BackTalk: Not-So-Splendid Isolation

By Harold N. Boyer

When I think of community, I think of people living in a particular place or region linked by common interests, beliefs, and customs. Organizationally, one thinks of schools, community centers, shops, churches, and, of course, public libraries. There is, however, a specter haunting public libraries.

While the profession has justifiably embraced technology in its efforts to streamline and improve existing services, many of the remote digital services now in place strike at the library's very essence. Today, technology has become the master instead of the servant of library services, and this is threatening to divorce the physical library from the user as more “at-home” services translate into less reason to visit the library.

Get it to go?

I'm speaking of services like email reference, database usage from home, downloading books and movies at home, remote holds, and home delivery of materials. In return for a modicum of convenience, each and every one of these services is helping to defeat the community purpose of the public library, contributing to the alienation of community members from one another instead of strengthening the library as a vital local gathering place.

The library profession seems to have shot itself in the foot by attempting to placate those who perceive themselves as too busy to come to the library. While the continued desire for books in libraries is evidenced by holds (which are now largely placed electronically), we've made it so that patrons at many libraries do not even have to get out of their cars to pick up the titles they reserve.

In my experience, most Internet library use seems to be for email only: I call them “email-leavers,” patrons who come in, check their email, and leave. And while my library offers over 50 expensive databases provided by the county and the state, we see very little use of them in the building. Fewer patrons, meanwhile, are enjoying the pleasures of reading a book in the library, browsing the stacks, listening to a lecture, or having a book read to a child.

It's a job

Professionally, embracing remote access services at the expense of encouraging physical interaction has reduced many public librarians to overqualified clerks. As more remote services go live, public library patrons are interacting less and in less meaningful ways with library staff and resources.

Instead of engaging in one-on-one communication with residents, librarians are now often reduced to pulling items off shelves to accommodate remote requests, handing items out of a window to a line of cars, making explanations over the phone or email to disgruntled users demanding instant reference service, or addressing complaints about slow computers, database problems, or any number of other issues.

Unwise investment?

Today's public library is an impressive amalgam of resources, programs, and activities. Yes, it is important for neighborhood residents who come to the library to satisfy their information needs. But a vital part of the library's mission is and has always been to serve as a focal point for neighborhood interaction, the up-close-and-personal, everyday kind of activity that defines neighborhoods and brings residents together. So it puzzles me that libraries currently choose to employ technology to diffuse their strengths.

We don't see other components of a community similarly dispersing their resources and strong points. School activities, whether athletics, instruction, plays, or recreation, still center on the school.

It's also worth noting that funding for the public library is very much predicated upon the library being a vibrant and meaningful part of the community, and it is vital that our patrons observe firsthand the beneficial effects of their tax monies. Time and again, residents are pleasantly surprised when they visit the library and see the variety of services available, something not so easily understood from a computer screen.

What next?

The history of public libraries in America has been a struggle to involve the library with its neighborhood. While the library's information mission can be broadly achieved, traditionally, no effort has been spared to encourage the physical use of the library. Why has this ideal suddenly changed?

In 30 years of service, I have directed two community libraries and a county system, witnessing up close the library's growth from a repository of books to a complex community organization offering a fascinating array of services and programs. For libraries to thrive in the future, all of these services must work to draw our patrons together. Rather than employing technology to bring our communities together, however, we are instead encouraging our patrons to sit in front of computer screens in not-so-splendid isolation.

If public libraries become ineffectual and are consigned to the dustbin of history, I'm afraid we will have no one to blame but ourselves.

Author Information
Harold N. Boyer is Public Services Manager, Springfield Township Library, PA.
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