Ask a Librarian About the Odd Things Happening at Libraries

There's a piece in the Wall Street Journal today about the changing nature of libraries, as not just places where people find and check out books, but as community rec centers in themselves. But is this really new at all?

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There's a piece in the Wall Street Journal today about the changing nature of libraries, as not just places where people find and check out books, but as community rec centers in themselves. As Owen Fletcher writes, "In an age where people use search engines instead of reference books and download novels on Kindles and iPads, some public libraries are taking extreme measures to stay relevant." He offers up some examples, like a hog-butchering demonstration at a Kansas library — "'If you can butcher a hog in a library, then all sorts of other things become possible,' says Sean Casserley, a new county librarian for Overland Park, who dreamed up the idea" — as well as Zumba classes, holiday shopping seminars, blacksmithing and fly fishing demonstrations, and more. There was even a Star Wars Day at a library in Illinois, full of costumes and games, and there's regular virtual bowling, by way of Wii, at another Illinois library.

Is this a struggle to remain relevant? Or is this just libraries being libraries, the same way they always have been, with more multi-media and digital tools to play around with? I asked Brooklyn librarian Rita Meade, who blogs and tweets under the name Screwy Decimal, for her thoughts on the "new-new library" model, and she referred to Fletcher's quote about "extreme measures to stay relevant," saying, "This phrase wants to make me tear out my hair."

Video games and hobbyist endeavors are not all that libraries are trying. Far from the stereotypical "shhh!" from the stereotypical librarian-silence-enforcer, indie rock bands (well, at least one that plays Harry Potter-inspired tunes) are being hired to play shows in libraries. There are comedy shows, too — at least one out on the library's lawn in a small town in Michigan. Inside, "beyond the usual books, e-books, CDs and DVDs, some libraries are now lending out telescopes, musical instruments and electricity monitors," writes Fletcher.

"Yes, libraries do programs," Meade told me, "but this is nothing new. Yes, sometimes those programs are 'unusual' (I admit, I've never seen butchering in a library and I'm not sure what my personal feelings are about that, but that's neither here nor there), and sometimes they are a response to whatever is popular or current. But I do not see this as a furtive grasp to stay relevant. This is what libraries do. I think it's great that some libraries are able to lend out items other than books, because it shows that they are responding to the needs of their particular community. But again, I do not see it as a desperate move to stay relevant.... We've got relevancy coming out of our ears."

Meade admitted that she'd been frustrated of late about depictions of libraries in the media, specifically "how the media just does not seem to get what we do" — as an example, she cited a recent post from in which the job of librarian is described as one of the least stressful of 2013. On her blog, she wrote in reaction, "Aren't we all just floating on clouds made of sugar, leisurely reading books while basking in the glow of constant patron compliments? Nope." She continued in an email to me, "I should add that while we DO have relevancy, we do not have proper funding, staffing, or support. That's why I think it's so important for misconceptions about libraries to be quashed. I think libraries are perceived as easy targets, and are susceptible to the laziest kind of journalism — the kind that makes the reader think that the person reporting hasn't even stepped FOOT into a library in a long, long time. What people need to realize, and what the media (and, perhaps, librarians ourselves) has failed to do is effectively communicate that librarians have been evolving all along." Later, she pointed me to this piece in today's New York Times, calling it "an honest assessment of libraries."

Meanwhile, in his Journal article, Fletcher admits further down that maybe this whole new Extreme Library thing isn't all that extreme or new at all: "Public libraries have long served as gathering places and offered a range of nonliterary programs," and that those who said libraries would die "have been proved wrong," according to "historian Wayne Wiegand, emeritus professor of library and information studies at Florida State University." Libraries are doing what they've always been doing, but again, there are new toys to play around with. And as far as those library death rumors go, "Attendance at public library programs rose 29 percent from 2004 to 2010, as overall visits to libraries also rose, according to the most recent survey by the Institute of Museum and Library Services."

Whether or not this uptick in visits is related to hog butchering classes is not stated, but it's a given that people go to libraries because they are interested in what they might find at libraries. Keeping what's there interesting (and relevant to the community) is up to those who run the library, but the fear that libraries won't be relevant because they house books is as silly as thinking people will stop reading altogether because of the Internet. Maybe we want our entertainment to come in more interactive, more diverse, more multi-media forms — but again, that's just a type of content, not a denial of desire for the content itself. And yet, I'm a traditionalist. I'd easily go to my library for a book, to do research, to access specific materials, or for the help of a good librarian ... but not to see a hog be butchered. But that's just me.

Image via Shutterstock by Kristin Smith. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.