Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Chasing the Almighty Number

There's been a lot of talk over the past few years (at least) that the book is dead, or dying, or will die, etc. In fact, a recent magazine had a cover that proclaimed that the book is not dead, it's only gone digital. It was refering to the Kindle (This is another dumb idea that will go the way of the e-book, I don't care what they say at Amazon!). The Fort Worth Star-Telegram recently ran an article claiming that digital media are assisting the decline of the printed page.

I would like to start by saying, "Don't believe the Hype!" The book is not dead, will not be dead, and it's current state of "liveliness" is not attributable to Harry Freakin' Potter! This, however, is another discussion. There is no denying that reading is less popular than it used to be. Honestly, there just were fewer ways to be entertained at one point in time. However, I argue that literacy levels are at an all time high (it should be noted that I have no statistics to back this up... but it sounds right), at least compared to other centuries. Why, then, is the book not the reading material of choice?

Laziness. Growing masses of stupid people. People magazine. There are lots of causes. But one cause that everyone has overlooked is found in the most unexpected of places: Your public and academic libraries.

How, you say? How in the world could institutions synonymous with the protection and preservation of everything books and writing be responsible for their loss of popularity? I will tell you.

Once upon a time libraries had books... and more books... and magazines... and reports... and newspapers... and maybe microfilm and a photocopier. People who liked books would come to the library to check them out, or research in the library from the reference collection. Everyone was happy. Those who didn't like to read, or didn't need to research, stayed away and put their time into other pursuits. One day, however, someone decided that libraries needed to justify their own existence and the budget that this existence mandated.

They needed numbers:
How many people used the building?
How many items checked out?

For both of these, more is better. How do we get more numbers? I know, lets get stuff in here that people want, not what they need. And let's try to attract people who wouldn't normally come here. While we're at it we will justify these new additions in a mission statement of some sort that explains that these items are informational as well. So you got movies. Not just nonfiction movies, or quality movies, but the movies people really want to see (especially people who weren't already using the library). This way numbers would soar, and everyone would say how much they like the library. After all, they are providing for free what companies like blockbuster actually want money for!

This is not so much where academic libraries helped the decline.

These libraries teamed with their public cousins and provided Internet access. This access is not just for research, mind you, or reading e-books (which are all but dead and highly annoying and impractical to use), but for chatting, checking myspace, paying bills,, Runescape, etc. This really brought the people out of the woodwork. They can sit in the public library, lie about what they look like and get all hot and bothered while someone at another library types dirty to them. And are there just a few of these computers restricted in use? No, there are as many as the library can afford to meet demand.

Look at the number of people who love the library rise!

Meanwhile, no one stops to think that public Internet access is not synonymous with disseminating information. No one stops to think about the negative effects of the library, of all places, dumbing down what it does in order to have some meaningless numbers to show someone who probably has never even been inside a library!

Where are the books? The good books? Thrown away because they didn't check out as much as the Manga. Crime and Punishment... make way for Dawg the Bounty Hunter's Biography, ON CD! Instead of telling someone that they can find a picture of that tree for their biology project in a field guide, we tell them to do a Google image search for a Crepe Myrtle. Instead of pointing them to a good book for pleasure, we take them to the DVD section and give them something that will kill more than 1.5 hours but less than 2. Why? Because we would get less people in the library if we offered research computers, word processing computers, and books; and anyway, it's their right to be able to attach pictures from their camera phone to an email to this guy they've been chatting to (only, can we upload it for them, because they're no good with the internets).

Shame on us.

We have the responsibility to be cultural leaders, not a place that gets whatever people want to get them in the door. We can carry quality items from every branch of media and do well. We can get good movies, maybe movies they never would have seen otherwise, and people will watch them. We can guide and, yes, limit what the public can use the Internet for and we would have a much better served patron population, albeit slightly smaller. But let's face it, if they don't need what we've got then they don't need to be in a library.

So down with kowtowing to popular demand! Up with leadership!
Who are we to choose what we carry?
Who are we to be cultural leaders?