2014-04-11 / Community

Library Links

It’s hard to be obsolete when you’re not
By Kevin Davis

Here are two examples of the perception of public libraries in the consciousness of our society:

First: in a recent episode of the television program, “Portlandia,” a character, overwhelmed by her social media, email and other online obligations, meets with a “human bandwidth manager,” wanting to declare “social bankruptcy” (Google “Social Bankruptcy Portlandia,” you’ll find the sketch – it’s great.) Once she has signed away her online social debt and imagines her new, completely offline existence, she says, wistfully, “I’ll go to the library and find something in a book and…”

“What’s a library?” the manager interrupts, “Is that like a big Kindle?”

Second: last week, a librarian told me about a conversation she recently had with an infrequent library visitor who attended a children’s program. The visitor remarked – with some wonder – at the turnout for the event. “Why are so many people here today?” she asked the librarian. “I mean, isn’t it unusual to have this many people at the library?” She continued, “Did you promote this event differently, or was there was just nothing else going on?” The librarian (ignoring the surely unintended insult in the question) looked at the visitor, a little puzzled, and replied, “No, this is the usual turnout for these events.” While the attendance of 50 or so participants was fairly average for a children’s program, the turnout struck the visitor as unusual and surprising, “for a library.”

While the “Portlandia” scene is part of a humorous fiction, it reflects the same perception of libraries held by the real world library visitor encountered by my colleague: libraries – I mean, nobody uses those anymore, right? In our real life encounters with the public, as well as (seemingly, increasingly) in popular culture, libraries are often seen as under-used, behind-the-times or otherwise obsolete institutions.

While frequent library users – as well as many librarians – may puzzle over where this perception comes from, I think it makes sense if you do not use the library at all, use it infrequently, or if your use of the library is somewhat limited in scope. I think we all, to varying degrees, generally operate within fairly comfortable bubbles. We tend to see the world around us – and form assumptions about things we do not interact with all that much – based on our own experiences. If we have no firsthand experience, we develop our perceptions from what we hear in the culture around us. When you couple the media attention given to eBooks and streaming media with the ready access to online resources of information, and widely held (and incorrect) perceptions of what a public library is and does … no wonder.

Writing all this down made me curious – how has our circulation of materials changed today compared to the pre-Internet, before-eBook, pre-information clutter days? Does usage of the library reflect some sort of increased competition for our community’s brain space? Are we in decline?

I went to the archives and pulled – at random – one of the library’s old records of statistics. In 1978, the library recorded 140,729 checkouts. If we fast-forward through the library’s history by 20 years and look at the annual statistics from 1998 (when the Internet was creeping into our everyday lives), we see that we checked out 103,043 items – a decline of more than 20,000 items since the 1978 statistics. Holy cow, we were in decline alright. If those statistics indicated a trend, where would we be now, about 16 years later? Further decline?

Far from it, actually. Looking at the state’s most recent public library statistics, we have recorded 262,022 items checked out in a year, more than doubling the circulation of 1978. Looking at a single day of circulation, I see that on April 5, 1978, the library lent out 425 items, and on April 5 of this year, 764 items went out across the circulation desk.

To be clear, the statistics mentioned above are in no way scientific or meant to be anything other than a general indicator of the volume of business we do these days, in comparison to the past. Many factors influence the numbers and, as you drill down into the details of the statistics, any comparison becomes, somewhat, an apples to oranges affair. My only conclusion drawn from these numbers is, simply, that we handle greater volume of checkouts now than we used to.

It would appear that, quite contrary to common perception, and despite increased competition for our users’ time and attention, more – not fewer – items are crossing the library’s desks every day than ever before. Add to that the number of people who use the library as a source for Internet connectivity, as a place to study or work, a place to attend concerts, children’s story time sessions or any of our many other programs, and you see that the library is, in fact, a very busy place.

While it seems that we all have more going on in our lives these days than in the past, with more information coming at us daily, faster and from more sources than ever before, the South Portland community is using its library more than ever. While CDs have replaced vinyl records, and lending DVDs have supplanted the frequent film screenings of the past, the print books remain, and more people, in greater numbers than ever, are using them.

So, it seems that we’re a lot more than just a big Kindle … and far from obsolete.

Kevin Davis is director of South Portland Public Library.

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