Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The library as a point instead of a space

In one day, two things happened that fundamentally changed the way how I use my public library. It surprised me - maybe it will surprise you too.

It was a Saturday afternoon in July when I took my five year old son and my three year old daughter to the main branch of my public library. We do this on a fairly regular basis. But what changed that day was this: my five year old son decided that he was no longer interested in the toys kept in the children's section. He walked in, surveyed the available toys, thought a moment, and then he demanded that we go home immediately.

I can't say I blame him. He's an active five year old and the only book that he will curl up and pour over on his on accord is his Lego Star Wars Dictionary. It doesn't occur to him to go to a library to *read* as reading is for bedtime and sunlight should be spent playing. We have been going to the library for years and I have never seen him do anything but ignore the bookshelves.

So maybe it's my fault that I did not force him to find his own books from the shelves and that my ability to find awesome books for him has led to learned helplessness on his part. But I don't think so. Bookshelves that are crammed with thin picture books are really difficult to browse through - even for an adult, much less a four year old. And as someone has flipped through a lot of kids books, I can say that many of them are very uninspiring. Of course there are gems in there but they take some work to suss them out.

And the only reason I have been able to spend the time flipping through the picture books at all is because there there are toys in the library. The kids can play and mostly stay still while I can find books - at least books in the immediate area. At the central branch of my public library, the chapter books are in the next bay and the children's non-fiction books are in the next bay after that. And the adults books require an escalator ride upstairs.

Which leads me to my second epiphany. That same trip to the library was the first one in which I actively used the WPL mobile app while at the library. And it fundamentally changed my library experience. As my daughter was playing, she looked up at me and asked if we could borrow some 'Dora' books.  So, I pulled out my iTouch, logged in and searched to see if there was any available. There wasn't, but I could hold the screen up to my daughter to ask her which one's she would like me to place a hold on.  It is ridiculously easy to do this with the Bibliocommons app.

Bibliocommons app

Bibliocommons app

Bibliocommons app

Forgive me for saying this, but since that moment, I can't help but feel that it is too much bother for me to drag a bag full of books and two kids (one protesting madly that she still wants to play in the library and other demanding we go home now) all around the first floor and upstairs to get books. Luckily, I don't have to. My public library allows me to place holds on books (including those that are even on the shelf at any branch) and doing so means that they can collect my books for me to pick up at the checkout desk in one fell swoop.

And do I miss the serendipity of browsing the shelves? No. Nope. No way. If you are an active public library user, then you already know the truth about browsing the shelves: books you really want to read are never in the library - they are being read.

Since that day in July, I've use the library more than ever. I use Bibliocommon's many lists dedicated to children's literature to find great books to read to our five year old (right now we are reading The Phantom Tollbooth). Every two weeks, I place a bunch of books on hold, and three or so days later I run into the library, pick them up, run out and then go pick up my daughter at her daycare just down the street. We don't go to the library anymore.

It is only now that I completely understand why public library gaming events are so important. How else are we going to draw young people into these spaces (or to rephrase this: into their spaces)? With the promise of shelf-browsing? Of reading in public? Really? 

I mean, I'm an academic librarian and I'm now actively avoiding browsing the shelves.

And now I have to figure out how to deal with the disconnect with the services that our public library delivers and the unsaid understanding in academic librarianship that learning how to shelf-browse is some sort of essential skill for later life.

1 comment:

The Swordsman said...

Very interesting post! You write from the perspective of a busy parent, and of course what you say makes perfect sense.

However, I still do mourn the passing of the "traditional" library-as-space. I fondly remember family trips to the library when I was a kid... and the highlight for me was browsing the stacks. I revelled in the feel and smell of the books!

To be sure, the ability to search the catalogue on my iPhone and place holds, renew books, etc. etc. is a welcome development... but... the truth is that as a graduate student studying for a Ph.D., I get most of my research materials by downloading them electronically from our library's online databases.

Just yesterday, though, I had a "blast from the past" as I went to find an actual book I needed, that wasn't available electronically.

So I actually went into the stacks for the first time in ages, and at the risk of over-romanticizing the point, I was overcome by a feeling of... well... the only way I can describe it is a sense that this was a holy place. I was literally dwarfed (and humbled) by the sheer magnitude of the stacks - stuffed to brimming with real books!

I realized that I had missed that feeling since my childhood, so whatever becomes of libraries in the future, I hope they will always retain the quality of "space" and continue to be a repository for good ol'-fashioned books!