This interview is presented courtesy of Michael Logan, a friend of mine from high school days. While I have achieved my master’s degree in library and information studies as a more recent venture, he has made a career out of librarianship. So I knew that I could learn a lot from him about a day in the life of a public librarian. (I should also mention that he is slated to complete his MLIS this year).
I should here point out that this interview represents his experiences and opinions and do not reflect the opinions of the library where he spends his nine to five. In fact, in his own words: “"Before we get into this, I should make it clear that I'm speaking only on my own behalf, not on my library's. My opinions & errors are strictly my own. Your mileage may vary. Void where prohibited by law.”
What is your role at your library?
My official job title is Senior Library Assistant. Primarily, I’m the AV materials cataloger, and I select the “fiction” DVDs (movies & TV series) for the collection. Additionally, I supervise the ATS unit when the boss is away. I also organize a quarterly series of classic film screenings.
Could you tell about where your library is located, a bit of the geography, and the size of the population served?
We’re in far northern California, up in redwood country. Humboldt County is remarkably beautiful, and geographically diverse—from where I live, it’s a fifteen-minute drive to the beach, or forty-five minutes to either the mountains or the redwoods, depending on which direction you take out of town. And we’re only about 200 miles north of San Francisco, so it’s only a half-day drive to the big city.
Our county library system has a main branch in Eureka, ten branch libraries scattered around the county, and a bookmobile. Our service population is about 135,000, which sounds like a lot, but except for Eureka, the county seems pretty rural still.
Do you think it is an essential purpose of libraries to support the arts as well as to inform?
I suppose that depends on the type of library you’re talking about, and the mission of that library. In our case, we’re a public library, and part of our mission is to “support the cultural, recreational and informational needs of our communities.” Granted, “culture” is a pretty broad umbrella—but I’d say the arts are definitely a large part of that term.
There are so many ways to answer this question. If by “essential purpose” you mean “is the library philosophically obligated to support the arts,” I’d refer you to my response above. But “essential purpose” can also mean “essential for the library’s survival,” in which case I’d say it is—it’s my opinion that libraries must become—or continue becoming—community centers. Not just repositories of media, or even information gateways, but places people want to come to and hang out in.
And that’s where programming comes in—public performances, art exhibits, poetry readings, you name it. I suppose it really is a mutual support—libraries supporting the arts, and the arts supporting libraries.
What challenges do you see in terms of providing access?
Of course, more and more of modern life is conducted via the Internet. But I think most people don’t realize how many folks simply do not have access to it. Some are homeless, some can’t afford a computer, some live in rural areas and are still limited to dial-up access. Some, frankly, just don’t have the skills.
Out of work and looking to apply for a job at Target or Staples? In my area at least, they don’t hand out paper applications—you are instructed to apply online. We offer Internet access at the library, but you’d better be able to finish that application during your 30-minute session. There is a great need for many more computer stations, a great need to keep the hardware and software current, and a great need for computer docents to help with inevitable user issues. But everything seems to be going in the opposite direction—computer stations conk out or become obsolete, and ever-tightening budgets prevent their replacement.
Also, more and more content is being made available digitally, online. Less and less is being published as “hard copy.” With some materials, libraries used to be able to pay a one-time cost to purchase a reference book, which was available until it wore out or got replaced. Now, much of that same content is only available via yearly subscription (expensive, by the way), and subscription costs keep going up. If your subscription lapses, or the database provider goes away, your access is gone. Content providers are able to exert much more control in the Digital Age, and where we used to be able to purchase and keep content, now we’re basically renting it.
Finally, one of the most insidious challenges is combating the public perception that libraries are irrelevant in the Digital Age. I won’t try to refute that myth here (I’ll let The Chronicle of Higher Education do a much better job here). But if that perception is shared by the people who control the purse strings, that translates into less funding. And less funding results in reduced access—closures, reduced hours, fewer materials purchased, etc.
These days, of course, libraries offer so much more than a place to borrow and return books. Would you mind describing some of the types of resources and programs offered through your library? Are there any of which you are especially proud?
Oh my gosh, there’s too many to name, I’m happy to say. Just off the top of my head, we have kids’storytimes at all of our branch libraries, we have baby sign language workshops, we offer family literacy events every month, a monthly bilingual story time. We just wrapped up our biennial Children’s Author Festival, where we invite two dozen authors & illustrators of children’s books to Humboldt County. They spend a week speaking in local schools, and then interact with the children at a festive, day-long book-signing event.
We also partner with the local historical society and offer a monthly lecture of local historical interest. On occasion, we invite visiting authors to speak, sign books, and converse with attendees. And dear to my heart are the various film screening series we offer. For the last two years, we’ve partnered with a local non-profit and presented a Senior Film Series, featuring films that feature active and interesting older adults. We just wrapped up a Native American Film Series in honor of Native American Heritage Month. And we offer a quarterly classic film series called “Based on the Book,” which I have the privilege of organizing.
Could you talk about ‘Based on the Book’, your involvement in it, some of the books and movies featured, and its effect on the community?
Every Tuesday evening in January, April, July and October, we screen a classic film that (usually) is based on a previously-published written work. But what makes it really special, I think, is that each film is introduced by a local film expert (mostly current or former college-level film instructors)—they give a 15-20 minute introduction to the film, talking about the cast & crew, the film’s significance, things to watch for, basically anything that they feel will enhance the audience’s viewing experience. After the film, anyone that wants to can stick around for informal discussion. It’s big fun.
The response has been great—attendance for each film averages about 50 (good for our area), and we’ve even spiked into the low-80s for a few films. It’s wonderful to be able to present older films on the big screen in a communal setting.
Which programs or events hosted by your library are especially popular with the community?
Actually, they’re all pretty well-attended. But I guess the ones that stand out are the monthly Historical Society lectures (we often have to schedule a “repeat” lecture to accommodate the crowds), and any children’s program where there’s a special performing guest.
Are there programs or events you wish your library could or would include?
Oh, sure. I don’t want to get into too many specifics, as I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes. I know everyone at our library would love to see more, but we’re stretched pretty thin as it is. But if we were magically granted more staff, I’d like to increase our teen offerings for sure—video game tournaments, book clubs, writing workshops, etc.
Selfishly, I’d love to expand our film screening series—partner with more local organizations to promote awareness of specific issues, offer series for kids and teens, maybe feature foreign films or contemporary independent films. Some day…
Unfortunately, the current economy has created a large pool of unemployed. I wonder what you see in terms of how libraries, and specifically your library, have served those looking for employment in terms of providing resources to those who might not otherwise have access?
Yikes, this is really better answered by…well, someone other than me, who pretty much catalogs DVDs all day. But I know we do offer access to a number of helpful databases, including the Job & Career Accelerator from Learning Express, test preparation for job tests or school entrance exams, courses in learning computer skills, courses to brush up on math, english, and workplace skills, etc.
And maybe just as important, we offer free computer & Internet access—as I mentioned earlier, computers are no longer a luxury for the job-seeker, but a necessity.
I’m not doing this question justice, by a long shot. To your readers, I’d recommend they contact their own local library and ask them what resources they provide.
What are some of the more significant changes you have noticed in library patronage during your library career? Are libraries busier or noisier over time? Do the old rules still apply, like being quiet for other patrons?
I pretty much work way, way behind the scenes, so my impressions are maybe not as valid as someone who works on the main floor every day. But certainly things have changed. They’re not the whisper-quiet cathedrals of worship they used to be, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, in my opinion. As libraries become more like community centers, the energy—and noise—level goes up somewhat. But we still maintain quiet areas, and we discourage cell phone usage, and of course we’ll step in if someone is being disruptive.
As far as “busier” is concerned, I think we are busier now that we ever have been. The people that talk about libraries being obsolete or irrelevant have clearly not spent much time in their local public library. And hard times result in even busier libraries—more people are looking for employment resources, or have more time on their hands, or realize they don’t have to spend their hard-earned money purchasing or renting the latest bestsellers & DVDs.
Have you felt the support of the community through these lean times for libraries?
Absolutely. Our communities (I pluralize that because each of our branch libraries’ communities are unique) LOVE their public library, and they show their support in so many ways—we have thriving Friends of the Library groups, we have over 100 volunteers in our library system (without whom we truly could not function), we receive many thousands of dollars in donations every year. And our patrons also support us in the best possible way—they use the library!
I might be asking for a little clairvoyance on your part here, but what do you see for the future of libraries? How might they continue to change? Do you have any concerns about the future of the library as an institution?
In the year 2022, genetically-engineered nanites have mutated beyond their original purpose into silicon-devouring organisms. Within six months, modern human civilization collapses into chaos, as every piece of electronic technology is reduced to scrap. To preserve what little remains of civilization, roving bands of nomadic librarians roam a Mad Max-like wasteland, trading stained and tattered Longarm paperbacks for food and ammunition.
Sorry. Actually, I don’t think we’ll see huge change in the near future. But I think we’ll see the continuation of trends already evident today.
Just to get this out of the way, I believe books will be with us for a very, very long time. While Kindles & Nooks & iPads, etc. will become more widespread, the low-tech virtues of the book will ensure its longevity.
What I do foresee, however, is a decline in scholarly publications and a dwindling number of print acquisitions in academic libraries and in the reference collections of public libraries. As more scholarly, academic and reference material goes online—and as fewer students bother to consult print materials—the demand and availability of these materials will decline. We’re already seeing this now, but I believe the trend toward online-only access will only accelerate. This might not be a terrible thing, if it weren’t for another increasing trend…
Subscription-based access and Digital Rights Management (DRM) technology--meaning that less and less information is actually owned when purchased. It is, in fact, rented—one doesn’t purchase the thing itself, only access to it. As I mentioned earlier, if the subscription lapses, all access is lost, even to the material you’ve “purchased” over the years. The trend of ceding control over the access of information from libraries to corporate entities is a disturbing one, but one I see likely to increase.
I believe the future public libraries will trade a bit of floor space currently dedicated to bookshelves for additional public-access computers. More content will be available—and accessed—remotely. I want to believe that more libraries will move toward free, open-source software.
Lastly, as someone who works in a library, I hope there will be little more “I” in the ILS (Integrated Library System) of the future. My experience is that ILS vendors create a core product, then patch together additional modules that don’t always integrate very well. Hopefully, the near future will see an elegant, bug-free system that seamlessly integrates circulation functions, acquisitions, holds, reports and statistical functions, online catalog and Web 2.0 (3.0? 4.0?) technologies.
Then, of course, will come the nanites.
What is the greatest challenge in librarianship to you?
That’s easy. While everyone’s access to the library is granted free of charge, libraries themselves aren’t free—they cost money to run. The greatest challenge these days is getting people to take a little civic pride in their public institutions, and realize if they want to live in the greatest nation in the world, they should be willing to pony up some taxes to make that possible.
What is the most gratifying aspect of working in a library for you?
I deeply believe in the mission of public libraries—to provide everything we offer, free of charge, to anyone that comes in those doors. There’s a line I love in the movie “Good Will Hunting” where he tells somebody “you dropped a hundred and fifty grand on a f---in’ education you coulda' got for a dollar fifty in late charges at the Public Library.” I’m not saying don’t get that official education. But I love that he’s right—if you have no money at all, you could still get access to everything you need to self-educate at your public library.
Communities—any communities—are better with public libraries than without. So, to cut a long answer short, I’m proud to have any part of that.
Thank you, Mike! I appreciate your time and thoughtful answers. They really help give a glimpse into the vital role of the community library.
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