I always find it fascinating to listen to the keynote speakers - what sentiments does an outsider bring to a group of librarians? Steve Almond, the keynote speaker at this year's VLA conference, was very focused on the experience of reading - he exalts it as a route to imagination, as a deep and potentially spiritual experience. He contrasted the experience of reading heavily against the experience of the internet and TV - in fact he described the fact that he no longer owned a television, he descried TV and the internet as too convenient and as imagination-killers, and expressed a sense that even audiobooks take something away from the experience of reading. (I happen to agree, but it's a personal preference issue for me.) He got a little smattering of applause for saying "Books have only one app - YOU READ THEM."
He also described, with affection and nostalgia, the old, dusty feel of the stacks, the slight mustiness of books, the sleepiness of the library. I hear this often, and I remember the feeling from my college-student days: the enjoyment of the aged feeling of libraries, the sense of peace. I could see the librarians around me nodding slowly as he described, with a writer's elegance, a very old-fashioned library experience.
I thought his speech, and the audience response, was very telling. I tend to think of "beyond books" as a given of the library world, and despite my personal preference for paper books, I think that embracing digital formats will be necessary to our survival. Is this the prevailing sentiment, and applause for paper books and quiet libraries just an expression of preference? or are more of my colleagues than I realize still tied to the library-as-books idea?
This train of thought carried through to my next session, where the speaker mentioned in passing the library brand of "books." This isn't something she made up - this is the result of OCLC research, showing that most people still associate libraries predominantly with books. (Get the full report here: http://www.oclc.org/us/en/reports/2010perceptions/2010perceptions_all.pdf) It's the prevailing feeling in my library system that everyone already knows we have books, and that we should concentrate our marketing and branding efforts in other areas. The presenter of my second session made a different point. "Our brand is books," she said. "We need to embrace that." She talked a little about their "big read" program, with giant cutouts of the book they chose, and then of course book talks and programs and book reviews and lots of time on Facebook talking about the book. I can see her point. As she mentioned, people who like reading tend to love reading. Reading enthusiasts still probably make up the core of our customers. Should we be directing our efforts more towards those people, the ones already inclined to love our services? This is really a key question for library marketers.
As we search for advocates, this becomes an especially important issue. I've heard my coworkers talk about the all-important process of converting a user into a "super-user" - someone who loves the library, someone who tells their friends about their good experiences, someone who will advocate for the library when fundraising and support become issues. Will our program attendees, our computer learners, our meeting room users, speak up for us when we need them? Or do we need to tap into that nostalgia and affection, that worshipful attitude that comes from reading books?
I'm personally not ready to give up on "beyond books." We are and can continue to reinvent ourselves as so much more. And I think that the need for our own agora, a gathering place, an intellectual haven, a center of community,a place where you go to when you need smart help, is as sharp a need as my community possesses. Even past the need for workforce development, early literacy and health information, we need to recognize that education and personal development are necessary to a fulfilled life, and fulfilled citizens are necessary to a thriving community.
But as part of this, as part of transforming ourselves and our communities, it's clear that we need our roots. We can't alienate those lovers of reading, those nostalgic and passionate users for whom the library is almost a church. They are, perhaps, the heart of us.