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

Public Library For Personal Use

   June 26th, 2008 Brian Herzog

lockersThis isn't a new issue, but it's happen three times this week, so I thought I'd mention it: people using the library for storage.

I don't mean the library collection. I mean patrons using the friendly and easy-going atmosphere of the library as a safe place to either leave things, store things, or transfer things to someone else.

So far this week, I have been involved in the following situations:

  • A patron who routinely leaves her notebook and text books at the library. She knows we clean up each night and hold things like this at the lost-and-found at the desk, in case someone comes to claim them. She said she knows they are safe, and it's easier than her lugging it all home each night
  • A patron who emailed me important files from his home computer, because he was sending it out for service and didn't want to lose them (I won't even try to explain that he could have emailed them to himself instead of me, not to mention backing up to disk)
  • A patron who uses the library as a drop-off point: for instance, if she needs to get some documents to someone else, and they can't meet personally, she'll leave them at the desk with that person's name on them and tell the other person to pick them up at the library

It says a lot that people not only trust the library like this, but also think of us in these situations. That's being an important part of the community.

But it's also annoying, you know? The library cannot take responsibility for these items, so it worries me that people rely on good natures and good fortunes. I could understand if we had public lockers for these purposes, but we don't (then there are the stories of library lockers being used for drug deals and who knows what all).

All of these exchanges involve staff time, which is another concern. A few times a month is no big deal, but if more people routinely use the library to store their personal property, or to pass along items to other people - or worse, as daycare until their child can be picked up by someone else - this kind of thing could easily get overwhelming.

Or am I wrong? Should libraries do whatever patrons ask of us, and make it part of our mission to offer this kind of service? I fully support the idea of library as community center, so perhaps. It just seems something like this needs to be decided deliberately, and not just be some patrons getting special treatment on the sly.

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Privatizing Libraries

   March 25th, 2008 Brian Herzog

Tewksbury Public Library logoThe idea of privatizing libraries in Oregon made news a few months ago, and recent articles in the Boston Globe are reporting that now two Massachusetts libraries are facing privatization.

I personally don't like the idea of privatizing a public library in general, but now it's a little more personal: one of the two libraries mentioned, the Tewksbury Public Library, is in the same consortium as my library.

It's also personal because on April 1st, both Tewksbury and Chelmsford residents are voting on tax overrides that will affect library funding and services. Tewksbury is in more dire straits than Chelmsford, but if our override doesn't pass, we will lose staff and be open fewer hours.

But back to the first Globe article. Towards then end, there is a quote from (I think) a Tewksbury resident:

The government cannot run anything that a business couldn't do better.

Are you kidding me? Would you feel better if your town had a privatized, for-profit, police force? And didn't fire departments start out as subscription-based, until communities realized that it was in their best interest to protect the entire community equally?

As far as library privatization goes, I am certainly not an expert on how it happens, but it sounds like a bad deal to me. One article states that privatized libraries get their funding from grants and taxes, but not fees - which along with aid money from the state, is exactly where our budget comes from now.

If a library is privatized, there is the possibility that it would no longer get aid money from the state. So for this to save money, they'd have to really cut costs, and it looks like the strategy is to not provide benefits to staff. Which means that library staff would go from "the best people available" to people who are able to work at a job with no insurance (this in a state where it is now illegal for residents not to have insurance).

And what happens to patrons? Being part of the same consortium means Chelmsford residents can freely use the Tewksbury library and its materials. If run by a for-profit private company, it makes sense that they would stop this practice, because no revenue is generated by sharing their materials with people that don't pay taxes in their town.

I'm sure they have a reasonable business model worked out, or else communities wouldn't seriously consider this. But I like the quote that closes the article:

The library's public, so everyone can use it.

Exactly. Remember a previous post where I was debating between answering the phone "May I help you?" and "Can I help you?" In a for-profit world, customer service loses priority to the financial bottom line, so I think I'd have to start answering the phone with this question:

Is this good for the COMPANY?

Update 5/28/08: Yay: MA Library will not privatize

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