The Wall Street Journal cracked me up this morning when they ran a story about how a library pickup service could potentially do away with librarians. I have a handy reference image to point out the difference.
I will admit right now that I have an obsession with space. I have had it for years. I mean, come on, every little kid dreams of being an astronaut at least once. Fueled by movies like Close Encounters, ET and Explorers, I was ready to fly off to space and see some aliens. Maybe not the Aliens aliens, but something cool. In my college years I read Parable of the Sower and listened to The Martian Chronicles. Star Trek, Farscape…
This is a huge part of my mental landscape.
So, why am I thinking about Starship Libraries?
Duh, So I can be a Starship Librarian!
I mean, surely there are going to be information control needs relevant to interplanetary travel. Especially long term journeys like going to Mars. Going to Mars is going to be a trip of years at a stretch, and that’s going to require all sorts of skills. I think I may be able to help provide something useful to a mission.
Plus, I’ve been thinking about how I could get myself in shape, and having a big goal is a great way to do that. I know, that’s shallow and kind of insane. But seriously. People can just apply to become an astronaut on USA Jobs like any government job. I never imagined it could be so close. Having useful skills, being intelligent, and having the physical conditioning are surely all part of the package.
So, that’s my dream. Being a librarian in space.
Let’s see if I can make that happen.
My voice is only one of hundreds who have already chimed in about this ridiculous piece of flame bait from The Atlantic on charging public library users a per item borrowing fee. I’m sure that someone has already said what I’m going to say, probably in the epic comments thread, but I’m going to say it anyway.
Barry Greenfield’s piece suffers from one fundamental flaw: Capitalism. Public Libraries, as all public institutions, are inherently experiments in Socialism. We utilize public funds, to provide a resource that is unavailable to those who do not have the means to procure them, i.e. knowledge, education and culture via our shared literary heritage (and I include film and music in that definition of “literary”). Capitalizing on that access, even in the smallest way, is a barrier to access that should never be tolerated.
The philanthropic push by Andrew Carnegie was about creating opportunity for those who, like himself, lacked the ability to live the American Dream of social mobility. The dream of the public library was, and still is, to provide public access to those things that provide the means to achieve social mobility. Carnegie understood that to get ahead, one needed to be educated. But access to schools and universities was extremely limited, and mostly reserved for an already wealthy elite, perpetuating a ruling class. The main factor in this class divide was monetary. Those who cannot afford to purchase books, cannot read them. The creation of the Free Public Library broke the monopoly on education for the American elite, and allowed those born into lower classes the ability to learn beyond their raising and the circumstances of their birth. The Free Public Library still does this today, and here’s how.
The area that the public library is most known for, is also the most crucial to the development of our society’s future. The public library offers programs for parents and caregivers of very young children that expose them to human contact, expanding the language that they hear, and engaging them in complex social environments that prepare them to be ready to read and interact in a pre-K and Kindergarten school environment. Children from birth to age two are developing the complex array of brain synapses that will enable them to learn when the are older, and research has shown that children who are engaged with books in a positive way at an early age become better readers, and ultimately better learners when in school. Children between the ages of 3-5 are engaged in amassing a large amount of vocabulary so that when they encounter written words for the first time that they will be able to recognize them, because they will have heard them before. Lap Time programs for infants and toddlers and Story Time programs for pre-school age children are exactly the right environment to build those skills. If you’re curious about the research check out Saroj Ghoting’s website on early literacy for children.
But beyond those single hours per week, parents and caregivers need to have access to the books that will engage their children. The average picture book costs between $12.00 and $17.00. No parent on their own would be able to provide the exposure to the wide variety of material needed to give their child an exceptionally deep vocabulary. Most parents and caregivers will check out about 15 books per week from the public library. That amount in sales would have cost them between $180.00 to $255.00. Some of the more affluent parents I know are already shelling out thousands in day care. There is no way they could afford to buy those books. And children from families living in poverty can’t even come close to making up that difference. To ask a parent to spend $10.00 a week in library books is to ask them if they are willing to make another sacrifice they can’t afford. This will put their children at yet another disadvantage, this one a fundamentally developmental challenge.
Access to Educational Resources
School libraries around the country are being slashed as “budget drainers” (like music and art before them) and school librarians are being interrogated about their contribution to the educational process. As more and more schools lose access to educational material, public libraries are pulling up the slack. While we can’t provide an entire classroom with a set of textbooks, we can provide access to educational databases that students can use to supplement what few resources can be provided by their school. These resources can also help educators who need to prepare their students to be ready to do online research and evaluate resources so that they are ready for college entrance exams and college itself. The other important thing the public library does is provide low-filtered internet access to children. Most public schools run software that will block legitimately invaluable websites like Wikipedia and Google, because of the potential for children to access harmful information. The Public Library provides a much more open environment where children can explore the complexity of the internet with their parents, the librarian, their friends and on their own. This gives them a richer media environment than any school can provide or pay for, and we provide this for free.
Beyond children, America is still grappling with adult populations who are functionally illiterate. And in today’s text heavy, web centric society, illiteracy is even more detrimental than ever. Adults who cannot read cannot apply for numerous government assistance programs, because most all of them are migrating online. One of the most common uses of public computers is applying for jobs (many of them entry level), and filing for unemployment. But public libraries have long been a home for adult literacy programs, both for those who have never learned to read and for those non-native speakers of English who need to learn the language to function in our society. Paying for this kind of service is often times impossible, not to mention demoralizing to a person who already experiences shame for his/her problem.
Adult Basic Education
Another of the more common services we offer are adult basic education classes to help people pass the GED. High School dropout rates are slowly decreasing, but still a major problem, especially among minority students. Those who do not have a high school diploma or GED are at extreme economic disadvantage. There is an ever widening salary gulf between those who have a high school diploma and those who have a Bachelor’s degree, and with degree inflation on the rise due to the extremities of the economy having a high school diploma or GED becomes more and more critical in order to get to the next step, college. Public libraries have long been places for people to get access to the resources they need to educate themselves to pass the GED. Good GED test prep books can cost between $20.00 and $30.00. Not to mention special practice booklets to help students pass difficult parts of the exam. Not only do we provide the resources, but many public libraries also provide courses to help students pass the GED as well.
Access to Technology
Just say “digital divide” and it feels like we’re back in the 90′s. But the reality is that the digital divide is still as real and strong as ever. With broadband costs on the rise and computer costs still a hurdle for many families, the internet may seem like a luxury item. But as mentioned before, there are a host of reasons why people need to use the internet and they are only increasing. One of the most common requests I have dealt with at the information desk has been to help an adult, who has never been online ever, fill out a job application on a web form. And these jobs are not for like executive administrative assistant or CIO at a Fortune 500 company. I’m talking about jobs for food service, grocery clerks, and janitors. The world has so fundamentally changed that even the lowest paid position at a company requires at least a rudimentary level of tech savvy. You have to have an email address, an electronic copy of a resume, and the skill to navigate numerous websites with radically different and unique forms. Not to mention the tenacity to come and check your email on a daily basis to see if you’ve gotten a hit on a job lead. Without this skill, people remain unemployed, and the U.S. economy keeps going down.
Public Meeting Spaces
One of the other extraordinarily valuable assets the public library offers is empty space for meetings. I cannot begin to tell you how important this is. Meetings at the library have provided access to non-profits and start-up businesses to gather collaborators and investors, brought tutors to students, helped people to engage in civil debate and political organizing, space to adequately train volunteers, and more. Many of these places need a space that they can access for free so they can get the leg up they need to help develop our society at a grassroots level. Some public libraries charge for this, but many do not, again, because money is a barrier to access, stifling development and change.
We live in a global society. Anyone with half a mind to watch the nightly news knows that. But not everyone is exposed to what it means to be a part of a global society. Public Libraries provide access to language learning materials, books, music and films from other parts of the world, and programming that exposes people to cultures that they never would have known existed. From indigenous American traditions to countries on the opposite side of the world. People can delve into nearly any culture of the world, and via the internet, engage with that culture as well. Most people today are more likely to know about the ripple effects of the U.S. housing bubble or the Greek economic collapse than they were just 20 years ago. Access to the internet has made that possible. Again, a service we provide for free. As Seth Godin commented about a week ago some people only come to the library to borrow videos. And that is absolutely true. But the videos we offer range far and wide; from Madea Goes to Jail to Götterdämmerung to the entire set of Ken Burns’ The Civil War. We reserve no judgment on what people choose to watch, just as we reserve no judgment on what they choose to read. But some offerings can never be captured as a book, and must be experienced. Providing access to cultural treasures in music and film is just as relevant as learning how to read.
I could go on and on and on about how bad of an idea this $.50 fee is, but you get the picture. The fact of the matter is that public libraries are free and public for a reason; because our society believes that social mobility is gained by access to education, and that barriers to access keep our population impoverished. The free public library is the only resource available to our residents that can provide this. We pay for it via our taxes because we believe in its mission to help those who cannot afford to help themselves. We believe that when we have a well educated, self-motivated, and more affluent society, everyone wins. There are many things that should never be monetized, and the free public library is one of them.
Yes it’s Socialist, and no, that’s not a bad word.
The ALA OITP Policy Briefing #4 has not left my mind. In fact it’s still right at the forefront and it’s got me thinking about strategic planning more in depth. So I’m throwing this question out to library land.
If you were going to write a strategic plan for a library system, out of thin air, what are the “must have” elements that you would include to push a library system forward into the future?
Comments are graciously accepted.
…for if that which you seek, you find not within yourself, you will never find it without.
– from The Charge of the Goddess by Doreen Valiente; adapted by Starhawk via Reclaiming
There are numerous reasons why I read Seth Godin’s blog, but the primary one is for resonance. I will often find in his work something that harmonizes with a deep understanding of a personally held belief. In today’s case it’s about motivation. As I was scrolling through his posts this morning his recent critique of external vs. internal motivating factors hit that harmonic.
He begins by talking about the external motivating factors such as reward and punishment from superiors as the model influenced by the industrial age. But in today’s knowledge economy external motivation is less useful.
In fact, the world is more and more aligned in favor of those who find motivation inside, who would do what they do even if it wasn’t their job.
While not explicitly stating so this dichotomy is one that flows from the theory of the work ethic. Weber’s Protestant Work Ethic being the external motivating factor, and Pekka Himanen’s Hacker Ethic being the internal motivating factor. Why do we do the work that we do, and what keeps us coming back to do this work? What would make someone want to continue doing this work even if it wasn’t their job?
As goes the economy so goes public services, and libraries are often one of the things that politicians always consider cutting. Perhaps they see it as a luxury expense, perhaps it’s the tough call that everyone has to take a cut. Whatever their motivations for reducing budgets, it’s happening, and it’s been happening with more and more frequency. Librarians are being laid off and libraries are being closed all over the country.
But librarians haven’t stopped working. Many of them, the highly dedicated, internally motivated ones turn right around and begin volunteering at the library instead. They can’t let go, and they won’t let the community go underserved just because they lost their job. There are many times I have turned to a colleague or a patron and said that even if there was no money in this work for me that I would do it out of the goodness of my heart. I have a secret post-apocalyptic contingency plan of continuing to run the library and sharing information with people on how to grow food and blacksmith based on the materials in the collection alone.
Why does librarianship inspire this kind of enthusiasm? I think there’s something very deeply ingrained in the internally motivated librarian that goes beyond “job” or “career” and moves into the realm of “vocation” and “calling.” One of the books that really captured that was Nancy Maxwell’s Sacred Stacks. Nancy’s premise is that librarianship has a similar effect on individuals as ministry and priesthood, and that there are roles that we play within the profession that approximate the types of experiences associated with clergy. But the primary element in this equation really is the feeling of “the call.” That librarians are people with a calling, who come to being a librarian because they have a passion for this type of service work.
True, not every library or library staff member is filled with the spirit of library science. There are those who never had that, for whom this is just a job. There are those who had it and lost it, for various reasons, who have died inside and retired in place. There are those who had it beaten out of them from poor management. And there are those who have just plateaued and figure that their work is “just good enough and no thank you I’m not interested in anything else.”
But then there are those who have it, who get it, and who strive to make this an even more wonderful and vibrant place. Who drag themselves to the office and push through the work even when they should be resting. They come in on off days to prep for programs. They read and write blogs in their spare time. They are constantly talking, dreaming, visioning and living for the next day to come so they can jump back in. These are the people we need in libraries; the passionate ones, the dreamers, the experimenters, the revolutionaries, the ones who will go the extra mile and beyond.
In the Atlantic Lane Wallace has a wonderful piece about why, even in the toughest times, you should follow your passion and never compromise. I couldn’t agree more. My post-undergraduate life had me temping and then getting hired on by Chiquita Banana to do export paperwork for two years. I lost my soul in that job and only when I went to library school did I feel like I reclaimed my sense of self. After that experience working against my passion I swore I would never do that to myself again. The emotional and psychological cost was too high.
When I got out of grad school the job search for me took about four months from graduation to actually being hired as a librarian. Sadly, this is somewhat normal. But I had no unemployment checks to draw, since I was a college student. I had no job, and refused to take one unless it was in my field. This led to me foraging for fruit in Seattle, losing my apartment, couchsurfing at my friend Ken’s place and having my mother pay my cell phone bill so that I could wait expectantly for that call. There was a time somewhere in that bleary period of jobless/homelessness that I considered going back to shipping. But I said no, held out, and eventually I got the call. It was my passion for the profession that kept me believing, and in the end it’s what earned me a position in federal service.
The world would be a very different place if we followed our hearts and not our paychecks.
I think I like that world more.
There is a kickass article in this month’s issue of Fast Company on Harlequin eBook impresario Angela James. There are two things in this article that are awesome (apart from the fact that eBook romance is awesome anyway). The first was the quote from Harlequin’s Executive Vice-President for digital books Brent Lewis.
It’s not surprising that Harlequin would get there first. After all, the company pioneered mail-order as well as drugstore and supermarket book distribution. “Wherever women are, however women want to read,” is how Brent Lewis, executive vice president for digital, puts it. Online and direct-to-consumer sales (to readers on Harlequin’s website) weren’t major jumps.
Emphasis mine. This motto broadly applied to all readers is something that Libraries are just finally starting to understand. With the Contra-Costa County Library and their book vending machines, libraries putting QR codes in the wild on city buses, and just generally making eBook downloads available via mobile apps and eReaders with Wi-Fi or 3-4G connections is just starting to get there. This also speaks to the value of embedded librarians out in the world outside of the reference desk environment, connecting with users via social media and active chat clients and, being able to provide library service however it is our public needs it.
The second critical point here is regarding the sale of eBooks with DRM and without.
Carina’s biggest departure from other major publishers — including its owner — is that its books are sold without digital rights management, the technology embedded in many electronic media to thwart pirates. Spooked by what happened to the music industry, most book publishers have embraced this set of access controls, but readers chafe at it. On AllRomance.com, DRM titles comprise half of inventory but only 4% of sales in 2010, says chief operating officer Lori James. (All books purchased on the Nook have DRM, no matter the publisher’s policy.)
“Our theory is that it doesn’t prevent piracy because any pirate can strip DRM in about 30 seconds,” says James. “DRM instead inhibits casual sharing, an important part of the reading process — and the purchasing process.”
Look at that. Sales are showing, hands down that people are choosing non-DRM protected titles the vast majority of the time. 96% of sales. How can you argue with numbers like that? Seriously. They also clearly understand how women read and share romance novels. I can tell you from the days when I watched my mother, aunts and friends in their romance novel reading heydays, that they would get grocery bag loads full of books, swap them back and forth among each other and tell each other which ones were good and which ones were bad, which had steamy scenes and which were sweet. It is a vigorously social reader behavior that DRM restricted eBooks would change, for the worse. Also, these women who read Romance novels read them in volume, and the price point and publishing rate needs to support that. And this woman is making it happen. Kudos to you Angela James for understanding how romance novel readers read and share, and pushing a business model that supports that rather than hinders it. Awesome.
Note: This was originally published on my LiveJournal and in the blitz of cross posting content over to WordPress I neglected to bring this over. So I have backdated it to precede the post entitled TEDxLibrariansTO, because the content from this article is referenced in there. –ESR
The Library in America is in a state of evolution, and has been for decades, but more so now than ever. The role of the library is the same as it has always been, to provide access to information and entertainment resources to the public. But how that happens has been evolving and rapidly as a result of the internet. Right now libraries across the country are in this very bizarre situation of having massive increases in usage and dwindling budgets. That increase in usage stems from the volume of digital media that our society is pumping out, and people’s ability to access the online world. This is not only changing the way we do our jobs at the library, but the services that we need to provide to the public. In order to meet that challenge Libraries need to have the foresight to adapt or be considered superfluous to a municipality’s budget. It’s that serious.
The American Library Association Office of Information Technology Policy released a policy brief for libraries entitled Confronting the Future: Strategic visions for the public library. It identifies four spectra that every library needs to consider when in the process of strategic planning. They are as follows:
Individual Libraries – Community Libraries
Collection Libraries – Creation Libraries
Portal Libraries – Archive Libraries
All of these are a continuum between two extremes. I can’t imagine a single library in the country, or any other country, that is wholly one side or the other on any of these continua. We all fall somewhere in the middle to one side or the other. But I think the trend lines for each of these has serious consequences in terms of what we do as a profession. And the implication of this policy briefing, whether they explicitly stated it or not, is that most all libraries are moving to some degree from the left to the right of these spectra. It’s a slow process, but this is really the vision of the future. Take it as you will.
I believe that much of the work that I’m doing in the library is in keeping with this vision of the future. So here’s a chunk of what I believe needs to be done. These are kind of a list of ultimatums, but I think that they are critical issues that need speedier resolution than more people would imagine. This is what’s happening NOW, and needs to be done NOW.
We need to train or fire tech-deficient librarians. Period.
I hate to be harsh, but you cannot be useful to anyone if you cannot operate a computer at a level to help someone do the basic things that we need to do every day. Everyone from the lowest paid cashier at the grocery store to the upper level management of the federal government require to post their resumes and job applications online. If you can’t sit down and walk someone through a web form, and be able to on the spot diagnose problems with the computer hardware and software, then you are not serving our patrons. But we’re not just talking about simple users; we’re also talking about complex user situations: using various forms of hardware (phones, game consoles, ebook readers, music players) in conjunction with a computer. You’ve got to be able to explain all of that, and walk someone through the complex issues surrounding creating and modifying content for use online. The folks who developed the 23 things are awesome, and I praise them for the work that they did. But it is no longer just fun, or optional. This is our world, and to not know these things is to be functionally illiterate. I would go so far as to say that librarians should be required to have continuing education credits in order to maintain their professional standing. Numerous other professions require it, and we should too.
The Digital Divide is Getting Worse, We Can’t Forget That
We’ve nearly stopped using the phrase “digital divide” in our daily conversations, but the reality is that it is even more problematic than ever. As libraries make crucial budget decisions between purchasing physical and digital copies of books we are making decisions about which class of people can access this content. This means that we are making class decisions about who can read something and who can’t. Unless the library begins purchasing eReaders for people then there is no way that we can make this an equitable situation. This is why we can’t move to a wholly virtual library any time soon. Even if we were to give people the opportunity to load this content on public computers, the time spent on them is limited because computers themselves are limited resources that are valuable pieces of real estate. Yes, more people have access to computers than before, but not necessarily high speed internet access. So their ability to interact with the online world is limited even more. Perhaps if we were able to combine this with print on demand then we could bridge the divide a little more concretely, but under current copyright law we’d be going to jail for that. But don’t get me started on DMCA.
People Want to Connect and Play
People still crave company, and in today’s socially networked world, there is still a desire to see people face to face. Lots of people talk about the “third place” that is neither home nor work where people can connect or disconnect as they wish. The Library is one of those places. However, what people are looking for is changing as well. Sure there are people who are interested in learning how to use computers, but that’s not the heart of what people are looking for. Entertainment outside of the mainstream is where it’s at, and probably where it’s going to stay. There are plenty of places that people can go and read, but there are fewer places where people can go and learn how to salsa dance, or knit, or write a novel, or learn about local history. People are increasingly interested in niche things, and the library has always been a place to explore obscure ideas. It is also becoming a place to explore those things with other people. They need a place to experiment and play with things socially.
People Want to Contribute, and We Should Let Them
If Wikipedia has taught us anything it’s that people love to contribute to things. There are 14.8 million Wikipedia users and 3.6 million articles. It is the largest encyclopedia that has ever been created in history. Wikipedia proves that people love sharing their information and their wisdom with other people, and they will do it for free, without hesitation. Hell, they may even donate millions of dollars to support it! People are posting millions of tweets a day. People are sharing articles and photos on Facebook by the billions. I don’t understand why so many libraries are resistant to the simplest things like allowing people to comment on their blogs or contribute reviews to the catalog. By allowing users to add content to the library’s site and catalog gives them a sense of belonging more than ever. They are a part of various online communities already. This increases the library’s value to the community and guarantees that when the choice for funding comes up that they will say absolutely yes. We also need to realize that we don’t know everything. There is a body of knowledge out there that is only available via crowdsourcing and to ignore it keeps us in the dark.
Libraries Need to Provide Value Added Content
There are zillions of content providers out there, but none of them have the kinds of resources that we have to provide perspective on the world we live in. Our staff are content experts of various stripes, and we all know it. Every library has a website, and that website needs to push content out to the world. Through our own value added content we can promote the materials in the collection, shed light on little known resources, dredge up amazing bits of history and all without the burden of being beholden to advertisers, corporations, or political partisanship. The New York Public Library is going so far as to creating interactive apps showcasing library resources from archival collections that people can play with on the iPad. This is only the beginning of what we can do with what we have at our disposal and the experts that we have on staff.
Libraries Need to Lead the Fight against EULAs and DRM on eBooks
Anyone who has ever worked in purchasing academic journals knows that publishing companies are ruthless, money grubbing bastards. Academic journal companies continue to jack up prices, making journals unaffordable in volume, which limits access to information to only those institutions who can afford to pay the blood money required to keep them. And then we have to turn around and pay for the content again in database form! Why are we still perpetuating this bullshit? And now, on the brink of the eBook revolution we’re getting into these questions about how much we can control the use of eBooks with our patrons, thus limiting the “damage” to the publishers bottom line. Harper-Collins decided to pull a slick move and limit their DRM on their eBooks to have them self-destruct after 26 uses. Not to mention that during contract renewals prices are going up. Well, the Kansas State Librarian called bullshit on that and pulled their contract with Overdrive entirely. We need more people who are willing to stand up against this kind of poor business behavior, and flip the script. She’s now looking to get the eBooks onto a new service of her own. The more that we allow other companies to control the content that we’re providing our users, the more they will extort us for money that we don’t have, and then we have to start cutting content. We’ve been down that road before. We need to control our own eBooks, just as we control our own physical books.
I’m sure that after tomorrow I’m going to walk away with about a dozen more things that we need to be doing. I’ll make sure and let you know.
I was so inspired by the concept behind the TEDxLibrarians conference in Toronto at the end of this month that I decided to take up their video challenge. So here I am talking about Librarians as Thought Leaders.
The following are links to my posts on my personal journal regarding my trip around Asia doing vaguely library related work and having a grand old time of it.
This week Borders Bookstores began a massive chapter 11 restructuring program to staunch the bleeding of cash in their company. They’ll be closing down 30% of their retail stores nationwide, and that has a real effect on people. But this is part of a much larger trend that we need to really look at.
Small and specialty bookstores in this economy have not been able to keep pace with the big box stores. A single quarter of low revenue could spell death for a small bookstore. That’s what drove my small endeavor into closure, people just weren’t buying, and we couldn’t afford to keep shelling out the cash from our own pockets to try to make it happen. That’s what happened with Lambda Rising as well. Property tax rising in Dupont Circle, low sales, and high overhead killed it. Sure, not all small bookstores have gone under, as we can see in this great article from Slate about the 57th Street Bookstore in Chicago. Also, local shops in DC like Politics and Prose and Kramerbooks & Afterwards have held up resiliently against the big box stores. Mostly, I think because they are mid-sized, and able to handle the economy of scale a little bit better than the specialty stores like Lambda Rising.
Similarly, public libraries are undergoing a serious crisis in funding. As all government agencies are hit by the downturn in the economy, via loss of tax revenues, public libraries are on the chopping block. Some systems are closing in their entirety, some partially, many are reducing hours, some are letting people go, and others are furloughing employees.
With libraries falling apart, small bookstores clinging to life, and big box stores going under, what we’re really looking at here is an information crisis. Many people rely on the availability of these locations to learn something new. And where the books don’t go, most all of these venues provide Wi-Fi in addition to their printed literature.
Not everyone has the luxury of a public library. And even if they do, the public library can’t provide access to kind of volume of literature you could find at a big box store. And when you want to go deeper, the big box store can’t hold a candle to the specialty store.
With the loss of Lambda Rising in Washington the LGBT community lost a huge wealth of information resources that was irreplaceable. Even buying gay books through Amazon can’t compare to the experience of browsing shelves filled with queer theory, lesbian erotica, cultural studies and just plain old gay literature. It was astounding. Nothing like it exists outside of a university or perhaps an LGBT institute or non-profit organization. Around the time of the store closing, the owner offhandedly commented that people could find these kinds of works at the big box stores, or on the internet. Sadly, that was just not the case. The average Barnes and Noble will have probably one single book case (6 shelves) dedicated to gay and lesbian books. About half of those are erotica. When Lambda Rising was open, there were three different stores, and the flagship store in Dupont Circle had about 70 bookcases, a video wall, a magazine section, and not to mention the other rainbow patterned accoutrements of the scene. There is no comparison. Similarly the public library has a paucity of gay and lesbian literature. Though it is all integrated into an organizational system that obscures the focus so as not to appear biased toward any particular topic or viewpoint. In my own library I would say that we have a similar amount of LGBT literature, but it’s not as readily identifiable as it is in the big box store.
With Borders going under we find ourselves starting to go adrift. If the big box store was supposed to be our solution to finding those niche items we wanted to find, or wanted to discover in the browsing behavior we’ve adopted, what do we do when the big box store is no more? The problem with Borders failing, is that, for some, Borders may have been the only resource they had left. Having grown up in a rural community, the public library was a lifeline to learning about things I would have never learned in school. Similarly, bookstores at the mall were the nearest thing I had to go beyond what the library was able to provide. Suburban malls were the gateway for rural kids like me to expand my world. My parents never wanted to take me into the city, because they feared for their lives. I laugh at it now, but it was truly the case. Under no circumstances would my parents take me to the city. The furthest afield we adventured was the Eastgate Mall. And I was a bookstore fiend. I would spend hours upon hours browsing the shelves and soaking it in. It’s a practice I still have. But what happens to those kids now who no longer have access to the big box store? The culture of mall shopping, and of suburbia really, has been dying a slow langurous death for decades now. Where will they be able to reach out to stumble across that book that speaks to that secret place in their soul? The library is about all that’s left there.
For the last four years or so, library funding has been going downhill. As goes the economy, so go we. Libraries have had to do a whole host of things to try and weather the economic downturn, as I mentioned above. So measures are taken. Collections budgets grow tighter, staffing slims down to emaciated levels, hours are reduced, and sometimes, sadly, branches are closed. Then children grow up in an information vacuum.
When we close these physical places, we begin setting physical impediments to information. If a child grows up without a public library or without a mall bookstore, chances are they won’t even have internet access except maybe at school. And schools are notorious internet filtering bastards. That child is going to grow up being fed only what his family, the television and the school allows him. What kind of mind does that produce? Will that child be ready to go to college? Or will he be complacent, want to stay where he is, and not care to strive to do anything more?
This concerns me.
Maybe I shouldn’t be worried. Maybe the internet will wind up saving us all. Maybe the economy will turn around and mid-size bookstores will open, the specialty shop will flourish and all shall be well. Maybe other bookstores will be deemed “too big to fail” and there will be government bailouts to help save the minds of generations to come. Or maybe not.