Why Libraries?

youngstones.jpgLast week (January 3rd) the Wall Street Journal had an article by John J. Miller (a writer for the National Review) that discussed the past, present and future purposes of public libraries. It was titled “Should Libraries’ Target Audience Be Cheapskates with Mass-Market Tastes?” (gosh, even I wouldn’t try to get away with such a tag) and pointed out a recent shift in the books that stock the shelves of our libraries.

Apparently, many public libraries are installing software systems that track the circulation of all the books. If a book isn’t checked out in two year period, it may be permanently discarded. Books by Charlotte Bronte, William Faulkner, Thomas Hardy, Marcel Proust and Alexander Solzehnitsyn have recently been pulled. Apparently Ernest Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” was barely saved through a special reprieve. Library officials point out that limited shelf space motivates them to discard unpopular books in order to make room for the works of John Grisham, David Baldacci, or James Patterson, the authors of the most checked out books in recent weeks.

Miller points out that large bookstore chains such as Barnes & Noble and Borders (and I’ll add big box retailers like Wal Mart and Target) in his words “bombard readers with an enormous range of inexpensive choices”. He concludes that it has never been cheaper to buy a bestseller and argues that instead of offering “welfare programs for middle-class readers who would rather borrow Nelson DeMille’s newest potboiler than spend a few dollars for it”, libraries should “discriminate between the good and the bad, the timeless and the ephemeral”.

I don’t want to get caught up in the “what books are artistic masterpieces and what books are trashy romances” argument. I have read and enjoyed a number of books by Faulkner and Hardy, have never read Proust and have heard that Bronte is a bore. I also have not read any Grisham and have never even heard of Baldacci (I would have guessed that he was a Venetian painter), Patterson or DeMille (I do believe that there was a movie producer by that name) but did read a book by Dan Brown a year or so ago. My point in raising his article is that I greatly appreciate Miller’s opening up the discussion of the purpose of public libraries.

As most of you are aware, there exists a planning document for the Northfield Public Library. There have also been a number of public discussions of that document, the existing Carengie Library Building and, what I’ll call, “the library of the future“. There has been some criticism of the plannning document for specifying hundreds, if not thousands, of additional square feet for meeting rooms and suggestions that libraries need to offer more than mere media. There have been some recent calls for combining the public library with a performing arts center. There have even been references to libraries with studio spaces, music clubs and vast public atriums.

I think that Miller asks an important question: what is/are the purpose(s) of public libraries. I’m sure that the libraries dropping Faulkner are doing so for the same reason that some of our communty’s leaders appear to be considering moving the library from it’s historic site: limited resources. I think that we need to decide if our library will offer multiple copies of the latest potboiler, host multiple passionate public meetings or serve as a venue for multiple emerging local artists. Our decisions will play a key role in determining what our library offers to the community. Our decisions may also play a key role in determining the site of the Northfield Public Library.

As one of my business professors at St. Thomas used to say, “If you know exactly what they need, you can give them less”. Perhaps rather than trying to create a grab-bag of goodies in an effort to give people what they want, let’s try to give them just what they need.

…or was that the Rolling Stones’ advice?


  1. kiffi summa said:

    Ross brings up a critical issue here. When the city’s Space Needs Assessment is completed [end of Feb?] it will be more apparent than ever that we simply will not have the $$$ to address all needs.
    I, for one, think, BELIEVE, it is critical for the library to remain in the core downtown, and on its current site. It IS an icon of the downtown, and there are precious few of those since the demise of the elevator.
    Regardless how nice it would be to have what some might view as a new construct/form of library…… I think it is very unrealistic to expect that we can afford that vision.
    As a former head of circulation in the Lake Forest Illinois Library, when we lived in that city, I was pleased to find out from their current Head Librarian, how they have dealt with their perceived expansion needs, and in a city with a huge tax base.
    Simply put, they decided, after a year of community discussion, that the library as a city amenity would remain the size it is, on the site in the core downtown, and they would limit its community service other than Providing reading/media materials. They were not willing to split the collection, build another building in the newer western part of town, or remove a core city service from the core of the downtown, in order to offer more non -media public services. They would expect other sites or community buildings to provide meeting spaces, tutorial spaces, etc.
    They felt the Library, as it existed, in the center of the downtown, on a limited site, was an entity to itself, not to be diluted,either in its use or iconic presence.
    That’s one approach, some may not agree…….but it is wise to note that Lake Forest has been recognized, by architectural professionals around the world, for its early [1910] enlightened planning process.

    January 13, 2007
  2. Tracy Davis said:

    Kiffi and Ross both raise excellent points, although I have to take issue with the wooden-headed Mr. Currier; Charlotte Bronte was way ahead of her time, and is in fact one of my favorite authors. Hearing her described as “a bore” engenders the same reaction I used to have when my children would complain that old black-and-white films were “boring”, which could politely be summed up as: Your ignorance would be touching, if it wasn’t so irritating.

    Anyway, back to the library. Please. We absolutely must prioritize our limited resources, and focusing the scope of services we need/expect a library to provide is probably a very good way to get there. If we can do that, it can pave the way for taking the same approach at prioritizing other things. The Lake Forest model may be valid here, despite the difference in size and wealth between our two communities.

    January 13, 2007
  3. Ross said:


    I’ll add your opinion to the Bronte scorecard.


    January 14, 2007

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