or, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fear and Loathing at a Public Library Reference Desk

What is the Library Expanding into?

   November 9th, 2006

Chelmsford One Book One Town logoAs part of my library's "One Book" program, I spent the evening of Election Day at a local polling place, asking people to vote for their choice for "One Book." Overall it was a positive experience, in that I felt like a lot of people were interested in voting and supporting the library.

However, this is the first time I've ever been in the wild on behalf of the library, and it was really eye-opening. I mean, I spend most of my time either in the library helping people who come to me (who therefore are supportive library users), or in talking with other librarians (or reading their blogs).

So, I was really surprised by some of the reactions I got at the polling place as I asked people to vote for the book they would like to read. Of course there was what I expected ("sure," and "hey, that's a neat idea") and what I was happy to hear ("oh, I read about this in the paper," and "the library is so great"), but there was also the other extreme.

I guess it is because I am fairly surrounded with pro-library people (and those forward-thinking pro-library 2.0'ers) that I was so unprepared for that other extreme. Here's a sampling of a few of the answers I got to me asking "Would you like to vote for the Library's One Book Program?":

  • No, I don't read.
  • Hahahahaha...
  • What the hell is the point of the entire town reading the same book?
  • I've never heard of any of these books.
  • Can't you see that I don't have time for this?
  • Do I get a prize?
  • The library? Why do you even bother?

And these comments didn't come from rowdy/disrespectful toughie kids - these comments came from adults. Not that I was upset or scarred by any of this, just surprised. It was such a far cry from all of the "you have to do IM reference and offer RSS feeds to survive" kind of talk that I usually hear.

As a public librarian, I really do include everyone who lives in town (and beyond) under the "patron" umbrella, and not just students, or parents of storytime kids, or some other target market segment. I guess this really stuck with me because it was a very definite demonstration that, no matter what the library does, and no matter how we use technology to reach out with service, there will always be people we want to serve that we never will.

But since that's far too melancholy a note on which to end this post, how about this: a hotdog walks into a bar and asks for a beer. The bartender looks at him and says, "sorry, we don't serve food."

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4 Responses to “What is the Library Expanding into?”

  1. Kate Says:

    Man, that is a bit depressing albeit expected. There are sick twisted people out there who don’t like libraries. They should seek professional help. 🙂

    You are still telling that joke? 😛

  2. herzogbr Says:

    Yeah, they’re out there – I guess I just need to get out of my little cocoon more often. If not reading-for-pleasure, it would be nice to know what library services those people might be interested in.

    And the greatest joke in the world? Yes, it’s not going anywhere.

  3. jessamyn Says:

    Dude, totally! I remember when I was doing outreach at my library by tabling in front of Wal-Mart. I was just trying to sign people up for library cards and so many people were like “thanks, but I don’t read” as if that was some sort of totally okay thing to say along the lines of “I don’t smoke” It was a real eye-opener for me.

  4. herzogbr Says:

    Yes – great analogy. And as shocking as the revulsion these people showed for reading was, after I thought about it a bit, I don’t think they were offended by books. It seemed that their reaction was more along the lines of “reading is punishment, like Mr. Roth’s 11th grade literature class – ugh, that was unbearable;” and that’s where they’ve been ever since high school. It’d be great to show people that reading can be fun (and we might only have a small window to get people into actual print books – we’ve got to get on them before Apple comes out with the brainPod, to which people can just uplink books from iTunes or Overdrive and search for the information they need [but then again, libraries are about information, not books, so maybe this wouldn’t be so bad]).

    Anyway, perhaps we’re approaching the whole idea of outreach incorrectly. My marketing degree tells me that perhaps libraries need to do a better job at identifying and approaching a target audience. I mean, maybe general elections and Wal-Marts are too wide a net to cast. I still like Lichen’s idea of being where our demographic is likely to be.