything librarians are doing, not be ghettoized off in some separate department. No shambling, zombie-like circ clerks off the public-relations hook. (OK, the post doesn’t quite put it that way…Actually I am overrepresenting the zombie content. But it was a good post. And I am totally in agreement with its thesis.)

There’s a point, though, when she brings up one potential definition of outreach — basically activities done beyond the physical bounds of the library — and says,

Pointon’s definition is great, but it pulls into play the struggle libraries are having with “library as place,” an issue recently addressed in The Journal of Academic Librarianship by Sennyey et al., 2009. Current library services transcend the physical boundaries of a library building. Many collections and services offered by public and academic libraries are used remotely. Users access library services from home, in their offices, and even via mobile devices. “…the bond between users and the physical library will change and if poorly managed the “library as place” will become just another campus building” (Sennyey, et al., 2009). In this way, defining outreach by physical boundaries (a body) does not reflect the wealth of services that libraries provide and undermine our community-centered work.

And I’m torn here. On the one hand, I totally love the shifting focus of libraries from books to information, of which books are a subset. And I love electronic services and electronic community (hello, I’m blogging).

But it also seems like place is one of the major advantages that libraries (and bookstores) have over Google (and Amazon). (Or, as the Boston Globe noted recently, really good video stores over Netflix.) Unless you live in one sweet house, you can’t go to Google and curl up in a comfy chair in an atrium. It’s not a place you can congregate, run into people. Being a place that facilitates types of interactions, that adds a physical dimension with sensory appeal, matters.

I was thinking about this recently when I visited the Boston Public Library, which is, of course, one of the great shrines of librarydom. The place is gorgeous, of course…stone and carved names, a sunlit atrium with a pool and a statue that looks like joy. And it’s huge and drips with quiet majesty and this sense of old knowledge. I could spend a long time in one of those chairs in that atrium, in the shade, watching the sun, with a book.

And then I encountered really awful customer service from almost everyone I encountered there (except the perceptive and personable security guards), which is a whole separate rant I won’t get into, except to say that service, personal connection, human interaction, is another major asset libraries have over the Google world, and that bad customer service drives me absolutely up the wall, and that, really, that’s what the outreach post is talking about when it says it has to be an attitude that everyone has. You microfiche staffers hiding in the basement, surrounded by ancient and barely used machines? You, too, are outreach, and the way you help a patron (or not) has a lot of influence on whether I come back. Mind you if I ever need copies of articles as they appeared in the print edition of some newspaper, I’ll have to come back, because Globe and Herald reprints are stupid-expensive and you let me print at 25 cents a page, but how often is that likely to happen? And wasn’t that a missed opportunity to compete on service, on a library’s irreplaceable strengths? Oughtn’t you to be something more than cheap?

2 thoughts on “A shrine, a rant, and zombies

  1. Quite right, and it’s exactly there, in the added value beyond the information (which is indeed increasingly available outside the library, albeit with crappier metadata), that 21st-century libraries need to shine. And many of them, probably most, alas, very much do not.


  2. Hey, Asaf, nice to see you there!

    Ah, metadata…there’s a whole other tangle to play with :).

    Anyway, I think there’s an identity crisis, really. What are libraries? Are they places or services or something else (or….and)? Who are they for? What kind of stuff do they have (books, games, web sites, files…)? How technological are they, and within that how social-media are they? What’s the shape of the communities they serve and the nature of their interaction with those communities?

    And I think it’s hard to shine at something if you don’t know what that something is, or if people are pulling in different directions, which they are. (And important, furthermore, to remember that what constitutes shining is going to be different for different patron bases, and thus that those different directions are important…I mean, *I* want my shiny always-on hyper-service-focused digital-native library, but maybe not everybody does.)

    It’s funny, too, as one of the take-home messages of my management class is that mission-focused management is a natural fit for librarians, who are, after all, mission-oriented people…But you have to have that clarity of mission, which requires going through some hard and often divergent conversations.

    (I should note that my former employer’s library was fantastic; it had an excellent fit between its patrons and its services, and was constantly trying to find new ways to make itself relevant, important, and usable to the community.)


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