Back to Basics?

By Kate Sheehan |

Here in the Northeast, it seems that summer means pretending we’re living in the Pacific Northwest. We spent much of June huddled under umbrellas and hoping our patrons don’t snap when they see our cheerful suggestions for beach reading. Librarians choose lighter fare for our pleasure reading in the warmer (or wetter, as the case may be) month to offset summer’s serious work. Academic librarians (I am told) cram their big projects into the studentless (or at least student – light) months between school years. Public librarians have summer reading, countless storytimes, bored teenagers and harried adults to work with. For many of us summer also means a new year. Fiscally, that is.

As we barrel into this dismal fiscal year, libraries are scrapping to keep funding, prevent lay-offs and even stay open. Things like cool technology and even books start looking like objects of unrequited love. Where will we be without our stuff?

On the Big Think, Alan Webber, founding editor of Fast Company magazine, talks about finding work that’s important during an economic downturn. His point, he says, is not to be “Pollyannaish” about a poor economy, but to look at the paths people take when keeping up with the Joneses is no longer an option.

As librarians head to ALA or fire up their RSS feeder and favorite twitter application to follow ALA blog posts and tweets, I suspect we’ll be hearing a lot of talk about what libraries are doing to make do. Surely, there will be a focus on free or cheap technology and DIY solutions to complicated technical problems.

But I hope librarians get some time to step back and, as Webber is suggesting business types do, engage in a little reflection about what’s important. Webber is exhorting individuals to think about their own core values, but librarians have a dual purpose. We have our own interests, principles and drive, but we also have an institutional obligation to our communities.

What our communities want is often very different from what we think is interesting or even necessary. We can see this in our book buying and the trap of “ought to” when we buy books that ought to circulate but don’t. Our tech focus can easily drift to issues and technologies we find interesting or important but our patrons don’t care about. In lean times, will your patrons be more grateful for an OPAC enhancement that lets them add reviews or another computer for their job hunts?

Even our most regular users often don’t know what the library has to offer. Our reputation as “the book place” has a wonderful advantage here. Library use is up – people are coming through our doors for books, movies, public computers and we have an opportunity to keep them coming back to our most basic assets. Our budgets are tighter, but a new patron is just as likely to be impressed by that film series you’ve been running for years or the book review blog you started a few years ago as they are whatever it is your staff is lusting after but can’t afford.

Like Webber, I have no wish to be saccharine about the crisis we’re all facing. But like his business students, libraries are stripped down to (or past) essentials. If MBA students can use the fiscal crisis to become more interesting, libraries should be able to fascinate.