Full Service Libraries

This is a pretty exact translation of my text “Rundumservice”, but since it is easier to write freely than to translate literally, there may be some divergences. I also added some comments to some sections, because those sections pertain mostly to German-speaking Europe.

I am torn today. What services should a library actually provide? Which needs of its patrons should it fulfill? Should the library come to the patron or the patron to the library or both? But what do patrons really want?

Why not? If there are coffeeshops in libraries, where food and drinks can be purchased, why can’t office supplies be purchased there? Couldn’t I go shopping in the library and borrow books? Especially when I am a student and need a pen or paper or batteries or who knows what (tampons – *clutchespearls*).

Or would it be better if the library came to the office supply store, to the supermarket, the beach, the park, the movie theater or even into our houses? The following pictures are from a session from the Bibcamp – a barcamp for libraries (sorry, description in German) – in Nuremberg in April 2013. The session was about designing new services for libraries in a matter of minutes and quickly building prototypes with Lego. It was held by Elena Mastrapasqua and Dierk Eichel. There is a storify of it, but it’s in German:

Foto Anna Zschokke CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

This is what I called an “offshore library” at the beach or at the movie theatre, where closed bookcases would be provided by the local public library, to be opened with your library card. Books would have RFID tags and could be taken out then and there. At the movies they would be the books of the movies that were showing, at the beach there would be beach reading material and so on. I mentioned roaming librarians. Photo Anna Zschokke CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

Hörstation im Park bzw. in Wartezonen Foto Anna Zschokke CC-BY-NC-SA 3.0

This is a listening station in the park or at bus stations or other waiting zones (doctor’s offices, at government offices etc.) where you can plug in your headphones to listen or download audio books via bluetooth. Photo Anna Zschokke CC-BY-NC-SA 3.0

Bücherparty bzw. Medienparty zuhause - mit Bibliothekarin, Wissenschaftlerinnen die Vorträge halten (oder ist es doch ein Harlem Shake-Video?) Foto Anna Zschokke CC-BY-NC-SA 3.0

This is a library party, comparable to a tupperware party. A librarian from the local public or even the university library would come to your house to tell you about library services. Parties could be about library services in general or about specific topics, where for example, scientists from the university could come and hold lectures and librarians would offer the appropriate media. Or this could be a Harlem Shake video, I’m not sure. Photo Anna Zschokke CC-BY-NC-SA 3.0

Well, with the internet it is possible to access ebooks or texts in general everywhere I am able to establish a connection. Books are for sale in many, many places – for example at the supermarket. But in reality I don’t think about borrowing ebooks from the library when I am in the checkout queue at the supermarket, because there is nothing to remind me of that possibility (and because my local supermarket has really bad reception. Free wlan at the supermarket, that would be a service. Endless opportunity for free advertisement, because people take and share pictures of the products. I’m starting to want some money for this idea.) In reality, the selection of books in supermarkets or office supply stores or even museum stores is rather limited (Note that I am not dissing light reading or romance novels, I love those and own quite a few).

In reality one of the reasons why libraries exist is that many people cannot afford to buy books and other media all the time. And finally, in reality it is one of the central advantages of a library that in most cases not everything is collected willy-nilly, but that collections are managed, that books are purposefully bought, put together in defined collections and that those collections are carefully curated.

Collection management must also be applied to the libraries which come to their patrons, since they would be targeting a very specific/local need. One of the problems with all the wonderful ideas which came out of that lego prototyping session is that not all books are available as ebooks yet, that not all existing ebooks are available for libraries, etc. etc.

But what is there to prevent a university library from tagging certain places in the university as access points for topical collections from their repositories? At the University of Vienna, where I spent long years in study, there is this beautiful courtyard with arcades full of statues and plaques memorializing important scientists who researched and/or taught at the university. (Click here for pictures, unfortunately all in-depth texts are in German.) There are 154 statues and plaques for men and one plaque for a woman (I hope you weren’t expecting gender parity). There is also a statue of the nymph Castalia. In 2009, an art project called “The Muse Has Had It” resulted in the attachment of a large shadow to the nymph statue, to call attention to all the female scientists whose existence and presence was and is ignored, hidden away and forgotten. Here is a whole video about the project with English subtitles.

Anyway, how about making those statues, plaques and the art project “docking stations” where scientific publications by the researchers (a lot of them already in the public domain), about their research, biographies and even links to current lectures about the research and the people could be accessed and/or downloaded?

The Vienna University Library shows an “object of the month” on their website (English description of the actual object of the month sadly not available, only a blurb about the work with the collections as a whole) with links to the library which owns the object, and some more informations about the object, but if you want more literature about the object, you have to do your own research. Of course, you may now ask: “Do we need to feed you everything by hand?” But the answer to this is: If you want your library, your collections, your services, your informations to be seen, then YES! Don’t hide them away, but attach them to everything you have! Plaster your institution, your village, your city, your country with them!

Because it could be like this:

Literatur (und zwar nicht nur Belletristik!)/Informationen zu Sehenswürdigkeiten direkt bei der Sehenswürdigkeit auf das iPhone 8 Foto Anna Zschokke CC-BY-NC-SA 3.0

Literature (not just fiction) and information about points of interest at points of interest transfers to your iPhone 8. Photo Anna Zschokke CC-BY-NC-SA 3.0

When I wander through Berlin or Vienna, when I travel by train through the countries of Europe and see things, when I visit picture galleries, museums, conference centers, libraries and more, I wish for this service so very much. I just want to pick up my portable internet device and point it at even an unremarkable house (but with art nouveau style elements!) and get information about it. I want to stand at, say Tiffany’s in New York or the Lincoln Memorial in DC and get Truman Capote or Walt Whitman on my device without having to take a physical book with me. Although this would be a lot easier if there was paneuropean or global wlan. Some cities in Europe already offer free wlan, but I think this should be done everywhere, but without Prism surveillance, please & thank you (a lovely, if naive idea).

But all of that costs money and work. The creation and management of collections, virtual ones, too, is work. Many people are focusing hard on creating the library catalogues of the future, which will hopefully bring us more exact and more relevant search results when we’re looking for “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, but this will still take a little while. And you all know about Google searches. (By the way, I have been looking for a specific techno version of Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It” from ca. the 1990s for weeks. Specific to this techno version is the use of “When the little blue bird who has never said a word” and Google isn’t giving me anything useful, not even the Ella Fitzgerald version where she actually sings the intro.) This means that all these great services which could be possible will depend on the work of well-informed people for quite a while.

But isn’t there something that can be done now? Something that brings humans closer to texts (because we sadly can’t even talk about easy access to music and films yet)? Well, there are some things that can be done.

(At this point in the original text I am describing the situation in German-speaking Europe as I know it. American college libraries are – at least it seems so to me – already a couple of steps ahead of us.)

Why should universities not offer fiction to their students if the next public library is far away and/or doesn’t have opening times compatible with student or working life (still a big issue over here)? Although here I can definitely imagine cooperations between university and public libraries, with a local branch at the college. But in German-speaking Europe, branch libraries are being closed and opening hours are cut, because of lack of money (they say – they’re just not allotting more money to libraries).

For example, this is how the Stanford Libraries Blog (Stanford, CA) informs its students via Twitter and Blog about the fantasy titles in their curriculum collection:

Now that the brunt of the academic year is over Cubberley Library invites you to read something a little lighter. The library currently has a display of young adult fantasy books perfect for reading at the beach. If fantasy isn’t your thing we also have a wide variety of other genres as well. So even if you no longer quite fit in the Y category and are a lot more A you might still find something enjoyable to read. We’ll be more than happy to point you in the direction of our curriculum collection where these items are housed.

Does this seem normal to you? To me and to many of us here in German-speaking Europe, this seems strange. This positive attitude towards reading for fun! Phrases like “invites you”, “we’ll be more than happy”! Why, students could be having fun! They might come to the university library just like that, not just for research! And oh dear, they could be reading things other than “good” literature! (This is meant to be ironic. The sad fact is that students enjoying their time at university or school is not a big priority here.)

Although I must say that I do get a lot of fiction books from the Vienna University Library, even though their existence isn’t advertised. I just have to look them up in the catalogue and it is very convenient to simply pick them up at the desk. But wouldn’t it be even nicer if the university library would advertise openly that they have media whose purpose is entertainment? At the same time I’m all for the advertisement of recent purchases of scientific literature, because it can also be enjoyable.

Or let’s say, there is a big institution or firm, with a special library. Why shouldn’t there be a fiction section for all the people working in the institution or firm, maybe even with children’s books or cookbooks or gardening books or whatever? A full service? (I know a library kind of like this here in Vienna, minus the children’s books and non-fiction, just fiction. Again, this has much to do with the opening hours of public libraries here, which aren’t the best for people who work all day). Yes, this would cost the institution or firm money. But how about an open bookcase, where people can bring books they no longer want to keep and take books as they want? Such an open bookcase should also be subject to careful collection development and it should be clear that it is not a dumping ground and that books which aren’t taken will be weeded. But why not start up things like that?

Let’s bring the fun of reading to where people are.

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