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Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Are Public Libraries "Permanently F***ed?" Maybe Not

Posted By on Tue, May 8, 2012 at 8:30 AM

click to enlarge The San Francisco Public Library's Park Branch - JASON DOIY
  • Jason Doiy
  • The San Francisco Public Library's Park Branch

Jessa Crispin arrived at the 2012 Public Library Association Conference in Philadelphia in March with high expectations. And by high, we mean abysmal.

 

"Secure in the knowledge that libraries are now permanently fucked," wrote the editor-in-Chief of the popular "litblog" Bookslut. Surely librarians would crumble before her, the harsh fiscal realities having reduced the bibliognosts into heaps of despair, wailing about furloughs and nonexistent arts grants.

But Crispin is not a librarian. Once a publishing outsider, she launched Bookslut in 2002 while working at a Planned Parenthood in Texas. She now enjoys insider status, and she contributes to likes of NPR, PBS, and the Washington Post on all things books. The conference falls within the realm of the "book world," so Crispin, donning black garb, traveled all the way from Berlin in search of heavyhearted roundtable discussions and forsaken vendor booths.

But the whole affair seemed rather ... hopeful. 

"I was not sensing any anxiety that day, and it was pissing me off," Crispin says.

 

So she offered bait. How many more budget cuts can libraries sustain? What about evil e-books?

click to enlarge Students make full use of computers at the Visitacion Valley Branch library.
  • Students make full use of computers at the Visitacion Valley Branch library.

The answers came readily: Libraries are quick adapters of technology, Booklist's Donna Seaman assured her. The Philadelphia Public Library has a Warhol it can sell in order to complete renovations. Even the Encyclopedia Britannica representative offered a happy ending: The very day the company announced it was ceasing production on print copies in favor of an online subscription service, it made $800,000 ... on print encyclopedias.

Jill Bourne, the deputy city librarian in San Francisco, also attended the conference, which she described as "optimistic with a focus on problem-solving, rather than dwelling on problems."

Librarians are simply too busy being innovative to waste precious moments commiserating. Back home, their communities need them more than ever.

The job of meeting the "variegated needs" of patrons, she says, requires a great deal of creative, flexible, and innovative thinking. For example, libraries offer the nation's unemployed far more than a public space and free books: They provide significant support for job searchers, including resume-building workshops and essential technological skill development.

"This stereotype of the rigid, shunning librarian," persists, Bourne says, but that's just not the reality. Her colleagues are "dynamic and deeply committed to providing the public with free access to knowledge that could improve their lives."

In other words, Crispin may know books, but perhaps she has a bit more to learn about libraries and their employees. While museums are relatively recent inventions, libraries have a long history of survival. The Royal Library of Alexandria, constructed in the third century BC, certainly faced some trying times, including conquests, attacks, and pillaging. Julius Caesar accidentally burned the place down in 48 BC.

Libraries are actually quite impressive survivors at handling anything that comes their way -- even if it threatens their most basic product: the books themselves.

"We would not classify e-books as evil," chuckles Michelle Jeffers over the phone. Jeffers, who works in the office of public affairs, was quick to point out that it would be a mistake to compare the San Francisco Public Library's funding to that of facilities across the country. A recent report from the Pew Charitable Trusts named San Francisco as the only city to escape recession-related library cuts.

There was period in the late 1980s, she says, during which the system was certainly in peril.

"There was talk of replacing librarians with volunteers, and turning branches into reading rooms," Jeffers says.

In 2007, voters passed Proposition D, renewing the original Library Preservation Fund, which guarantees a percentage of the city's property taxes go to libraries. The $2 million the Friends of SFPL received in donations last year didn't hurt, either.

Even if finances drastically altered, Jeffers believes the S.F. Public Library would just adapt, as it always does.

"We see change, and we ask, how can we make that work for our patrons?" she says.

So how did Crispin ultimately reconcile her theory with the reality she found?

"Perhaps the disgruntled librarians are hiding out in some sub-basement, smoking cigarettes and fidgeting with their switchblades," she says. "Maybe later they'll have a dance-off. Maybe librarians are simply the most optimistic people on the planet. I leave it for a better person than me to decide."

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Alexis Coe

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