By Andrew Strong
I was a children’s librarian at Rockford Public Library in the early ’90s, during which time I was selected to attend the School Readiness Institute in Austin, Texas. The work of the Institute resulted in a book called Achieving School Readiness, a guide for public libraries. From 1996 to 2004, I was manager of Youth Services at RPL, and was privileged at one time to serve on the American Library Association’s Caldecott Committee, which selects the best illustrated children’s book of the year.
I am writing to take issue with the notion of a “bookless” library, a vision illustrated by RPL Director Frank Novak, apparently in closed session, for discussion purposes, with “our” library board of trustees, and a vision accepted without evidence of much reflection by Ted Biondo in his blog column printed in the Jan. 24 Rockford Register Star. I have chosen to use Mr. Biondo’s words as my foil, since he espouses a thrust couched in elitist language that would dismantle both a print collection and a library system in our city.
Biondo says, “Can you imagine the world today if everybody shunned technological advances as some of the Rockford library patrons are suggesting?” Patrons are not suggesting this. They are suggesting the allocation of dollars spent on the acquisition of electronic resources be appropriately balanced with the acquisition of print resources, as well as library services and facilities.
Biondo says, “People cannot continually adjust their lives or make decisions solely based on the lowest common denominator.” Wrong. That is exactly what public libraries are supposed to do — that is, serve the broadest cross-section of the public by meeting their information needs. It is based on the principle of ensuring an informed citizenry. It is a public good that serves to improve the quality of people’s lives not just by providing a means to entertainment, but, in a more profound way, by providing meaningful materials and meaningful help to get things done when information is a part of the solution.
Biondo says, “The library is correct in its decision to embrace every facet of the technology that is now available…” Wrong. Remember 8-track tapes? Remember Betamax? Remember the Segway? Libraries must tread cautiously with our tax dollars before plunking down large sums with an embrace. We must also be careful to question what we are embracing. People who want to add to the load of Electro Magnetic Field (EMF) effects in their own lives should be free to do so, but even the EPA suggests “cautious avoidance” of electronic devices that emit them. One doctor believes that 30 percent of childhood cancers are caused by exposure to EMFs. How much do e-book readers add to the load? Another thing to consider before a full embrace is respect for privacy and anonymity. Traditionally, the library has been very careful to protect the privacy of citizens where library use is concerned. Records of borrowing history are never kept once a user’s library materials are checked in. In this PATRIOT Act, Google Analytics Age, what provisions has the library made to protect users’ anonymity and privacy where e-books and e-book readers are concerned?
Biondo says, “The library must remain relevant for those patrons that can’t afford the new technology and provide them with the opportunity to increase their skills in its use.” Right. He continues, “Of course, those displaced by the new technology seldom have the acquired skills to find a job with the new technology without training to improve their skills.” Possibly, but this is a gross generalization. Still, recognizing this need in various quarters, the library has traditionally allocated for knowledgeable and sensitive staff to provide not only access to new technology, but outreach and education in its use.
Biondo says, “Members of ‘Save Our Library’ and the Rockford branch of the NAACP need to look for ways to expand the horizons of individuals in their groups to obtain e-readers … not to hinder everyone else who has already taken the necessary steps to achieve success in a future filled with technology.” Traditionally, the library has been the point institution in this kind of activity, usually by establishing collaborative programs with other institutions with similar missions, and by seeking state, federal and foundation grant funding. Perhaps those who have already “taken the necessary steps to achieve success,” who can afford the new technology can also afford to privately download from their own wallets, saving the library tax dollars to, say, increase hours of service, bolster collections, or hire more staff. (Book circulation is down, you say? Could this be related to slashing hours from story hour prime-time, those three hours from 9 a.m. to noon five days a week? Oh, wait! The Main branch, Rock River and Montague branches are closed ALL day on Mondays!)
Biondo says, “Do the members of these respective groups still view only three channels on their tube television sets, or listen to Arthur Godfrey on their radios…?” Baiting diction to be sure. Did you know there is a revival in the production of vinyl LPs? Gee, I wish the library would collect some for me. After all, I pay my tax dollars, and I think I should be able to find these cutting-edge titles at my library! “Public services should also be required to keep current with technology.” Indeed.
Biondo says, “The future takes a little more effort than just learning how to read…” But you have to start somewhere. When the library cut its hours, it drastically reduced storytime programming. In fact, services to parents and young children is a shadow of what it once was. In its heyday, mothers and children would leave the library with armloads and tote bags full of books. Head Start would routinely bring busloads of children to dedicated storytimes weekly, introducing new families to the joys of reading and the power of library use. Part of the mission of assuring an informed citizenry is in supporting the growth and development of our youngest future sovereign citizens. And, I would argue, that learning to pull a book from a shelf with one’s own hands, and learning to read from a book with pages is qualitatively different than using a screen. The research is already starting to bear this out. Add to this the caution regarding health effects from electronic devices, and I think I’d prefer to cuddle up next to my child with a non-EMF-emitting paper book, thank you.
Biondo says, “To the library board of trustees, there doesn’t always have to be a balance.” Wrong, wrong, so, so wrong. We can argue about scope, depth and focus (which is what we are doing now. See my reference to LPs, above.). But as long as we are talking about a PUBLIC library, there must always be a balance, because we are talking about appropriate service to the broadest common denominator based on a bottom line. Speaking of which, where is the Library Foundation in all of this? And why is no one considering a referendum to restore hours and/or grow services and collections?
Biondo says,”It’s not cheaper in the long term…” Wrong again! In fact, Jane Pearlmutter of UW-Madison pointed out that, not only does the library have to pay over and over for the same e-book title, but the rise in cost to libraries for e-book plans through vendors has already been announced, and the rise is astronomical. Add to this questions about the durability of e-book readers and the cost of replacing them as they are lost or broken, and one can see how e-books are not cheap at present or in the foreseeable future.
Biondo says, “Let’s begin the transfer to the digital library world together for once and help those who need our help, whether they are patrons who don’t comprehend electronic readers or employees who need retraining as their antiquated jobs become obsolete.” Wrong again, and based on ugly assumptions. The transfer began in the 1970s. Anyone who thinks the library should dive headfirst, lemming-style, into the untested waters of e-books has not fully considered all of the implications. In fact, it is a number of patrons and employees who are arguing for a measured approach to providing services to all, and remembering those who need it most. A library is not ether. A library is a place. A library is people. A library is (or should be) a force for good. To be this, a library must be people who make good decisions.
Andrew Strong is a resident of Rockford and a former librarian.
From the Feb. 1-7, 2012, issue