Library Futures

Libraries, Reading and Society

How long have people been proclaiming the end of libraries? How long have librarians been tossing around the word “relevant” as if it might hurt us?

Personally, I believe that if libraries are doing their jobs they can never become irrelevant or obsolete. We provide access to information and expert research assistance. We connect people with ideas, imagination, and community. These things are so basic to what it means to be human, and to have a good life, that libraries (or at least, what libraries do) should always be at the heart of things.

Now, I’m fully aware that many things are changing. My own relationship with information and reading changes with the technology I’m using and the venues, virtual or otherwise, where I’m engaging with info, ideas and stories. But just because we have search engines and e-books and transmedia storytelling doesn’t mean that libraries are done for. We do face some big challenges–potential opportunities–as formats, access and profit models are in flux, and as world economies continue to struggle. Libraries can be poised to make ourselves even more essential as these struggles move forward.

While the social, economic, political, and technological environments in which we live and work undergo constant change, the essential mission of the public library—to connect people with information, ideas, story, and community—will not change. Neither will the role of library staff as ambassadors, actively representing the library and its value as an engine for prosperity and quality of life. One of our greatest opportunities is to heighten that ambassadorship. Our goal should be to eliminate the ignorance factor: too many people in our communities and in the media don’t really know what we do or what we offer, and therefore find it too easy to disregard or to dismiss us (not to mention defund us). As the world remakes its economies, libraries are more essential than ever. We have the chance to place ourselves center stage in civic planning.

Welcoming all users as a shared civic good, public libraries also become a place where a community meets itself–where all the faces and all the conditions, which might not mix otherwise, can witness one another, and (if we do our job right) understand one another as neighbors. This can be uncomfortable, given our species’ evolutionary habit of feeling most safe among those we think resemble us, and fearing those we don’t. As economics and politics sharpen our differences and make angry, defensive voices louder, the library has the opportunity to enact the alternative principles of curiosity, openness, and equity through our collections, our spaces and resources, our programs, and our policies.

As technologies, formats, access avenues and expectations for access change, both for books and for information, libraries have the opportunity to demonstrate their agency by acting as high-profile advocates of readers and learners of all backgrounds and conditions. Publishers face thorny challenges with electronic formats, a rapidly evolving device market, and unpredictable patterns of usage and demand. They will continue their work to develop models that allow them to profit while responding to user expectations in the downloadables market. At the same time, database vendors are shifting their models and pricing structures, as user needs and expectations regarding paid research continue to evolve, along with the movement for net neutrality. The library’s role is absolutely essential in both of these landscapes—reminding publishers and vendors of the value (and power) of lending, and making certain to protect and support those for whom the new technologies remain either out of reach or bewildering.

Libraries will continue to innovate for information services, programming and outreach. We will explore new ways to meet people’s needs as their habits and attitudes toward information-seeking change, whether we meet them in person or electronically. Social media and online creativity tools let us engage directly with library users. We build stake-holding in the library by providing meaningful and enriching activities that speak directly to peoples’ interests and also bring them together across disparate backgrounds—again, whether in person or in the cloud. Innovative programming creates its own opportunities to fulfill the library’s mission, to reach under-served populations, and once again to demonstrate the library’s value.

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LGBTQ or not…

Book group, Reading and Society

I am a member of an LGBTQ book group. For those of you not in on the culcha, the acronym stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer. “Queer” is kind of a catch-all for everybody on the sexuality and gender spectra who don’t feel the other labels fit. Sometimes, especially regarding teens, the Q stands for Questioning, when you’re just not sure. Sometimes you’ll see it LGBT, without the Q; or LGBTQIA, adding Intersex (which is different from transgender, having more to do with variant physiology than a gender identity that contradicts anatomy) and Allies (we love our allies!). Sometimes you’ll see GLBT or GLB, but it makes some folks politically uncomfortable to put the men (Gay) at the head of the line. Including the “B” and the “T” is important; historically, gay men and lesbians have sometimes been not only uncomfortable with but downright discriminatory towards bisexuals (“Ew, gross, you sleep with people with *those* parts?? Get away from me!”) and transgender folk (“Ew, just pick a gender! Be your parts, already!”).

With that out of the way: we’re here, we queer, we like to read and to talk about books. And we welcome straight people to join us at LGBTQ book group, cuz it’s about the books. Which, in our case, are by or about LGBTQ people.

Sometimes I wonder if having a specifically LGBTQ book group is the right thing. Do we really need a separate group? Can’t queer issues just be a natural part of any book group that’s paying attention to the human condition?

But as soon as I ask those questions, I know the answers: yes, it’s awfully nice; and no, for most groups it doesn’t work that way.

It really is nice having a book group “of our own”. I have made some very important friends through the LGBTQ book group (that seems to happen in every book group!). I really value our time together, sharing our perspectives on the material and the issues it brings up, disagreeing and laughing (also typical activities for a book group). It means something not only for us personally, but also that our local library recognizes us and makes a space for us.

They don’t, however, have a lot of our books. This is another reason why we need our LGBTQ Book Group. Books marketed for book groups typically have a specific audience in mind, and that audience is usually both female and straight. When libraries collect book group kits with multiple copies, they don’t normally do so with titles like Stone Butch Blues or And the Band Played On. For most of our group’s titles we have had to scrounge for copies. The Library Foundation has responded enthusiastically about finding funds for LGBTQ-themed book group kits, but we have been told that this will have to go through channels.

So, I love my LGBTQ book group. When (not *if*) I get hired, we almost certainly will have to move away, and the book group is one of the things we’ll really miss.