Where Old Libraries Go

Father-in-Law called this afternoon to ask if I’d seen the article that said libraries all over the country were being changed into community centers where people could go to learn things. Odd that he should bring that up now, since it kinda ties in with the underlying premise of the Infopeople course I’m taking, Revisioning the Reference Collection: “[libraries] exist … for the community that the library was built to serve. … We have to evaluate the collections and services of our own library on the basis of how well they meet the needs of our parent community.”

Currently, those needs include assistance and skills related to self-help legal issues and finding jobs, including getting an email address, becoming conversant with Microsoft Excel, finding and filling out employment applications, and creating and filing resumes. Oh, and faxing service! (Who the heck still wants materials faxed?) In my experience, those who are seeking that kind of help have not been regular library users, and so they also need a refresher about library cards. A typical exchange:
“Yeah, I need to go on your Internet?”
“Our public computers are on the 3rd floor. You will need a library card to log on. Do you have a Sacramento library card?”
“Um, I think I used to have one a long time ago. Can you look me up?”
“Sure thing! Let me see your photo ID. … Hmmm … I guess it has been a while! Are you still living at …”

And once the library card issue is fixed, off they go to the 3rd floor, where staff now learns they are “computer-illiterate”, have no email account, and will need a lot of coaching to be successful at the particular online task they’re working on today. Add to that the certainty that they will probably not be able to accomplish it all within the time slot, and that they are completely unprepared to save their work on a flash drive so it doesn’t get wiped when the computer refreshes for the next user. Multiply this by about 5 people per hour times 8 hours per day … and it’s easy to see how someone could infer that libraries are now learning centers for the “computer-illiterate.”

The funny thing is that libraries have always seen themselves as learning centers – albeit for self-directed learning, not for technology classes. Library staff has become the tech guide for a whole class of people that used to be confident and capable, and now feel hopelessly out of their depth and behind the times. What’s changed is what people are coming in to learn. And it’s not available in the reference collection.

There are still students working on assignments, but there are also many authoritative reference resources online that are more up-to-date than our dusty reference tomes. Students can use these resources from home and school, those without a computer or internet connection can use the library’s equipment and wifi. And so, I can no longer justify spending unholy amounts of money on print resources that will be outdated next year and need to be replaced for an additional unholy sum.

A colleague and I are going through my library’s reference collection this summer, removing the deadwood and making recommendations for what to let go and what to replace. I’m hoping that the class we’re taking will reinforce our mandate to provide the resources our community needs, instead of preserving the outdated tools of the past.

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