Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Libraries, What Are They Good For?

When I was 16-years-old, I spent a semester working in the high school library for class credit.  This is how old I am now - public schools actually had libraries and librarians back in those days!  The librarian (who was educated in France, and I'm convinced working at my high school as penance for something she did in a past life) actually taught me stuff.  I learned to use the reference collection.  I also learned to tackle the computer, back in the days when databases were on those new-fangled things called CD-ROMs.  I really loved it, and heck - I loved to read - so yeah, librarian was it for me.  Little did I know at the time, and what my high school librarian failed to tell me, was that I was going to choose a career that was going to require me to justify my right to exist.  My existence is one I often need to explain to your average layperson, countless politicians, people who think it's my one true mission in life to expose children to Internet porn, and now, apparently authors.

I never thought I'd see the day where authors (not all of you - just the idiot ones) would see libraries as The Problem.  This is what digital has done to us folks.  It has turned authors (not all of you - just the idiot ones) stupid.  Case in point, Scott Turow's op-ed piece in the New York Times, which as far as I can tell was his chance to vent without offering up any solutions, even theoretical ones.

This is something else my high school librarian failed to inform me of - as a public librarian I cannot stop buying authors for public consumption just because they're asshats.  So yeah, I'm still buying Mr. Turow's books "on the job" - all the while sticking pins in my little-suspense-writer-voodoo-doll that I now keep at my desk.  Bother.

Maureen Sullivan, current president of the American Library Association, responded to Turow's screed in a succinct, eloquent manner which further illustrates why Wendy will never be president of anything.  You should read her whole response, but the take-away from it really is this:
"Libraries want to buy your work at a reasonable price so that we may continue to grow readers — and writers — in the digital age"
In one sentence Ms. Sullivan tells everybody what libraries do.  We "grow readers."  A functioning, and hopefully informed, society is a literate one.  With no libraries, what do you think happens to literacy?  We're already seeing some of this with children.  Kids who go to school every day with no librarian in their public school.  Information literacy?  Who needs that?  Teaching our children to reason, deduce, investigate, research?  Who needs that?  And now we have authors like Mr. Turow taking aim at public libraries when the sad fact is he should be embracing us.

I'm not sure if everyone got the memo - but Borders went out of business.  Barnes & Noble is sailing towards an iceberg (and giving up floor space to games and toys!).  Walmart will display what it damn well pleases, and heaven knows their sole business is not books.  Independent booksellers?  OK, yeah - they're still around.  But how many of them are displaying genre fiction?  Science fiction, romance, mystery, fantasy?  Oh sure, there are a few specialized independents out there that cater to genre readers, but will you find one in Podunk Middle Of Nowhere?  Hell, in many cases, in a decent-sized city?  Not necessarily.  But you know what you will find?

Yeah, a library.

Guess what - we have shelves.  We have actual display spaces.  We talk to people, all kinds of people!  We engage, we program, we hand-sell.  We are not only breeding readers, we are sustaining them.  We are not only keeping your audience alive, we are creating whole new audiences.  Sure, that 16-year-old kid who is using the library to feed their reading habit isn't likely going to hit the bookstore every week to stock up on books.  But you know what?  What happens when that 16-year-old kid grows up?  Gets a job?  Gets a career?  Gets some disposable income?  Betcha they buy some books!

Libraries aren't the problem.  We've never been the problem.  We love authors.  We love books.  We love reading.  Everything we do on this job (from "game days" to "computer classes") is geared towards growing readers.  To promoting literacy.  Because you know what?  We're whores.  We'll do just about anything to get people in the door, where they can walk into the library and see your books on our shelves.  We want them to find your books, read your books, fall in love with your books, and maybe ::gasp:: start buying your books.

In the aftermath of all of this brain-bleed-inducing nonsense I've been struck by two things.  One is the full-page ad that James Patterson recently took out in the New York Times Book Review.  Like Turow, Patterson doesn't offer any answers - but he also doesn't do a lot of half-assed finger-pointing either.  He asks a lot of questions.  And he's smart enough to not look at libraries and see us as The Problem.  (Probably because we aren't - but whatever).  Mr. Patterson, I salute you!  I promise not to make anymore jokes about Writing Sweat Shops for at least....a couple of days (seriously, I'm only human).

I was also reminded of something Kerrelyn Sparks said when she was the luncheon speaker at Librarians Day at RWA in Anaheim last year.  Sparks was giving the librarians in attendance a little of her life story, which in a nutshell is Crappy Childhood followed by Crappy Marriage.  Sparks also spent a decent chunk of this previous life (oh, like all of it) being strapped financially.  She loved to read, and needed to read, in order to escape the crappiness of her daily life during those years.  I'm paraphrasing wildly here, but in a nutshell?
"The people who need books the most are the ones who cannot afford them."
And that, ladies and gents, is the truth.  It's always been the truth.  Whether it's just escaping into a "happy place" away from their troubles, or it's because those books will allow them to learn a new skill, better themselves, and strive towards a better existence.  Books should be, and always have been for me, about lifting people up.  Libraries were put on the face of this Earth (OK, at least in the US) for that most American of reasons:

To level the playing field.

That's what libraries do.  Librarians do not snatch food out of the mouths of authors and their children.  Librarians do not look for ways to circumvent copyright, tear down authors, and send them careening into the nearest gutter.  Librarians are here as partners.  We're partners to readers, old and new alike, and to authors.  We want to help you.  We want you to succeed.  It would be nice if the idiot authors wanted the same thing for us.

Wendy, Queen Librarian Of The Universe


Phyl said...

Well said, Wendy. Brava!

Scott Turow is a hypocrite. A quick google search reveals that he has made numerous appearances over the years at public libraries to READ and DISCUSS his own books. Appearances that were sponsored by (i.e. paid for by) said public libraries.

He's also appeared at an ALA Freedom to Read gala. Really?

You go wear that sparkly tiara with pride.

Philippa Lodge said...

Coming right after another Phyl, it looks like you have only one commenter ;)

I LOOOOOVE you Wendy! Forwarding the link to everyone I know.

A Library Girl said...

YES. I hate, hate, hate it when librarians have to justify their existence and the existence of libraries, and it makes absolutely no sense that an AUTHOR would take issue with libraries. People like that seem to have this vision of libraries just giving thousands or more copies of books away for free forever and ever, no strings attached. Like libraries are legal pirates or something. Have none of these people ever USED an actual library?

Grr. It reminds me of this one politician in my old home state, who said libraries weren't necessary because of 1) Google and 2) book swaps. Bye bye developing reading tastes that don't precisely match those of the rest of your community. Actually, I wonder what that guy says now, considering that even individuals have lots of restrictions put on e-book lending?

Elizabeth said...

Friend: Man, I wish books weren't so expensive. I love reading.
Me: You should go to the library. That would solve that problem.
Friend: Oh yeah! I always forget about the library!
Me: *head desk*

Boyfriend: I hate that I get charged so much when I forget to return the movie to the RedBox.
Me: You really should check out movies from the library. You get to keep them for a week before they start charging you.
Boyfriend: The library has movies?
Me: *head desk*

Doctor: I can't believe I have to ask you [the librarian] to get this article for me. I thought everything on the internet was free?
Me: *head desk*

SandyH said...

Love, love your post.

farmwifetwo said...

I worked all through highschool at 3 of the 4 public libraries in the city. Back in the days when the catalogue was on cards and checking out books meant opening them up in a stack to their card page and holding the library card, the book card and then the check out card in your hand, shoving it through the microfiche photocopier and catching it on the other side with the same hand. Honestly, we checked out books faster than they do now with a computer. Smart authors love libraries. As you wrote they turn out readers and as adults reader's buy books. Children don't and a lot of people can't afford a lot of extra's like books. At least the libraries buy your books... still one more sale than you had before.

Also, I taught 2 autistic children to read. One on either end of the spectrum. Both out read children that are the same ages as them. Frightening is the number that do not. Why?? My severe ASD's teacher says it's a lack of books in the houses. No libraries, no books, no literacy, no buying of books, no money for authors....

Seems stupid to diss libraries when you think about it. Wouldn't that be like throwing out your own paycheque??

Wendy said...

Phyl: OMG - the Freedom To Read gala? REALLY?!?!?! Asshat times infinity.

Wendy said...

Phyllis: I like my Phyl-commenters the best :) Pssst, don't tell anybody not named Phyl.....

Wendy said...

Library Girl: I can't tell you how many times I've had to explain to people, "A library ebook works just like a physical book on our shelves. If it's checked out? You need to wait your turn in line." ::headdesk::

Wendy said...

Elizabeth: Adding to your list - explaining to people that online databases are not the same thing as Google. Countless, endless discussions with not only students, but sadly sometimes their teachers ::headdesk::

Wendy said...

SandyH: Thank you ma'am :)

Wendy said...

Farmwifetwo: Exactly!

My sister was an English teacher in a disenfranchised area up until recently. She was lucky, had an administration that gave her funds to purchase books, but I also scored freebies for her classroom library at conferences. In many, many, many, cases the only exposure her students had to reading and books was in her English classroom. Many a book report did she get saying something like, "I used to not like reading, and then I read this book....."

MaryK said...

I used to be that 16 year old kid. And that 13 year old. And that 10 year old. My parents didn't have money to buy me books so they took me to the library, and I'd check out the limit every time. Now, I'm one of those people who doesn't even want to know how much she spends on books each year.

Sheri said...

You already said what I was going to say. You know how "everyone" LOVES charter schools right now?? Um yea, most do NOT have libraries. Sigh. And while I did get SOME funding for books it was not enough books! When you teach about 150 kids you need LOTS and LOTS of books! I ended up spending a big chunk on books every year and of course got freebies with your awesome help as well! Teachers already spend on average $500 a year on supplies...add books to that and well, teachers are screwed. :(

Oh, and our public library was in a rival gang territory so most of my kids were too scared to go. Which is just a whole other topic for another day. :(

But screw sanctimonious authors...if it weren't for lending my students books they never would read. Oh, and I do keep lots of Patterson (glad he's cool) - my kids love him. And they LOVED LOVED LOVED your freebies. They all thought it was super cool how you met authors and they gave you books (and more importantly) posters with cute boys! ;)

And one last of my students finally reported a molestation/rape issue in her home thanks to reading! I lent her a book thinking she'd like it and after she finished it (in record time no less) she went to her mom and told her what had been happening! Best argument to keep libraries and access to free books that I can think of!

Hilcia said...

Awesome post!

To level the playing field.

Wendy. What would our little urban town have done without libraries? With mostly immigrant parents, little money, and all that hunger for learning and education, the library was our TEMPLE! Our little immigrant town (and my generation) has produced Congressmen, CEOs, well-known writers and artists, and they all came out of the public school system and LIVED AT THE LIBRARY!!!

Leveling the playing field... everybody deserves to have access to achieve that! These authors should be proud when their books make it to the public library and are read by so many. True story: My auto-buy authors initially sprung out of library reads. What are they thinking?

azteclady said...

one of my students finally reported a molestation/rape issue in her home thanks to reading! I lent her a book thinking she'd like it and after she finished it (in record time no less) she went to her mom and told her what had been happening! Best argument to keep libraries and access to free books that I can think of!

Oh my lord, Sheri, oh my good God! This, why can't people see this?

And libraries give you the freedom to read what your parents won't read. They allow you access without judgement (i.e., "why do you want to read that? how could you possibly be interested in that?" at the bookstore). Freedom to develop your own taste, so that when you are able, you will indulge it.

Wendy said...

MaryK: Me too. And both my sisters. We weren't poor by any means - but my parents both worked full-time and had three kids to feed, cloth etc. Buying your books was a luxury reserved for Christmas and birthday presents. All of us were heavy library users - both our school library and public library.

Wendy said...

Sheri: Please tell me you wrote whoever that author was and told them that story - because that is awesome. Heartbreaking and sad - but so AWESOME that that girl stood up and told her mother what was happening.

It won't be the same this year at RWA without me grabbing YA books for your classroom. Instead I'll probably grab them for work. Our teens read like, OMG! Getting their parents to read fiction is like pulling teeth - but those kids read the crap out of YA fiction.

AL: This is very, very true. My parents actively read to us when we were little - but once we outgrew Dr. Seuss we were pretty much on our own. Mom and Dad didn't read for leisure - mostly because with working full time and three kids, they didn't have the time. So we didn't have a ton of books lying around the house other than picture books. Thank goodness for the library. My sisters and I read, and read, and read......

Wendy said...

Hils: I love this country - but OMG Americans are spoiled brats! You know what made me fall in love with my job again? Working at a library with a large immigrant community. Explaining to them how they can get a library card, how the library works, that how, as long as you're a responsible user, it's ALL FREE! I spend a lot of time reassuring them "No, really...." and "Yes, you can...."

LynnD said...

Bravo Wendy. I always loved to read and was one of those kids who asked for books as treats rather than candy, but like so many others,my parents couldn't afford to buy that many books. It was libraries (both school and public) that fed my habit and fostered my curiosity and imagination. Anyone, particularly an author, who thinks libraries are a problem is just plain shortsighted (I'm being polite with that term). Librarians please keep up the great work you do! Libraries matter!

Tracy S said...

Wow! I didn't realize how blessed my kids are--our school district has librarians in every school! In the elementary school, "Library" is one of their "specials." They go once a week starting in Kindergarten. I think in 2nd or 3rd grade they started getting lessons from the librarian, so they would have a lesson one week, check out books the next week, etc. They were taught how to use the card catalogue (the computer now! lol), how to find books using Dewey Decimal, how to research, the different genres of books, etc.

My kids read super fast so I could not afford to keep them in books without the library!

LibraryMaven said...

Gosh, we can't make the case for libraries on the fact that poor people need them to ...better themselves, engage in the life of the mind, or even mentally escape from a crappy life via books rather than drugs/alcohol.

In very wealthy Chicago suburbs like where Turow lives they don't like to fund libraries very well since if they need books they simply buy them so he's a little out of touch. After all, wealthy lawyer cum bestselling author Turow probably buys all the books he wants to read but retired librarian me....well I must rely on the public library to discover new authors since I spend my books dollars for the many authors I do buy via ebook.

S. said...

How sad some people think like that. I can't imagine a world without libraries. I used to love to got to the library when I was a kid and devoured all the YA's I could grab and at 13 moving on to the adult's section because YA wasn't enough anymore.
Libraries are a place of memories too, why is it that some people find hard to understand others can find happiness there?
Great post. :)

Karen J. said...

As a school librarian employed part-time only in a high needs rural school district, I know all about having to constantly justify my job to people who say things like "gosh, it must be nice to sit and play on the computer all afternoon". Uh, I teach three classes and do all the administrative work for less than $20,000/year-- "playing on the computer"??? Really????

And you know why I do it? I love my kids. I love hooking my kids up with a great book and having them come back a few days later saying "I need another one!". I love talking with them, hearing about what's going on in their lives, and laughing with them. I also really love being that one place of safety in the social minefield of high school. Everyone uses the library but the outcasts, the loners, and the introverts NEED the library.

I hate the politics, the jumping through hoops, and the endless paperwork but I love the job. I LOVE IT.

Thanks for standing up for all of us, Wendy.

Wendy said...

LynnD: One of my favorite gifts to get when I was a teenager was a gift certificate to the local independent bookstore. I'd literally gorge myself in their mystery/suspense section buying up favorite authors I discovered ::gasp:: at the library!

Wendy said...

Tracy: Your kids are really lucky! More schools than ever have cut libraries entirely, or kept the library in place having it run by parent volunteers. Not that parent volunteers aren't great, and certainly you can learn a lot on the job (I did!), but "volunteers" don't go to college to get master's degrees in information literacy either.

OMG - and you wouldn't believe how often I explain Dewey to people (young and old). Seriously. I was just like your kids - I learned all that stuff in grade school!

Wendy said...

LibraryMaven: It's the curse of living in a affluent area. We get some of that where I currently hang my hat. "Golly why do we need libraries?! I just Google everything and order my books on Amazon!" ::headdesk::

Wendy said...

S: I tend to romanticize libraries, even when I work in one and see the reality on a daily basis. All of my childhood memories involving libraries are happy ones - and to this day I still find a certain bit of magic in them. Even now that I'm old and jaded! LOL

Wendy said...

Karen: When I accepted my RWA Librarian Of The Year award in 2011 I had to get up in front of 2000+ people and give a speech. The first thing I said, and the first person I recognized, was my high school librarian. That got a nice round of appluase and I had people come up to me afterward, even days later, thanking me for acknowledging the work that school librarians do. What has happened to libraries and librarians in many of our public schools is a travesty. It really is. And one day I hope people with decision making power wake up, clue in, acknowledge the valuable work you do and the importance of it.