Is your local library going your way?

April 1, 2005
In the last year, I have been sitting on a committee of concerned library members in my hometown in suburban Boston.

In the last year, I have been sitting on a committee of concerned library members in my hometown in suburban Boston. This committee has been enthusiastically promoting the idea that our town needs a brand-new library. And, indeed, when I joined this active group, I, too, was very supportive of that view. But, as in so many civic activities, all is not what it seems to be at first glance. So, over the course of these past 12 months or so, I have begun to question the rationale not only for a new library for our town but the need for a town library as we know it today. Let me try to explain my thought processes.

Our library was built in 1960. It’s a utilitarian building that has served us well. Of course, it’s overcrowded with books and periodicals, new media such as audio-tapes, videotapes, DVDs, and CDs, and room has been made for a plethora of computer terminals, but the library continues to provide excellent services to all its clients. The library does not meet current standards for people with disabilities, staff facilities are crowded, meeting rooms are inadequate, heating and cooling systems often break down, and expansion of the building is almost impossible on the current site. And as for parking, the less said the better. So a case can and has been made for a new library.

But, wait a minute, our town needs a new central fire station, the seniors need a new center, an elementary school must be replaced and there are loud demands for refurbishing the high school. That’s capital expenditures of over $100 million in the next few years. This is in a town with about 25,000 inhabitants. Do the math-it works out to around $10,000 per household. Of course, some support can be expected from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and, maybe, from the federal government, but there still isn’t enough capital funding for all these projects plus a new library that an architect has suggested will cost $20 millionmore if it cannot be started for a decade.

But, then, in the Library Journal (February 2005), which I read not at the library but at home on my personal computer (www.libraryjournal.com), I was struck by an interesting article “The Google Opportunity,” authored by Stephen Abram, president of the Canadian Library Association. He says, “Librarians just need to look at the latest announcements from Google to see why the Chinese character for change is the combination of the characters for danger and opportunity.” Our landscape is being “Google-ized,” says Abram, and he’s right. Every day, I google (new verb) my way through the Internet’s “virtual” library and I rarely visit my “real” library even though it’s only a 10 minutes walk from my home. I’m an opportunity for the library.

Abram lists ten key actions that librarians should take in the face of increasing google-ization. The first is “Lead the wireless revolution.” Libraries must ­follow the lead of wireless university campuses; of cities like Philadelphia and Chicago that are involved in city-wide wireless projects; to say nothing of the many retail businesses, like Starbucks, that offer wireless access to their clients.

The second action is “Get out into the community.” He suggests forming alliances with schools, other local institutions, and community centers. This really hit home with me. What my town needs is not a bigger and better library but easier and more widespread access to media that can inform, inspire, and entertain us. Take the library to its clients. If I can do my banking in a supermarket, why can’t I pick up the books that I ordered through the library’s computer network? It’s the Starbucks philosophyyou are never more than a few minutes away from your favorite beverage. How about being only minutes away from access to the world of information?

Actually, my town’s library already has WiFi access for its patrons so I can run down there with my laptop and continue working. Well, I think that’s what I’m going to do today. In fact, I’ll start writing a white paper for the library committee proposing that we don’t even think about building a new library. Let’s make the entire town a part of the worldwide virtual library. It’s going to cost a heck of a lot less. But I expect that the next meeting of the new library committee will be my last.

About the Author

Jeffrey Bairstow | Contributing Editor

Jeffrey Bairstow is a Contributing Editor for Laser Focus World; he previously served as Group Editorial Director.

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