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What are public libraries for?

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What are public libraries for?

Postby Huckleby » Tue Apr 30, 2013 1:28 pm

I have mixed feelings about what the public libraries have become. To a large extent, they are just shipping hubs for the interlibrary loan system. Well, that's what they mostly are to me now.

On one hand, it is wonderful, being able to go online and order materials from a hundred different libraries that magically shows up at your local branch. But think of the long chain of effort needed to bring you that item. The service makes sense for special items, but does it make sense for generic entertainment?

How are people using the interlibrary loan service? I don't know the stats, but a lot of the traffic appears to be DVDs and CDs. Does it really make sense to recreate a ridiculously costly and inefficient free netflix service? I bet it would be much cheaper and superior to just subsidize netflix subscriptions for low income people. And the inventory gets beat-up pretty quickly.

I love movies and music, and have taken great use of online ordering. But I wonder what the purpose is. I can see libraries as sources of cultural enrichment. But does our culture have a shortage of videos and video games?

I like that the service can bring culture to people who can't afford to buy CDs and join netflix. I'm conflicted.
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Re: What are public libraries for?

Postby robbie webber » Tue Apr 30, 2013 4:36 pm

I use the public libraries all the time, both in Madison and when I am traveling. It's the place I can go to work. There's free wi-fi; it's quiet; there's usually some fairly comfortable places to sit; and I'm not required to buy coffee, tea, scones, or anything else. (Not that I'm unwilling to pitch in, but coffee shops are sometimes also missing in quiet and sufficient seating, and if I just ate, then I don't really want more.)

I especially am looking forward to the re-opening of the downtown library. I like to have breakfast/brunch on the weekends and then catch up on work on my laptop. I have found that few branches of the Madison Public Library have any restaurants within walking distance that both serve breakfast/brunch and have food I want to eat.
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Re: What are public libraries for?

Postby TeachInPeace » Tue Apr 30, 2013 8:18 pm

Personally I could never afford to buy all the books I want - so I go to the book store, buy something lasting and non fiction, and then note all the titles of junk fiction and random interesting things to go and request or check out. That's just me.

Also, in my community the library is a great meeting place for kids and teachers for tutoring and casual fun time with books on weekends. Our last family library day was attended by 9 teachers and 60ish students. This is an excellent alternative to video games and netflix. I also second the idea that sometimes it's nice to sit and kill an hour in a peaceful space that isn't waiting for you to buy something or vacate the chair.

The library was the first place I was allowed to bike on my own. I'll support the library forever.
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Re: What are public libraries for?

Postby Huckleby » Tue Apr 30, 2013 9:34 pm

I loved libraries intensely when I was a kid. To me it was always the books.

I don't hang around in them much as an adult, probably just because the library is more crowded and less comfortable than a coffee shop. (BTW, the trick there is to find a sufficiently bad coffee shop.)

I think the libraries exist mostly to promote and enable reading. I think the book clubs that the library operates are excellent.

I'm open minded about what libraries can do, for instance I think being able to borrow an art print from the main library is very cool.

I would be in favor of the libraries charging a dollar or two for DVD rentals. Use the income to fund purchase of DVDs and CDs that have high artistic value, can't otherwise be justified because they are on the expensive side.
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Re: What are public libraries for?

Postby bdog » Tue Apr 30, 2013 9:41 pm

Huckleby wrote:I don't hang around in them much as an adult, probably just because the library is more crowded and less comfortable than a coffee shop.

What library is more crowded and less comfortable than a coffee shop?
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Re: What are public libraries for?

Postby bdog » Tue Apr 30, 2013 9:45 pm

snoqueen wrote:A free public library may seem symbolic (and antiquated) to some, but it's more than a symbol. I like the democratic nature of a library. You see well-dressed people arrive in big SUVs, you see poorly-dressed people arrive off the bus or trudging along on foot. Everyone sits down together, everyone can use the same materials, everyone is treated the same by the librarians -- and that is not a minor point.

There's something totally fair and evenhanded about a good librarian that makes a big statement. Anybody's concern is worthy of attention, anybody's question is worth answering. Nobody can pay for a seat or service ahead of anybody else. Instead we're all paying, each according to our means, for this incredibly rich public -- that is, common -- resource.

A good library, good parks, a public basketball court or baseball diamond -- these are features of a high-quality city where each resident and guest gets a chance to enjoy what we have without owning anything in particular. People just have to show up and take turns, act right, follow a few rules. This is civic life,and there's a lot more to it than everybody just having their own Kindle.
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Re: What are public libraries for?

Postby Mean Scenester » Wed May 01, 2013 10:23 am

I used to work for the Libraries division of DPI and I can tell you that the ILL distribution system is ridiculously efficient and cost-effective, especially when you consider that it prevents already cash-strapped institutions from having to purchase numerous redundant titles. The cost of operating such a system is peanuts when compared to other services your tax dollars support.

It's also worth noting that the model is changing as electronic media become more pervasive. You can check out e-book titles now and who knows what the next decade may bring. And while a subsidized Netflix or Amazon service might provide access to all the same popular content, they'll never give you access to the same scope of out-of-print materials libraries can, to say nothing of the fact that there is no expertise at Amazon that even approaches the breadth of knowledge owned by the average reference librarian.

Libraries are the bedrock of an educated, civilized society. Lord help us if they disappear from the landscape. But Republican legislators in particular know that an undereducated, easily brainwashed populace is key to party survival, so ... you know ... vigilance and all that.
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Re: What are public libraries for?

Postby Huckleby » Wed May 01, 2013 10:42 am

Mean Scenester wrote:I used to work for the Libraries division of DPI and I can tell you that the ILL distribution system is ridiculously efficient and cost-effective, especially when you consider that it prevents already cash-strapped institutions from having to purchase numerous redundant titles. The cost of operating such a system is peanuts when compared to other services your tax dollars support.


I agree that the ILL system is mostly a wonderful thing. But I think it is overkill when used for entertainment.

You order your copy of "Legally Blonde" online. The available copy is in Wisconsin Rapids. A clerk has to go find it, and since the public is constantly rifling through the collection, it can take some time. They have to categorize by destination, truck it to your local library in Madison. It then has to get sorted and filed on a shelf at your branch. You return the DVD and a similar chain of action is done in reverse to return the copy to its bin in Wisconsin Rapids. It's hard to argue this is an efficient video store.

ILL provides great opportunities to the public. I see that there are cost savings by eliminating redundancy - actually that's not cost savings exactly, but improving the bang-for-the-buck of the whole system. I just think the customers ought to kick-in something when this distribution apparatus is being used as a free alternative to Red Box. Let the patron kick-in a dollar to subsidize the service.
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Re: What are public libraries for?

Postby jman111 » Wed May 01, 2013 12:43 pm

Huckleby wrote:I agree that the ILL system is mostly a wonderful thing. But I think it is overkill when used for entertainment.

I agree, to an extent. But who decides what fits the category of "entertainment"? Aren't fictional novels entertainment? Certain periodicals?
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Re: What are public libraries for?

Postby Mean Scenester » Wed May 01, 2013 12:58 pm

Huckleby wrote:I agree that the ILL system is mostly a wonderful thing. But I think it is overkill when used for entertainment.

You don't read books for entertainment?

Huckleby wrote:I just think the customers ought to kick-in something when this distribution apparatus is being used as a free alternative to Red Box. Let the patron kick-in a dollar to subsidize the service.

Customers do kick-in when they pay their taxes. Moreover, there's nothing to say a DVD checked-out through ILL is viewed for entertainment purposes only. There are plenty of titles with educational value (documentaries, kids' videos, etc.). Others might be going to film students. Not sure it's worth trying to draw an arbitrary line there. This is nickel and dime stuff.
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Re: What are public libraries for?

Postby Mean Scenester » Wed May 01, 2013 12:59 pm

Jinx, Jman.
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Re: What are public libraries for?

Postby Stebben84 » Wed May 01, 2013 1:02 pm

Don't they also do books on CD. Where does that fall into the mix?
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Re: What are public libraries for?

Postby jman111 » Wed May 01, 2013 1:08 pm

Kinda like supporting subsidized bus service only for those who are going to work, not to the theater, park, etc.
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Re: What are public libraries for?

Postby Huckleby » Wed May 01, 2013 3:27 pm

jman111 wrote: I agree, to an extent. But who decides what fits the category of "entertainment"? Aren't fictional novels entertainment? Certain periodicals?


Sure, it's a gray area. I think ANY type of reading should get priority, since it is mentally stimulating to read, I see a public educational interest.

As to who decides: I suppose librarians, with feedback from the community.

Another important consideration is cost. It could be very expensive to support a reading habit without libraries. There is little in the way of cheap book rentals, particularly if you are selective and can't find what you want at a used book store.
DVD rentals are cheap. Netflix is a bargain. Many low cost rental options for DVD.
Last edited by Huckleby on Wed May 01, 2013 3:39 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: What are public libraries for?

Postby Huckleby » Wed May 01, 2013 3:31 pm

jman111 wrote:Kinda like supporting subsidized bus service only for those who are going to work, not to the theater, park, etc.


Busing is different, there is a common good in promoting economic activity.

Why aren't we providing porn through the libraries? I'm serious.

What about pay-per-view extreme fighting? We could set up a community-subsidized theater in the library for such events.

I can see relatively little good in the library duplicating Blockbuster as a provider of pulp culture. You layer the ILL system on top of it, and it's wasteful and silly.

The library should provide the community with services that people can't get themselves, in my opinion. I am for a generous library. The library certainly should be buying special interest DVDs that tend to be expensive and hard to find. For instance, modern dance, ballet, theater, opera. Or well done, expensive audio box sets that individuals can't easily access.

I love libraries, one of our last bastions of community cooperation. I want them to be better, not smaller.
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