Tuesday, July 25, 2006

On sneering and shushing

I wandered onto a new-to-me blog at lunch today, and discovered a goldmine of information. Sandra has linked to a report entitled Long Overdue: A Fresh Look at Public Leadership Attitudes About Libraries in the 21st Century.

This report was prepared by Public Agenda, with support from the Americans for Libraries Council and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. It surveys a number of communities and community leaders, and while some of the results aren't particularly surprising, some very definitely are.

The report is 84 pages, and so I can't even begin to give an adequate summary of its findings. I encourage you to read it for yourselves - it's worth the time, believe me.

A few tidbits to whet your appetite:
    People have high expectations of their libraries. Topping their list of priorities is that the basic services they have come to expect from libraries remain free of charge to the public. They also expect libraries to have enough current books for children, numerous reference materials and friendly, knowledgeable librarians available.

    Libraries receive the best grades of any of the community institutions covered in this study, with nearly half the sample giving them an “A.” Moreover, libraries seem to have escaped the public’s general cynicism about government waste of taxpayer dollars. A majority of the public says its local libraries use tax money well.

    Even in a world of computers and the Internet, the public values the library’s traditional services. When respondents were asked what the library’s top priorities should be, keeping services free and having enough books for children, good reference materials and a knowledgeable, friendly librarian topped the list. In fact, many of the public’s priorities for libraries revolve around services for children.

    While people value libraries’ traditional services, they also value and appreciate Internet and computer access in libraries. Two-thirds of Americans say that having enough computers and online services for people should be a high priority for their local library. Seven in 10 favor wiring libraries so that those who might not be able to afford computers in their home can learn computer skills and get online.
OK. No big surprises there. There were, however, a few tidbits that jumped out at me. The two that are still resonating involve what the public wants from us, and what the community leaders think of us.
More than 8 in 10 Americans agree that libraries provide an important, quiet oasis from fast-paced, stressful lives, with over half saying they agree strongly on this point. Nearly 7 in 10 say libraries are one of the few places where kids can learn quiet concentration in a hyperactive world. “That’s one of the reasons I take my kids to the library,” one man in Phoenix told us, “…to get them away from the TV, the computer games and everything. It’s a time for me to get some peace and quiet. It’s a time for them to get some peace and quiet, too, to learn how to be quiet.”
Hmmm. I keep hearing, at various and sundry conventions, meetings, and workshops that we need to stop shushing people, that we're being unfriendly to the teen set who just want to communicate and that we need to lighten up, already. And yet.....one of the things most valued about libraries is that we're relatively quiet. I use the word "relatively" deliberately; I don't think we need to be as quiet as a tomb. I do think, however, we're throwing the baby out with the bathwater if we dispense completely with the notion that a library should be a place that's kinda quiet.

The second tidbit is a bit harsh, so brace yourselves.
[M]any leaders believe librarians might be idealistic and at times too high-minded. They feel that librarians must be more pragmatic in their approach if they're going to make the necessary alliances to thrive in the current atmosphere of fiscal and budgetary restraint. "The people working in libraries find the profit motive repugnant — and reject people who are motivated by anything other than the kindness of their hearts." —David Pointon, Government and Industry Relations Manager, 3M
OK, folks. This one hurts because it hits the mark. As someone who has a background in retail sales and the Evil Empire of the Brokerage Industry, I have a slightly different view of capitalism and for-profit businesses. I was raised by a father who worked in the investment business for over 40 years, and learned at his knee that capitalism and the free market are good, and that companies are only as good as the people who run them.

Once I joined the ranks of the non-profit world, first in higher ed and now in libraries, I have been in the presence of those who will, if given a moment, sneer rather openly about business people and their evil motives, their faces curling into a moue of distaste.

Ahem.

Y'all need to stop that right now, folks. Those "evil business people" are the very ones who sit on your City Councils, who run your cities (either actually or behind the scenes) and who will untimately make the decisions about your library's survival. If you want to impress upon the power brokers in your community that the library is a worthwhile institution, you can't do it with a look on your face that indicates they haven't bathed in a while. The study has this to say:
When asked about the future of public libraries, many of the leaders we spoke with suggested that libraries must make their cases by engaging more actively in the life of their communities. Communities have real needs that libraries may be uniquely equipped to address, and now is the time to shine a spotlight on that underappreciated potential of the library.
So they understand that we're a good thing. The problem is that we do a horrible job of telling that story. We somehow feel it's beneath us...or demeaning....or gauche...to talk about what wonderful things we're doing and therefore why you need to support us financially.

This is no time to be overcome with a fit of the vapours, folks. Times are hard, money is short, and people have to prioritize. Practice your public speaking skills and polish your speech...and get out there and tell your story.

And quit sneering. But go ahead and shush.

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