Thursday, August 21, 2014

Business Use of Libraries

Here's a great article about libraries setting up business centers:

This is an interesting issue, with two components: money, and merchandising.

Most libraries feel like money is the core of this debate. How do we responsibly allocate public funds? Here’s a quote from the article:

“Libraries catering to workers walk a fine line between appealing to business-minded patrons who help energize their once-sleepy reading rooms and avoiding the appearance of playing favorites in what has traditionally been an egalitarian space.” Is it okay to spend public money catering to businesses?

It’s so easy for the gut reaction to be “no.” But of course, we’re not talking about Altria and Nabisco. We’re talking about home healthcare workers and tutors and freelance designers and self-published writers – the all-important and over-cited “Main Street.” We spend tax dollars to run our libraries. If we can encourage local businesses, then we can serve as an economic engine as well as a cultural and learning center. We won’t cost  money – we’ll MAKE money for our community.

Should that be a concern? I don’t know if it SHOULD be, but it is. For libraries that are struggling to be funded, it has to be. Librarians understand this, but it’s hard to internalize. If you ask, “Why are libraries necessary?” you will get answers like “Because people can’t afford to buy all the books they want and need” or “Because not everyone has a computer at home, so they need to use ours.” At our library, the two largest user groups are children and seniors – groups without a lot of economic power. Lots of librarians got into the business to serve the under-served, and they are simply unwilling to make a choice based on economics. Some things, in fact, are more important than money.

This is a long-running debate that will continue in libraries for years. And it’s not academic, or confined to library staff meetings. Library users care about this issue. But exactly what is it they are worried about? Some people are truly worried about the use of their tax dollars, but others - and I think this is the larger group - are more worried about changes to the libraries that they love. Even in the New York Public Library debate, people's concerns seemed philosophical as much as practical. These were stacks that the public couldn't access, so why did they care where the books were stored? Because they love the idea of a building filled with books. 

This is a concern about atmosphere and emotion, not about budget. Which is great, because that's something we can address. We just need to listen to the real feelings behind the objections we hear. This is really just another part of listening and responding to our community. It's completely possible to set up our libraries to cater to businesses without making them feel like corporate offices. We can coexist!