Librarians hit back

I’ve offended some librarians with my criticisms of the NYPL‘s scattershot branch hours and spotty selection of literary fiction. (What I said most recently is buried in yesterday’s jumble.) Before I post exerpts from their email, I’d like to clarify that I blame lack of funding, not the librarians who work in the system, for the state of the branches.

Until I moved to New York City, I spent lots of time in public libraries. The one in downtown Tallahassee, Florida was particularly well-stocked and user-friendly, and I went there at least a couple times a month.

Now that I live here, without a car, I might visit a library twice a year. The flagship NYPL branch is impressive, with free exhibitions and whatnot, but inconvenient for many of us tethered to a day job and a subway commute. While the West Village branch near my office is fine for picking up books you’ve requested online — I used to do that with some frequency — the hours are spotty, and when I browse the aisles I have trouble finding anything I’m interested in. Jefferson Market is much better, although it’s hard to get there and back on my lunch break. The branch near my apartment in Greenpoint (part of the Brooklyn library system rather than the NYPL) is rarely open when I’m home.

In a message posted after the “more” tag, an NYPL employee suggests letter-writing campaigns during city budget negotiations, and donating books to supplement your local branch’s collection.

But first, a friend who works for the main public library of a small island country takes me out behind the woodshed, lumping me in with effete members of private libraries who prioritize marble columns and nice furniture over books. (Obviously this friend hasn’t seen my place in a while.)

I read an article in the New York Times Sunday Money Section about private libraries like the Boston Athenaeum and the Mercantile Library Center for Fiction, the New York Society Library, and the Library of the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen all in New York City. The article lauds these institutions of quiet remove, implying that these are what libraries are “meant” to be. I found much of it a joke, though an inadvertent one. When the statistic appeared that the Boston Athenaeum has the largest membership of a private library, with 8,000 people, I laughed out loud. That is a service population of one tenth of the library I work in which is on a small island.

What a nice thing it must be to run a library without any concerns of outreach or community. Having a well-educated population who have the desire and cash to spend to get access to a little book oasis must be a ball. My daily life is spent in a much rougher, much larger, much more vibrant space….

It would be wonderful to have every book since the Gutenberg Bible but where would we put them all? Space is a huge factor in collection development; The Man Without Qualities didn’t circulate so it was weeded. That is how it works; we try to be careful about it but honestly I will clear away a shelf of Dickens that don’t get used to make space for forty nurse romances which will move.

Our public does not read your blog…. No, my library is for the forty-something woman who is trying to divorce her drunk of a husband and for the secretaries spinning their wheels on the subway holding pace on their life with a page turner and dreaming of a husband like the one in her pink-covered novel. My library is for three-year-olds who have never held a book before and reluctant readers whose window for real literacy is open for a matter of months; it is for the religious freak and the politically disenfranchised. My library is for the homeless and the millionaire both and a place where each get exactly the same focused, personal service.

The friend continues:

It would be great to have the latest lit fiction but it is even better to have a range of music that people can explore, DVDs of classic films that Blockbuster does not stock, and magazines on every topic under the sun. We love bibliophiles but we adore bibliophobics who we can bring over to our side. We have clip files, and maps, and public meeting rooms. We have computer training stations where we directly address the digital divide and forums for public art exhibitions.

We do storytimes for children and have audio books for the blind. We answer any question you pose to us and we protect the questions you ask with the ferocity of
a marine.

The public library is a messy, imperfect, growing organism. We put function well over form and the reason why you have such short hours at your branch library is because we have to have branches close to everyone. We spend an incredible amount of time researching ways of making it easier for you to use the library and get what you want. New York’s Public Library system has an incredible circulating collection, all of which you can view online. When the blogger you referenced talks about going in with a list she is wasting her time. Why do that when from home you can review the catalogue, place reservations on books, and have them whisked from whatever library they are held in to your local branch in a couple of days where they will be held under your name for a week to be picked up at your convenience?

My library is a loud frantic place when it is working well. That is exactly as I like it because it means that the public, all of the public, are here. If you want a huge range of materials and services, go to your public library; if you want to read in a jewelry box, join a private library.

And here’s a helpful response from an NYPL employee.

You’re complaining about branch hours, but I don’t remember you posting anything encouraging letter-writing while the city (& NYPL) budget was being negotiated w/ the mayor. Maybe you did and I missed it? [Ed. note: I didn’t. At least not recently. And I should have caught the budget negotiations, but please let me know the next time they’re happening.]

The earlier NYPL disses that you linked to today complained about gluts of bad and lack of good authors on the shelves. First of all, lemme say that there are 86 NYPL branches (obviously not including Queens & Bklyn OR the NYPL research libraries). That is a fuckload! If the branch you visit doesn’t have something, maybe you could try a nearby branch… there is probably another one within a 5 minute walk!

One big problem is that a lot of book ordering has been centralized, meaning librarians @ specific branches don’t get as much of a chance to tailor book orders to their branch needs. Obviously this sucks. I don’t get to order books for my branch, but I used to get to order VHS/DVDs until they centralized the ordering. Another thing is that theft is a huge problem at many NYPL branches and it shouldn’t be surprising that people wanna steal good/fun/sexy books.

Luckily @ my branch I am now in charge of processing donated books and adding the gems to the collection. Since centralized ordering doesn’t bring in too many esoteric or “unpopular” titles, this is a great way to get copies of good stuff into the system. If you care about your local branch, and are disappointed with its collection, donating books is an excellent & loving solution! I’ve moved several times lately, and got sick of hauling around a lot of my books. I donated a bunch of stuff to the NYPL and it has totally revolutionized the way I feel about owning books — it doesn’t matter to me nearly as much!!! Books that sat around on my shelf, or got read 1.5 times in several years have been checked out half a dozen times or so in a couple of months. It is really humbling!!!

I have a healthy number of friends who work in publishing, so I try to get them to give me free books, remaindered copies or whatever to add to the collection.

One other point that I sorta tried to make earlier is that the NYPL collection goes way way beyond books. Have you tooled around the online database collections? A lot of the good ones are available from home, you just log in with your library barcode!

Your responses, as always, are welcome.


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