Book Report

The fall of libraries


in Archive


Libraries are in crisis. Right? I mean, that is all we hear. All around the nation, budgets are being slashed, hours shortened, librarians laid off. And on top of that we have e-books… doing something. God dammit, e-books. You are always ruining everything.


What is the future of the library, in a world of the financial crisis, where all inessential services are being slashed in city budgets — inessential services ranging from health care for the poor to libraries to a large chunk of Camden, New Jersey’s police force — in ineffective austerity measures? My infallible editor sent me to the 2012 Public Library Association conference in Philadelphia to find out.

This is where the action is, after all, the public libraries. And by action I mean bloodletting. It’s perhaps the most vulnerable segment of the American Library Association, dependent on city and state budgets rather than the universities and corporations that find their funding elsewhere. And each year, thousands of the PLA’s 11,000 members descend on a city to set the agenda for the year to come, to commiserate and strategize. And to network for employment, for the more recent victims of the cutbacks.

Secure in the knowledge that libraries are now permanently fucked, I expected to walk in to find a mournful scene. Maybe candlelight vigils for state funding, a designated mourner wailing over grants for arts programs? I was donned in black. I was ready to blend in.

You could pick out the conference attendees heading toward the Philadelphia Convention Center from a healthy radius. Conference goers look the same no matter the field, no matter where the conference is held. Everyone walks in groups sadly shuffling along, in clothes wrinkled from carry-on luggage, indignity itself slung around their necks in the form of plastic-enclosed nametags. The herds started at the doorstep of mid-priced hotels, your Marriotts, your Mercures. They filtered themselves down to the hulking glass and metal behemoth and all jammed through only two functional revolving doors. And from then on out, it was only giant hallways with the air conditioner running as heat spewed out of air vents.

Inside I found none of the mournful tones I had been expecting. Maybe it the expectation of Betty White’s appearance later in the week raised everyone’s spirits. Or maybe everyone was putting on a happy face to mask the pain within.

I ventured up and onward to the exhibition hall. It was sparsely populated when I arrived. Dozens sat on the fringes of the hall, weighed down by free tote bags filled with free books that will probably be discarded once their owners remember there is a charge now for checked luggage, and that a carry-on bag only expand so far. But within seconds of entering under the archway, well protected by two security guards lest a non-librarian dare to enter the hall, a woman with a strange red dye job accosts me.

“Do you have 15 minutes to…” she starts. I jump back, and skitter away, shaking my head “No!” Fifteen minutes? Are you kidding, lady? Rome burned in 15 minutes.

I slink away to the outskirts of the exhibition hall. There are exhibitors and manufacturers of library-related products all laid out to peddle their wares. There are few people buying. Most of the exhibitors are sit sadly slumped over on stools, picking a stain out of a tie or examining chunks of hair for split-ends. When I pass by, they look up hopefully, and I try to avoid eye contact. One group of middle-aged men, perhaps to get in on that whole “sexy librarian” thing, have draped the machine they are selling — a monstrous looking thing that instantly turns a manuscript or an electronic file into an unattractive, poorly bound book-like object — with a T-shirt that says “Orgasm Donor.” I wonder which is the purveyor of sexual excitement: the machine (does it vibrate while it works? if I throw my leg over that part of it…) or the gentleman in the polo shirt straining over his belly? I keep my head down. I keep moving.

So this is it, maybe. The proof I need about libraries’ doom. The tumbleweed slowly cartwheeling through the empty spaces, the total absence of a line in front of the vendor selling stale giant pretzels, the men in headsets giving enthusiastic presentations in front of flashing flat-screen televisions to an audience of three, two of whom are texting.

I duck into the booth of the Encyclopedia Britannica. They are certainly screwed. It was just announced the company is ending production on all print versions of their encyclopedia. They were going Internet and library computer only, selling personal memberships for $69.95 a year. The woman in the booth approached me with steely aggressiveness. When I asked her if her company was on the verge of total collapse, she scoffed.

“You know what happened when we announced we were ending our print encyclopedias?” she asked.

Um, no. She sized me up in an uncomfortable-making way.

“We made $800,000 in one day,” she said.

Doing what, I wondered out loud.

“Selling our print encyclopedias,” she replied.

That seemed like an unsound business model, but I ignored it. This woman was there to convince the world that this is a viable business and they should buy her databases for their library. The world’s education cannot be dependent on Wikipedia alone.

She leaned in and started talking statistics faster than I could write them down.

“We are going to save that money, relinquishing the costs of printing and binding, and we are making our highest net profit in years,” she said. I scribbled. I was getting ink all over everything. “We were the first encyclopedia online, you know.” I backed out of the booth as she filled her hands with brochures to give me. They probably contained the statistics I missed writing down, but I ducked out of the way as she tried to hand them to me.

Ah, freedom. She didn’t support my thesis anyway, so there was no need to take too careful notes. It wasn’t like I was going to express reality if it didn’t match up with what I already knew to be true about the future of libraries.

Ahead, I saw a crowd at the Scholastic publishing booth. They must be the saviors of the conference, ready to light the way ahead… Or, they had free booze and cheese. Yes, it was free booze and cheese, I could keep moving. I passed by other fine products, like a children’s book written by Lisa Loeb. Huh. I was just wondering what must have happened to her. Another booth was selling the Learning Guide for The Notebook, the Nicholas Sparks book/film. Up ahead was a giant banner that screamed, “PLAN FOR THE FUTURE OF LIBRARIES!” I expected to see a booth depicting a dismal Hellscape, all Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and maybe a baby roasting on a spit. Instead, they were selling puppet theaters. Apparently in the future, libraries will have puppet theaters.

It is at this point that I ran into Donna Seaman from Booklist. She was sure to give me the quotations I would need to pad this thing out. She is my friend; I cculd convince her to lie to me on record if need be.

“I am sensing some anxiety here today…” I led her on. Actually, I was not sensing any anxiety that day, and it was pissing me off.

“Yes, there’s some anxiety,” she said, looking around. Finally! Good old Donna. “Money is a big problem, but technology is not. People who are upset about e-books need to remember that libraries adopt technology very quickly and well. Change is stressful.”

She continued, “When people need libraries the most the governments are taking away all the money. The anxiety is because we feel underappreciated.” Well, that and the system is doomed, right? “Things have just swung to one extreme, it’ll swing back. Things will calm down and it’ll probably work out all right in the end.” God dammit, Donna.

Downstairs, I ducked into a room readying itself to really get at the heart of the problematic 20- and 30-something demographic. It must be a problem, otherwise why would were we there? The room filled quickly, everyone desperate to know how to reach these mysterious creatures. Large round tables were set up — to facilitate discussion, I suppose. Not caring much for human interaction, I sat in a corner, near the door, un-circled. New studies have showed that “brainstorming” and working in groups doesn’t actually lead to innovation or earth-shatteringly new ideas. But apparently the Public Library Association didn’t read that issue of the New Yorker, because half of the panels were really “Conversations.”

When the room reached capacity, two women took the front of the room. One was instantly recognizable to me. I’ve worked in the nonprofit world before. I’ve been forced into conferences and group sessions enough. I didn’t know this specific woman, but I knew this woman. She would pull out a box of funny hats for an ice breaking exercise, or get angry at you if you did not want to, say, crochet a yarn version of your vulva as a way to get your mind thinking “outside of the box.” Here she was, saying she wants us to do a Power Move as a way to get our bodies moving. I moved closer to the door. She mimed taking someone’s head and crashing it down onto her knee. “But the room is too full, we probably shouldn’t really do it. But you should think about doing it,” she said. Oh, I am thinking about it.

What exactly is the problem with the 20- and 30-something demographic? The “hipsters” as the presenters started to call them? It was kind of hard to say, because they presents admitted that this age group makes up 35 percent of their clientele, while only 20 percent of the nation overall. But we should think about serving them better anyway. The Power Move lady talked about the “edgy” book club she runs, and something she calls Punk Rock Aerobics. She recommended that other libraries try setting up speed dating, because there is nothing a hipster likes better than quick hits of humiliation and despair set up all in a row. We were then asked to come up with our own fun ideas, within our circles. That was my cue to leave.

This was a disaster. Three days spent at the library conference and I had yet to find evidence of libraries’ destruction. There was an article in the newspaper that detailed the troubled future for the Philadelphia Free Library; they are planning an expansion, but it’s not as big of an expansion as they would have liked. They might have to sell one of their Warhols.

I sat in on a few panels with names like “Making Lemonade out of Lemons,” where I heard the phrase “do more with less” eight times. I ticked it off in my notes. The librarians went on stage to talk about how they survived their round of budget cuts, how scaling back actually put them back in touch with their communities. “Some of our best programs happened in the year we lost that grant,” a man fidgeting with his PowerPoint presentation told an audience of two dozen. He pulled up a slide: “Some of our best programs happened in the year we lost our grant,” it read.

Outside, I ducked out of the way of a beeping Book Robot that was performing no book-like functions I could see, and I slid down the wall. Beside me sat a young-ish librarian in shiny black flats, poking derisively at her phone. This wass my last chance to get someone on the record saying the end is near. Has her New Jersey library suffered from the loss of grants and city budget cuts? “Actually, we’re working on expanding,” she told me. “We desperately need more space.” This was her first conference. “It’s been very interesting.” God, I can’t even coax her into saying how the lack of natural light and recycled air is destroying her will to live.

I decided to skip the “conversation” “Teens: What Are They Thinking?!” and work on my theories outside of a conference trying so hard to disprove them. Perhaps the failing libraries are simply failing too hard to send anyone to the conference. Perhaps the disgruntled librarians are hiding out in some sub-basement, smoking cigarettes and fidgeting with their switchblades. Maybe later they’ll have a dance-off. Maybe librarians are simply the most optimistic people on the planet. I leave it for a better person than me to decide. • 27 March 2012