How to Ruin Your Library (2)
Imitate the chain bookstore model. Sure, that's what people want these days: a place to read nice new books while sipping chai as cool jazz plays in the background. Pass me a biscotti, will you? Put in a coffee shop near the reference desk. Treat your visitors as customers. Surround them with options. And don't be surprised if you get a room full of people who are only interested in coffee and snacks. Earth to library planners: What do Crown Books, Borders and Waldenbooks have in common? Oh, I forgot to add Brentano's, Lauriat's, Bookland, Encore and Tower Books to the list. Give that some thought. Over the past decade more than a thousand new book retail locations have gone under, lattes and all. They found out that their "customers" only wanted the ambience, not the books. Whoops. As for myself, I very much prefer having my morning coffee in a public library; why, there is nothing on earth I enjoy more than sitting next to some teenaged hipster whose earphones are blaring as he clacks away on his laptop. Yeah, that's what I pay my taxes for. I wonder if any library planners ever actually asked their patrons "Hey, do you want a coffee shop plunked down right here?" If they had asked me I'd have said "Hell no—but I could use a good Manhattan right around five o'clock."
Why this happens
The reason this sort of thing comes about is because libraries get scared that they are becoming "irrelevant" or that they are competing poorly with other forms of diversion. Inherent in this is the belief that the library ought to compete—as if it were a sort of amusement park, a penny arcade of information.
A useful lesson from professional baseball
In 1973, the American League adopted the Designated Hitter rule, which permitted its teams to substitute a better-hitting, non-fielding player for the usually poor-hitting pitcher on a given team. This was done because of the perception that baseball had been eclipsed by other sports due to its alleged slowness and lack of offense. Football drew larger crowds. Of course, professional baseball is not a public good but a private cartel of firms who control the rules and conduct of play. They like to make money, need to in fact. They were perfectly willing to alter the longstanding rules of their game for the sake of the fickle television audience and a younger generation who seemed unwilling to wait patiently through an untimed game of strategy. The American League had lagged behind the National in attendance, and so was chosen as the lab rat for the new rule.
The original plan was for a three-year trial, but as these things will do, the "temporary" experiment became a permanent fixture. Now we have two forms of baseball: the one practiced by the American League and the traditional one found among the National teams. Which makes for an interesting experiment. Studies have shown that attendance in American League parks increased about 2,000 patrons following the application of the new rule, although this increase may and likely was influenced by other promotional efforts and changes in location, ownership, et cetera. Other consequences included a rise in the number of batters hit by pitched balls and an extension of the lifespan of players assigned to hit in the pitcher's spot.
On the other hand, the fabric of the game was changed, apparently forever, and moreover not uniformly as had been the case previously but only for one league of the two. In effect there are two types of pro baseball now. Many people do not enjoy this dichotomy. In any event the league's moguls know that the only thing worse than a bad change is a bad change followed by the admission of error—their pride prevents return to the old uniformity.
It should be noted that nobody outside of the owner cartel came out and asked for the designated hitter rule. Nobody polled the paying fans; it was a thing done by the owners of a business based on two poorly-founded assumptions:
- That people who did not attend baseball games stayed away because they found baseball slow and boring; and
- That a radical change in the traditional rules would bring these people into ballparks in sufficient numbers to justify the alteration.
Returning to the good old public library now (or at least the good old library as it stands before someone in authority decides to convert it to a non-profit book-rental outlet) we find ourselves with a number of library planners who cannot resist the urge to go all Starbucks-and-Borders to tart up the old book barn. We know what they are after. Let's see what they have missed.
First, the public library is not a private business. It is not owned by a single individual; nor is it the possession of a cartel. The library is a public trust, an operation run by a government agency for the good of the community—who also pay for it.
Next, the library is not a social experiment. To the extent that it has rules, those have been formed by over a century of common usage, itself based on sound practice. For example, the OPAC is not the replacement for the card catalog but its successor, merely a machine performing the same function. Fooling around with the original model should be done with reference to the original and with the (as we are wont to say in democracies) consent of the governed.
Also, the library has as part of its origin a principle which, while not always obvious is ignored at peril. Strange as it may seem to some contemporary thinkers, the library is yet viewed as a place to obtain books without having to purchase them—either by direct funds or by enduring the solicitations of outside vendors. The same is true for its computer services, et cetera.
Next, looking again to the baseball-for-profit model, we find that the owners of that sport were not slow to include the sale of hot dogs and beer with their little contests. In fact there was no time when vendors did not hawk food and souvenirs to the customers—as customers they were, having entered at the price of a ticket. Contrast this with the library, which somehow managed to persist for generations before some clever soul came upon the idea of selling stuff within its walls. Nobody pays to enter the public library. Nobody should be enticed to buy things while there. The presence of a vendor is not a benign opportunity. If this were true churches would sell bibles during services. [Some may find this comparison apt.]
It should also be said that the discontinuity in direction ought to be examined. What do contemporary library planners know that their predecessors did not? Has there come about some grand sea change in the public's thinking—more to the point, in the thinking of the traditional library patron? Apart from this, is it worthwhile to extend the opportunity for a hot cup of joe to those who might not otherwise enter the library, against the chance of screwing up with the folks who were doing perfectly well under the old, joe-free regime?
The dynamics of the bookstore library model run smack dab into another feature of the traditional public library: its atmosphere, specifically the peace and quiet most conducive to study and the enjoyment of literature. We speak here not of the silence rule but of the Quiet Rule, that universally understood Commandment of the library, to wit: Thou Shalt Not Make Unnecessary Racket.
There are measures and metrics for library use. There are none for lost patrons. Likewise for those patrons who find their facility changed but persist in using it because, after all, it is the only such game in town. Something to think about before you start selling French Roast in the reading room.