7/1/16

The Best Library Possible by Jon Walker

I recently received an email written by a local community member. She expressed concern about the library. In particular, she could not find books of current appeal to her. I am grateful for her interest in the library and will use points from her email to illustrate some important aspects of modern public library service.

Perhaps the single most vital facet of the public library’s mission is to ensure our community enjoys free and broad access to information. In recent years, library resources are evermore online and digital rather than paper in format. This also is the case today for information generally speaking across the United States and around the world. I cite as but one small example the writer’s choice to use email to express her concern about the library rather than a postal letter or some other manner. This ascendency of online information is a primary reason for the library district shifting resources and services. I have both spoken and written about this rather extensively. Here are two relevant citations: “The Ever-Evolving Library” Pueblo City-County Library News & Events, page 2, June 2012, http://www.pueblolibrary.org/sites/default/files/sites/default/files/pdf/newsletters/jun2012newsletter.pdf and “The Fiction Problem” Pueblo City-County Library News & Events, pages 1-2, December 2014, http://www.pueblolibrary.org/sites/default/files/sites/default/files/pdf/newsletters/December%20%202014%20newsletter.pdf.

The writer listed a few exact complaints in her email that can help serve to explain key features of today’s public library. First, she writes that “. . . teachers and other researchers should know that reference material of any sort (except for Special Collections) is no longer available to the public.” Specifically, she reports a shortage of library books on Scotland’s history and the Mexican-American War. The truth is that our local public provides well over two-hundred books on these two topics according to my recent check into available library resources. Many of these now are e-books via library services such as OverDrive, Hoopla, and Freading. Moreover, thorough research via the public library on either of these topics (and almost any other) should include library subscription reference databases specially vetted for their accuracy, currency, and authority. Some recommended sources for Scotland’s history and the Mexican-American War include America's Historical Newspapers (among the most comprehensive databases of full-text newspaper articles dating from 1690), Encyclopedia Britannica (renowned for its expert editorial staff and fact-checking), Gale Virtual Reference Library (includes reference books covering history and many other topics), Heritage Quest, History Reference Center, and World Geography and Culture. Standard library reference resources such as these moved online at least ten years ago or longer. Such digital services have been successful in replacing most of the many volumes of bound paper sources of the past due in large measure to the computer’s powerful capabilities for information storage and retrieval. I recommend using library services like these prior to turning to the consumer Internet via Google, Bing, or the like; which also is available at the public library.

She also writes about “rumors that any book that has not been checked out in six months is removed from the shelf and destroyed. They are not in fact sent to the bookstore to be sold by the Friends of the Library, nor are they offered to other small libraries that might be able to use them.” This is incorrect. Books are removed regularly from the public library collection for a number of reasons, including the information is outdated, the book’s condition is too shabby, or lack of use, among other reasons. But the quickest a book is generally removed due to lack of use is one year. This most often occurs for best-selling fiction where initial public demand might cause the library to procure up to twenty or more copies of a single best seller, but copies are withdrawn as demand shrinks. Withdrawn copies almost always are repurposed in one of the library district’s outreach programs such as Books in the Park or Books a la Cart, or donated to the Friends of the Library for resale via their Books Again bookstore. Rarely do library staff literally throw away a book and, then, normally only when the book’s poor physical condition dictates it. The library district continues to retain almost all noteworthy books and classics. My own recent experience is illustrative. I found in the library’s collection a copy of Soren Kirekgaard’s classic nineteenth century book A Sickness Unto Death (1849) for a library customer who asked for it and the mid-twentieth century American archetypal work of fiction Breakfast of Champions (1973) by Kurt Vonnegut. I also checked out for personal interest the quintessential early twentieth century work The Jungle written by journalist and novelist Upton Sinclair, the 2004 best-selling biography Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow, and the 1916 standard by British author John Buchan entitled Greenmantle. The truth is the public library has never offered more books in greater variety to the public than it does today.

Finally, the writer noted this concern: “. . . I would like to know exactly what the library plans to do with that huge space that will be vacated by books.” The total holdings of the library district has never been larger. PCCLD’s collection consisted of 482,786 cataloged volumes as of December 31, 2015, which represents a 6.8 percent increase compared with one year before. Nonetheless, the public library really is not about books. In fact, libraries predate books. The first libraries, some 4,000 years ago, were places where people accessed information via clay tablets in cuneiform script and papyrus scrolls with hieroglyphics. Of course, books play a key role in today’s libraries, and they likely will continue to be important for years to come. But modern libraries are more than warehouses of books. A public library mainly should be a beautiful, vibrant civic space dedicated for people to gather to study, read, view, create, exchange ideas, and learn both autodidactically and together in groups of all sizes. This aspect of the public library is important for the vibrancy of our community, both today and in the future. It also is a big reason people are flocking to our libraries today. They seek a public place in support of lifelong learning. In the library district’s most recent year of operation (2015), we welcomed more visitors who checked out more library materials, attended more library educational and cultural programs and events, and used more library digital services than ever before in the history of local public library services here (“Reviewing the Past Year,” Pueblo City-County Library News & Events, page 2, http://www.pueblolibrary.org/sites/default/files/sites/default/files/pdf/newsletters/PCCLD%20%20Feb%202016%20newsletter_1.pdf).

Despite its current overall popularity, I understand the library is not always easy for everyone to navigate successfully on their own. Our librarians train regularly on the current science of information storage and retrieval in all formats, and how to teach library customers in effective library use. I encourage patrons to ask for expert librarian assistance when they are not successful researching on their own.

I appreciate this writer taking time to express her opinions about the library. I offer mine here in the same respectful spirit. While acknowledging that this does not guarantee everyone will be satisfied with their library experience, I believe we are doing great work in providing the best public library service possible for our community.

LOCAL HISTORY AT THE LIBRARY by Jon Walker

Our community enjoys a rich and diverse history.  This is the story of the people and events helping to shape the saga of this region over ...