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12 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Your Public Library

February 28, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments
Temecula Public Library (Calif.) image from http://www.leightongeo.com

Taking a detour to more lighter-hearted fare, I wanted to add a bit of insight into Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Your Public Library. Dale Spindel over at “Hey, There’s a Dead Guy in the Living Room” posted two wonderful posts about misperceptions at public libraries (see first post and second post).

Spindel hits the nail on the head on some of these. I began working at a library last summer and absolutely love it! I love helping people find what they need and providing quality customer service to every person. (In fact, I am considering going for a Master’s in Library Science next year as a result.) I’ll probably reiterate a few points Spindel had but also add a few of my own:

1. The library is very, very quiet place. I am probably one of the loudest librarians at my job (need to work on that “library voice”) but overall, the library is a bustling place especially near the checkout counter aka circulation desk. There is always talk going on, among coworkers and between the library workers and library patrons. And in the children’s area, don’t be surprised if you hear the latest Disney band’s tunes playing. The children’s area can be noisy at times, and some workers in the children’s department have no qualms about making the atmosphere a little light with music. The only time a person is likely to get hushed or spoken to is if the person is having a loud cell phone conversation. But really, that kind of thing is frowned upon almost everywhere.

2. Food and drink are prohibited. In the days of Barnes & Noble and Borders (*sniffle*) cafés, public libraries are keeping up with the times and having small cafés of their own, offering such delicacies as freshly made cookies, scones, coffee, tea, and hot chocolate. Many libraries also offer vending machines for soft drinks and other snacks. And if you have a long study session ahead of you and want to bring a delicious lunch to warm up, there may even be a microwave for your convenience.

3. Libraries are only good for books, newspapers, magazines, or encyclopedias. The sad part is I fell for this misperception too up until last summer. Libraries have quite the catalog of media: movies, music, video games, audio books, and even e-books. Library prices and rental length for movies and video games are also competitive with that of a brick-and-mortar Blockbuster (if there’s even one still in existence near you) or renting online via iTunes.

4. If you came to the library without cash, you’re screwed out of getting that movie or audio book you’ve been longing for. Most libraries have the capacity to charge these items to your library account so you can pay it off the next time you return. Also, feel free to ask if they accept credit or debit cards—many libraries now possess this capability as a convenience to their patrons.

5. Library staff = librarians. While those of us without a Master’s degree in Library Science won’t correct you if you refer to us as a librarian, the truth is we really aren’t… until we get that MS. We’re more along the lines of library assistants. The difference isn’t noticeable to you as a patron but it’s pretty noticeable to us when we look at our paychecks.

6. There’s a debate on whether to refer to you as a patron or customer. For years, the people who have frequented the libraries have been referred to as patrons but as circulation tasks become increasingly customer service-oriented, some staff have begun calling these people “customers.” Personally, I’m more comfortable with the term patron, but don’t be surprised if a staff member refers to you as a customer.

7. Local and state budget cuts not only hurt us but they hurt you. When the governor of your state decides to cut funding for the public library and your local municipality, in turn, is getting less revenue, your local library is often prime meat for the chopping block. Less money from local and state government means:

  • less staff,
  • decreased hours or closed days,
  • a longer wait to obtain the items you want, and
  • some requested items must go unpurchased.

We are in a wacky technological transition in which there is increasing demand for electronic media (mp3s, e-books) but demand for print media is still rather high. With decreased funding, libraries cannot consistently meet both of these pricey demands. (And indeed e-books in comparison to printed books are still pricey.)

Lobby your state government and local municipality to avoid budget cuts for libraries and donate annually to your library if it provides a service you heavily rely on. (I mean, in addition to the late fines you might pay.) Every little bit helps.

8. The library could easily be run by volunteers. Philip Pullman, author of His Dark Materials, included this as a topic when he gave his impassioned speech on the value of libraries in the UK. Volunteers provide an invaluable service but they do not have the time beyond what they already give to run a library. Imagine the CEO of Macy*s asking all staff to volunteer their time instead of being paid to do it!

Library staff require training, and depending on whether one works in the reference section, a Master’s degree as well. Not everyone knows how to use the library catalog, Google, Amazon, Ebsco, and all those other fantastic search engines that trained people know how to navigate. Some people need to be paid to do a job correctly—something the government is often ignorant of.

9. Libraries are taking your more privacy seriously. In the age of the Patriot Act and identity theft, libraries have begun to crackdown on offering information on other patrons to other patrons including spouses. So while it might be inconvenient for you to be handed a slip that says we need your spouse’s permission to check out books on their behalf (and vice versa), it’s really for everyone’s protection. We do not want to get in the crossfire if a wife checks out books on lesbianism when her husband knows nothing about this aspect of her life. Or a controlling and abusive ex-husband checks out his ex-wife’s books and keeps them out permanently to put her account into delinquency in an attempt to ruin her credit. Just two examples of what could happen.

10. Some library books that are no longer in circulation have the covers ripped off and are discarded. These may be for one reason or another such as the book being extremely damaged (that no one would want it) or the material is so ancient, it’s now inaccurate (and no one would want it). Other times, the library simply has too many copies, no additional storage, and must get rid of them. If you are passionate about saving books like this, speak to a staff member about whether they’ll allow you to save some of these books that have been weeded and withdrawn from the collection.

11. Most women are readers therefore mostly women frequent the library. No, there are a lot of men either reading the morning paper, sifting through the CD or video collection, or sitting at a desk and studying for a standardized test. Women may frequent the library more than men if you include moms in the children’s section but it’s not by much. Dads take a pretty active role with their kids too.

12. Libraries offer much more than items to borrow.  Many of them have transformed into a 21st century multipurpose center with:

  • meeting rooms and tutorial rooms available for use,
  • engaging monthly programs for children, teens, and adults,
  • copying, printing, scanning, and faxing capabilities for low prices.

And most likely, it has free wi-fi so keep that in mind before parking it at Barnes & Noble or Panera Bread.

  1. February 28, 2011 at 10:54 AM

    This was an interesting read! I generally frequent the library often in the Spring/Summer months as I walk there, but I really wish I could spend more time. When I was living at home, I used to go to the public library often and this is where I first found out they had video games! It was a shocker to me, but it seems that libraries are crazily expanding.

    My question for you: Would libraries accept Indie Novelists e-books? I just recently published an e-book I wrote and your article made me think of this avenue of getting my name and story out there for review and reaching readers.

    Thanks for the article!

    • February 28, 2011 at 2:47 PM

      Hi there,

      Many libraries use the OverDrive eMedia system and partner with different publishers to provide eBooks. They prefer to work with larger publishers so it’s unlikely to get an eBook into a library system (although probably not impossible; depends where you live). Your best bet if you’re self-published is to have a printed and bound title and ask a reference librarian if you can put it into circulation at the library. Hope that helps!



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