For those of you who don’t work in a public library (or for those that do), here are five common misconceptions people have about public libraries.
Misconception 1: Shush!
Misconception: Librarians will shush you. Apparently this happened a lot when people were growing up because patrons are still worried they’ll get shushed. It’s fun and a little scary to see how serious libraries looked like in the past, especially around the early 1900s.
Reality: I’ll start with the low hanging fruit. At my library, we have areas appropriate for conversations, phone calls, and discussion, with other areas meant for quiet reading and studying. If someone is being a bit loud and disturbing others, we’ll try to relocate them to a better place for their conversation (not shush them!). Our almost completed makerspace will also be quite loud with the use of power tools.
Misconception 2: Libraries Are Going Away
Misconception: When hiring a new employee, I want to warn them about the inevitable conversation they will have when they mention they work at a library at a party. and the person they are talking to will joke, “Are there really going to be libraries in ten years?”
Reality: While many libraries have suffered with the advent of computers, most public libraries have been finding new success in a digital environment. The successful public libraries I see are leveraging great public programming, comfortable spaces, digital content, technology help, and much more to extend beyond the traditional services of a public library in a new era of consumption. It is true however, that public libraries that do not start to make that transition may be in for a rude awakening five to ten years from now.
Misconception 3: Libraries Are Only a Repository for Books
Misconception: When people think of libraries, they think of books. The name library itself means a collection of books. It makes sense that people have this perception because this is the model libraries have traditionally used for serving their patrons. The model: purchase and hold a ton of information in physical packages for people to checkout or access when they come into the building.
Reality: Some libraries still rely on this model (I thought you said it was a misconception?). As a larger trend, public libraries are seeing circulation statistics fall each year, especially with A/V materials. What does this mean? People are checking out less stuff. Again Wyatt, didn’t you say libraries weren’t doomed a second ago? While circulation stats are dipping, more people are coming into many of our buildings. Door counts are up! This is largely due to the emphasis on other services, including a focus on public programming.
If you want to see how your library views its role in the community, one of the best ways is to look at its allocation of space. Libraries looking to expand and diversify their services will allocate more space for comfortable seating, face out shelves to create a bookstore atmosphere, build additional meeting rooms, offer makerspaces with laser cutters and 3D printers, and so much more. It’s not that these libraries are removing their print collections because we don’t need books anymore, rather they are meeting the needs of a wider group group of consumers. This is the same reason why Evanston Public library hired a social worker (Link).
Misconception 4: Services at a Library Are Free
Misconception: It’s common to hear a library customer say, “I can’t believe this program (service, database, etc.) is free.” Sometimes I myself slip up and say that something we offer is free.
Reality: People logically think these services are free because the library is not transactionally charging them, but the cost is only hidden. Public libraries are funded primarily through city, county allocations, and/or property taxes. Not too much to explain here, but it’s important to remember that taxpayers pay for library services and staff. As a staff member it is important to make this distinction when speaking to customers to illustrate the value of the services being provided. People tend to lose the true value of what is “free” and this could make library funds easier to cut in a budget.
Misconception 5: Libraries Have No Competitors
Misconception: Libraries do not generate significant revenue from sales or a subscription model, so they must not have any competitors in the marketplace. In addition, residents cannot get library cards at neighboring libraries (although they can usually check-out some materials) so they cannot switch libraries.
Reality: Libraries have tons of competitors! For physical and digital materials, services like Amazon, Netflix, and Audible all create a glut of content that can be obtained on the cheap. Technology help is being offered at the Apple and Windows stores, as well as Best Buy’s Geek Squad. Depending on their location, city park districts may offer low-cost camps and events. Google and the Internet have dramatically reduced the need for a trained professional to access information.
Having a lot of competitors just means that public libraries can and should be innovating, creating, and exploring new ways to serve their communities. In light of this competition, libraries are still creating a meaningful impact for their taxpayers now more than ever by being one of the last public spaces offering unbiased technology support, accessible public programs and clubs to meet any interest, and a friendly and open atmosphere to try new things.
So there’s my take on what many people get wrong about public libraries. I should also stipulate here that there are certainly libraries and librarians that might fit some of these misconceptions, but in many libraries the picture can be very different. Finally, feel free to let me know if you’ve had or run into some of these misconceptions in the comments!