ANTI-STEVE (SORT OF)
If you've never really formulated a philosophy of librarianship, you need to read Steve Coffman. Not because you'll necessarily agree with him -- I'm increasingly defining my philosophy as the opposite of any of his proposed solutions -- but because he rattles our cages and makes us think in the broadest terms about the future of our profession.
I disagreed with him profoundly when he argued that Borders does what we do but better and cheaper, a topic I argued with in my column, "Borders Skirmish" (http://www.qconline.com/myword/border.html); I invited the opinions of my readers, who also disagreed with Coffman, and reported their feelings about libraries and bookstores in a follow-up column, "Borders Skirmish Revisited" (http://www.qconline.com/myword/border2.html).
Mind you, I didn't object to Steve's notion that we could make our libraries as inviting as bookstores, and keep them open longer. (It was clear to me that I had made the complete transition from librarian to library user over Christmas break, when I wanted to go to my library and realized, "Aw, shoot, they're closed.") My objections were on the grounds of stock, access, service, and free use.
The problem with bookstores, of course, is that their guiding imperative is "move product." A book has maybe three months at best to establish its market, and if it doesn't sell, out it goes. WE tend to believe many of the items we carefully select have some timeless value.
I also hate trying to find specific books, or even browse a subject area in a bookstore. Even simple obvious systems can fail you there. Is Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow going to be in fiction or science fiction? If it's not in either, where is it? Oh, it IS in science fiction, but in the separate section for hardbounds and quality paperbacks. How helpful. Want to find Gina Kolata's book about the flu epidemic of 1918? Just browse among all the biology books; it's right there, side by side with books about lizards and cloning and Darwin. Dammit, I LIKE library of congress classification; I LIKE just heading to QH 332 when I want to see what's new in bioethics.
Coffman rhapsodizes over bookstore clerks because they're so much cheaper than librarians, and most people don't need or use reference service anyway. Pity, of course that the underpaid clerks don't know anything. Service a la bookstores? Don't make me laugh. They can't answer reference questions, even if they considered it their job, because their reference collection is limited to those books they're currently selling. Given how limited their cataloging system is, they can't find you a copy of A Doll's House even though it's in half a dozen anthologies they're selling.
And just try to convince Borders to let you try a book out for free on the condition that you bring it back in three weeks.
Yes, that was hard enough to take. But Coffman is at it again in his article in the January 2000 issue of Searcher, which you can read online at http://www.infotoday.com/searcher/jan00/coffman.htm. I don't argue with his premise that libraries are in an unfavorable funding climate these days. Between the anti-tax people who undercut ALL publicly funded common resources, the people who think all information is on the internet so who needs libraries anyway, and the people who want to own all information and force everybody to pay for it, our prospects are a mite daunting.
His solution, however, seems to be to join the enemy. Why not offer fee-based services, he says? Why not create a two-tier service structure, a free serviceable basic Chevy version for most users, and a Cadillac version for folks who can pay for it?
How about because there's enough of that going on already in society? How about because the unique mission of the public library is to make it possible for anybody who wants to learn and needs to know, to do so regardless of their ability to pay?
Why not follow the PBS model and go out and seek corporate funding, he says? Well, for one thing, you may have noticed that PBS has sold its soul in the process; in its eagerness not to antagonize corporate sponsors, it has, for example, turned down funding from labor unions for a series on the history of labor. Virtually all of its political commentary shows, heavily funded by industry, lean toward the conservative viewpoint; the only mildly liberal PBS radio station, Pacifica, has recently tried to eliminate some of its leftish programming, over strong public protest and resistance.
Yes, museums accept corporate underwriting, too, which is why a major exhibit on insects was funded by Orkin. Do you think this might conceivably have limited the archivists' perceived freedom to discuss organic pest control systems or health risks from pesticides?
I hate to disagree with so much of what he says. Steve is so clearly good for us. His goals, after all, are OUR goals, too: improving our services, and making ourselves more essential and more competitive in a world that offers more information options. We need somebody like him to shake us up, make us confront our problems and rethink our methods -- though not our mission. Librarians DO need to re-think how we deliver traditional services. We DO need to be what he calls intrapreneurial, to take some chances, to think outside the box.
It's just that his solutions are so resolutely wrong-headed. IMHO, of course, but then again, hey, it's my e-zine.
Remember, you're welcome to add to or argue with anything I write. If you'd like to post your comments in public, e-mail them to me with the header "talkback" and I'll post them on my Talk Back page http://marylaine.com/exlibris/talkback.html.
This should go without saying, but I will say it flat out: I do not collect information about my readers. If you voluntarily reveal information about yourselves, I do not disclose it to anybody, with the exception of contact information on articles by contributors.
For a list of ways technology has failed to improve the quality of life, please press 3.
Two trucks loaded with a thousand copies of Roget's Thesaurus collided as they left a New York publishing house last week, according to the Associated Press. Witnesses were stunned, startled, aghast, taken aback, stupefied, appalled, surprised, shocked and rattled.
Both from Alan Schlein
You are welcome to copy and distribute or e-mail any of my own articles (but not those by my guest writers) as long as you retain this copyright statement:
Ex Libris: an E-Zine for Librarians and Other Information Junkies.
Copyright, Marylaine Block, 1999.