In defense of libraries

For the past four years, I've worked at a public library. Well, technically two public libraries. I have learned a lot at both of these libraries, including that sometimes there is a big disconnect between those creating library policy, and those using libraries. Yesterday, I found myself attempting to bridge that gap twice, defending and explaining why things are the way they are.

My first encounter had to do with downloading ebooks. Our library system is part of a consortium that offers downloadable ebooks. Awesome! Free ebooks! Of course, now that we've advertised and promoted and excited people with our free ebooks, a lot of people want to read them. And all the good books have waiting lists. But the ebook collection is basically like starting a library from scratch on a limited budget: the numbers are growing but still limited. Buying one copy of an ebook is like buying one copy of a print book in that there is only that copy available at a time. This limited availability of every book one wants irritates people who are used to digital content being more accessible, more instantaneous. I'm curious to see as ebook publishing continues to evolve, if these limitations will become less limiting. In the meantime, the good news is that check out time is two weeks. Just get on the waiting list and you won't have to wait long.

My second encounter had to do more with the mechanics of libraries and fine policies in a scenario that happens regularly: Patron checks out books. Patron returns books. Books are not checked in properly. Patron receives letter from finance -- return your books or pay the replacement cost or get sent to collections. Patron is angry and comes to library to confront staff. Staff finds books on shelf. Patron leaves feeling self-righteous and with a grudge against the library. There are two things happening here: first, irritation at fines and the collection of fines; second, the incorrect accusation. Basically, the person feels like they are being called a liar.

Here's the thing: the library is staffed by human beings. We make mistakes. And we also respond to your attitude when you come up to the desk. If you approach me angry and defensive, my first instinct is to be angry and defensive right back. But if you come up to me and calmly and rationally explain that you turned the books in, I will do my best to work with you and figure out what happened. I'm not calling you a liar; I'm just trying to do my job and find our books. Librarianism is a helping profession -- I WANT to help you. But if you're attacking me, it's a whole lot harder.

And about those fines: do I wish that the policies were different and we could do away with fines? Sure. Does "harrasing" people for $30 seem a little petty? Sure. But one could also look at it this way: we (at the library) are responsible for hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of material paid for by tax payers and used by tax payers. It is our job to be fiscally responsible as well as provide fair access to all of our patrons. Fines encourage turning books in on time, thereby making them accessible to more people. If a library just wrote off the cost for all of the items never returned, we would lose thousands of dollars each year. Is that fiscally responsible? And the same patron who thinks it's ridiculous to be threatened with collections over a missing (or assumed missing) book is probably also the same patron who is mad if we don't have exactly the book he or she wants exactly when he or she wants it. And they don't see the connection between the fact that because we have to spend $80 to replace that GED study guide that someone never returned, we don't have the money to buy that book you want.

Like most things in life, it's a balancing act: customer service versus responsibility. Big picture versus individual interractions. And it's all tied together by human beings. We're just doing our best.