Posted by: glundeen | January 4, 2008

The Physical Library

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David Lee King’s post The Physical Library in the 21st Century raises a lot of interesting questions. Will people still go to the library, and how do we get them back in the building? Does the place even matter anymore?

I am of the mind that people, despite being able to connect to resources remotely, will still crave the physical space. In a world where space is more and more commodified, the value of public space is going to be come a central issue. Keeping the internet as “public space” and success in fighting all attempts to make it more like cable is going to be a huge part of this battle.

I went out for noodles tonight and the man who served me recognized me from his visit a few weeks ago, in which I helped him find some CDs to help him learn English. I don’t know how many people who need the library most would reach it if not physically. The personal connection of customer service, of a human interaction is something that the web does not yet provide. I have 50 Facebook friends and interacting with all of them at once is nothing compared to eye contact with just one.

There’s still a primal sense of place within us. Some of us think of networks as places, but it’s going to take a long time for that to become a prevailing mainstream thought.  We can’t ignore online users. We should absolutely be cultivating a participatory experience for people. Public libraries are behind the progress of the web, and we should be positioning ourselves instead as trendsetters. Comparing the internet and the public library’s probably not fair, because anyone who’s ever worked for a city/county/municipal bureaucracy knows that it’s hardly a free and fluid system.

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Responses

  1. I’ve been thinking about this post ever since you put it up, as this is a topic me and my girlfriend discuss from time to time. She is very much a “go to the library and hang out” person, while I’m more of a “get it, get out, if I can’t get it remotely” kind of person – however, I’m a bit of a shut in, and that sentiment applies to pretty much everything that doesn’t end in “Comics.” Even from someone like me, though, one of the best attractions of the library is access to databases and stuff like that. Still, I’ve given some thought to how to get people to want to go to the library, and it certainly does seem like a delicate balancing act of resources and spectacle.

    I will say that about two years ago, I had a friend who worked at a library in my hometown (where I moved away from not very long ago), and one of the things that got both him and me excited about being in and staying in the library was the fact that he had a big influence over what content, in terms of graphic novels, the library would buy and provide. Now, this was mainly because the librarians at this particular location had not a clue what to get, and he and I are geeked out on comics, and have similar tastes to boot.

    I realize that many libraries have an unspoken policy of “tell us what you want us to get,” and often it can happen (unless, you know, you’re a professor looking for all 20-odd, $100 apiece volumes of something like facsimile editions of Shelley’s notebooks, etc.), but I wonder if it were actual policy, if a patron could feel like they were deciding what was in the library, then it would feel more like their library. Granted, a large majority of people don’t need something like that as an incentive, because what they want is already there – and of course, there is ILL for those who can actually wait a few days to get it; nevertheless, it is an idea, perhaps a small way to change the perspective of a library being an institutional resource that may or may not have what you are looking for, into a public-generated array of resources that the users themselves have helped build. And again, I realize that this is very much the case very often, but perhaps it is an issue rooted more in appearance than anything.

    Concerning the topic of “public space,” physically speaking, I wonder if there have ever been “sponsored” public libraries (or does that somehow go directly against the idea of one? I don’t know … ). Maybe order a cup of Starbucks coffee at the same place you check out your books? (I sense librarians all over the country writhing in anguish when I typed that). Or maybe not, I really haven’t a clue; you would know better than me. I guess my point, if I have one, is that libraries need to figure out a way to offer people something they can’t get anywhere else (and I realize that this is already the case in many instances), or if they can, make the library the preferable choice … how to accomplish this, who knows. Marketers? PR people? $1 beer night?


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