Double-Booked: The Challenge of Modern Libraries

A display of DVDs and 3D-Printed objects created by my coworker, Steven Wong, to promote our library’s free 3D Printing Service.

Every time I tell my Dad over the phone that I have to go to work, he says, “Is this real work or play time?” It’s an irritating question, since it’s all “real work” to me (even though I enjoy it), but I can see how he might be a bit perplexed to see me stuffing Take and Make bags with pom-poms and yarn for kids to make into mobiles, or sewing a sample felt sloth stuffed animal for an After School STEAM Program for elementary school kids.

As a youth services librarian working primarily in small branches, my job has always been this way: tracking down historic documents for a local researcher one minute, kissing a live pig in front of a crowd of shrieking children the next. But over the past twenty years or so, the rise of digital resources has added even more complexity to my profession. Increasingly, public libraries have become the only remaining bridge across the ever-expanding digital divide. Now, on top of helping someone find the latest James Patterson novel, or helping a student locate books on Martin Luther King, Jr., we have patrons with no computer experience and no email address suddenly discovering that almost every job requires them to fill out an application online.

Then came the pandemic, when almost every aspect of library services had to be reevaluated and re-created in a new form. There was suddenly a massive demand for our e-book and e-audiobook collections, which required hours of troubleshooting with patrons via phone, text, email, and even Zoom (I now have a LOT more respect for people who work in call centers). But we also got calls from people needing help with more pressing problems, like the man whose driver’s license was about to expire, even though the DMV was closed. He called the DMV helpline, but just got a recording directing him to a web site he couldn’t access, since he had no computer.

Before the pandemic, we had offered laptops and WiFi hotspots for patrons to check out. But suddenly the demand for them far exceeded our limited supply, with everyone suddenly needing the Internet for almost everything. In the meantime, we were trying to fill the same role of promoting early-literacy that we always had, by providing storytimes, author events, book clubs, and other programs, but this time over Zoom. Instead of offering art and science workshops in the library, we bundled materials up in bags for families to pick up from our curbside table, and follow along with video instructions on YouTube.

Now that our buildings are open again, we are struggling to balance these new services with our old ones, while trying to navigate the ups and downs of the new COVID variants. We have been offering outdoor storytimes outside our libraries or in local parks, while still providing virtual ones for families who are concerned about the risk of illness, or unable to get to the branch. We are also back to in-person science workshops (also outdoors), but with limits on the number of attendees, so we are continuing to offer Take-and-Make kits to allow more kids to participate. In the meantime, virtual author programs (both for kids and adults) have become incredibly popular, because they allow us to bring in major authors we could never afford to host in person, and to accommodate much larger audiences.

We also struggle to balance the ever-growing digital realm with our traditional offerings. Our web site provides patrons with a dizzying variety of resources: e-books; audiobooks; movies and TV episodes; downloadable music and comedy albums; online courses; journal, magazine, and newspaper articles; language-learning software; museum and zoo passes; genealogy databases, and live homework help. In the tech-driven Bay Area, these resources do get lots of use, but we have many patrons who still depend on our books on CD, CDs, and DVDs, and physical copies of books, magazines and newspapers. And these patrons are often our most regular visitors to the library, while we may never see the ones who exclusively rely on e-media.

For years, I’ve seen posts or heard comments about how the Internet has made libraries obsolete. I’ve even heard people say there’s no need to visit libraries because you can buy all your books on Amazon. To which I would reply, sure, if you have the money you can definitely do that, but why would you? Especially if you are a parent trying to keep your kids supplied with picture books, which they might enjoy one time for ten or fifteen minutes. Libraries also provide free access to the millions of Americans who still lack high-speed Internet access at home, as well as training on how to use the Internet resources they need for work, education, healthcare and more. And we provide training and access to other types of equipment as well, including 3D-Printers, sewing machines, bicycles, ukuleles, home energy kits, and sewing machines.

A few weeks ago, I helped a patron who was looking for market research for a product she was hoping to sell. As I showed her the different databases we had available, and how to use them, she said, “Thank you so much for helping me. There’s just too much information online, and I have no idea where to look.” That, to me, summed up the one of the primary roles of libraries in the 21st century. We’ve always been in the business of curating information, but now, in a world where typing a search term into Google will give you billions of hits (millions of which are irrelevant, false, outdated, or trying to sell you something), the library provides free access to resources that have been selected for their reliability and accuracy, and people to guide you through them.

Meanwhile, the parts of my job I enjoy the most –finding answers to questions, performing weekly storytimes, and finding books for patrons– all remain basically the same. They may be more complex, with the addition of ebooks and other technologies, but at its core, the job is still about helping people, and that’s something that hopefully will never change.

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