Rethinking How We Discuss the Library

When we first started blogging back in 2011, support for libraries was uncontroversial.  Bloggers uniformly seemed to appreciate the commitment of libraries to providing equal access, promoting literacy, and serving as a community space for everyone free of charge.  Recently, however, appreciation for libraries seems to have dimmed as readers raise concerns about libraries with limited resources and services, short hours, and poor marketing.  Some also seem to see the lack of libraries in some areas as a mark against the idea of libraries in general.  The concerns readers raise about libraries are valid.  However, instead of seeing the limitations of libraries as reasons to withdraw support from them, I propose that we view the complaints of readers as a starting point for us to imagine how libraries can continue to grow to meet the needs of communities.

It order to begin discussing libraries and how to improve them, it is important to understand how they are funded.  In the United States, most libraries are primarily supported by a combination of state and local funding.  Sometimes, libraries seem to be doing well, but are in fact underfunded–a key reason many  have shortened hours, reduced staff, and small collections.  For example, my local library consistently markets its renovations and new services.  Yet I recently learned from speaking to a librarian that taxpayer funding for the library really has not gone up since it was drastically cut about ten years ago during the recession.  The improvements being advertised are often the results of fundraising and grants.  But libraries cannot survive on fundraising and grants, which are best suited for one-time projects and not for the daily running and maintenance of an institution.  Libraries need consistent funding from the government if they are to stay open longer, hire more staff, and offer more materials for check outs.

To get increased funding, however, libraries need the support of taxpayers.  Taxpayers need to write to their government representatives specifically asking for an increase in funding.  And, often, taxpayers need to agree to pay more taxes to do this.  In some areas in the U.S., increased funding has been offered through a raise in taxes, and been voted down by the people.  In these cases, people feel the need to protect their own money instead of investing in a local library.  But libraries should be seen as investments, with a small contribution from each person offering large returns in terms of educating the local community, providing a community meeting space, offering services to the homeless, helping job seekers find employment, and more.  The entire community is ultimately raised up by having a library.

Communities without libraries can begin conversations with their officials to determine how to get one.  Some smaller communities might decide to pay taxes towards a neighboring library rather than building their own.  Some communities may find a public library is not going to happen soon, but may find creative alternatives while working towards that goal. For instance, citizens might consider investing in classroom or school libraries to improve childhood literacy (since children spend so much of their time in school and would need no transportation elsewhere to get books).  They may build Little Free Libraries or start book swaps in schools and businesses.  They may start programs that mail books to students.  People are always finding new and creative ways to support literacy–their momentum can be contagious.  The lack of a library or limited access to books does not have to be a permanent condition.

But, of course, the conversation always has to continue.  Libraries are always trying to figure out ways to reach more people, people who often have needs that may be easy to overlook.  Some people, for instance, may not own a car, so libraries may start bookmobiles, open new branches, or have pop-up libraries.  Some individuals may have medical conditions that make leaving home difficult, so libraries have offered services that mail books to homes or bring volunteers with books to the homes of patrons.  No library is perfect, but librarians are always willing to listen and always willing to help.

When librarians seem not to help, I have found that it is often because circumstances are beyond their control.  Limited budgets, for instance, may mean that libraries cannot extend hours as people wish.  Limited staff may mean more programs cannot be offered.  Limited shelf space may mean they cannot purchase that 30-book manga series–that only one person has expressed interest in.  In such cases, change rests upon the taxpayers, who should try to ascertain how they can help the library by lobbying for more funding.

Other cases where libraries seem not to care may simply be cases that are misunderstood by the public.  For instance, some patrons may dislike the timing of a program and wish it were held in the afternoon instead of the morning.  The staff, however, may have already tried afternoon programs and found attendance was non-existent. Or the library may have made efforts that are invisible.  For instance, I suggested awhile back that my library offer a pop-up library in laundromats, as I had read about this outreach idea online. I later learned that the library staff tried to do this–but could not find a laundromat that agreed to let them have a story time there.  In these cases, complaining about how the library does not hold programs at convenient times or does not do outreach in certain areas is both unhelpful and unfair.

Libraries may not do everything or have everything patrons wish.  Some places may not have a library at all.  But I think we can keep the conversation positive and proactive.  What needs to be done to get libraries functioning more effectively, to get resources to people more conveniently, to get libraries to exist at all?  And how can we personally be a part of making it all happen?

29 thoughts on “Rethinking How We Discuss the Library

  1. Kelly | Another Book in the Wall says:

    Another great post, Krysta! This was a very enlightening post, and it surprised me how little I knew about how libraries are funded. I can understand how some people would be reluctant to support their local libraries through an increase in tax, but fully agree with what you said about libraries being a net gain for the community. Even if the current systems aren’t perfect, I definitely believe that we should keep the conversations positive, and seek ways to improve libraries, rather than tear them down. ❤

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      I think my stance towards taxes tends to be a little different from the average stance. I don’t mind paying taxes since they’re supposed to benefit everyone. And my local tax towards the library is under $20 (I don’t know what the state and federal funding look like). I would be more than willing to pay more than $20 towards the library, though. One hardcover book can be $25, so I’m already getting far more than my money’s worth out of my local taxes just by checking out a few books!

      I also tend to think of return of investment. The library more than returns my personal investment since I read maybe 100 books a year. If I assume that each is about $20 for a total of $2000 of reading, I’m really getting a great deal here. But the library should also be returning the investment to the community. I’m sure there are actual numbers out there as evidence, but for each tax dollar spent on the library, we could assume that we’re getting more money back as a community because the library is helping people learn English, graduate school, and get jobs–meaning they’re all doing better, earning more money, and putting that money back into the community once they earn it.

      I completely get that no one wants to hear, “Let’s raise taxes!” XD But I think it’s helpful to know the particulars. For instance, there’s a local leader where I live who tries to withdraw funding from the library every year. He’s always quoted in the newspaper as saying what a large sum goes towards it in local taxes. And he always gives the lump sum so it looks really big and scary to people. But he’s ignoring that 1) it’s actually a small sum as far as tax funding goes and 2) if you divide it up, it’s under $20 per person. He’s using the numbers in a way that makes his position look more reasonable than I think it is. My position is, of course, that $20 per person is actually a very small sum to pay for all the benefits you get back.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Readers' High Tea says:

    This is very interesting, and it made me realise that I have no idea how libraries are funded in Romania and what challenges they encounter. I might research this topic pretty soon 🙂
    Thanks a lot for the inspiration!

    Like

  3. Annemieke says:

    Libraries cannot do EVERYTHING we all want them to do. They have to make choices, especially with limited funding. So yes it is unfair to complain about everything when you don’t know the background and won’t do the supporting.

    Like

  4. Stephanie says:

    *applause* EXCELLENT post.

    It’s amazing how so many people (and I’m not referring to anyone in the book blogging community, rather my OWN community, sigh) don’t understand how libraries work. We have a lot of library drama in our area. My library badly needs to be rebuilt for a multitude of reasons, including the age of the building, the HVAC system is failing, the walls get damp and grow mold, the space between the shelves isn’t ADA-compliant, the list goes on and on. The town passed a referendum about two years ago, but the park district is fighting them tooth and nail over it, and we have a vocal minority around here who won’t shut up about how useless the library is and how DARE we spend the town’s tax money on it (you know, the money that the people voted to spend on it?). “No one uses the library anyway!” shout the people who haven’t been to the library since 1992. They never have anything to say when multiple people inform them that our library is oftentimes crowded to the point of being uncomfortable. Another man asked me, “Why rent books? Why don’t you just buy?” He also had no response when I informed him how many books I read a year, and that I don’t have the space to store all of them (I just logged my 2000th book on Goodreads, been keeping track since 2003).

    Libraries are community spaces. They’re meeting spaces, they’re tutoring spaces, they’re spaces for programs, they’re spaces for people who have nowhere else to go (and that includes kids sometimes). They’re internet for the job seekers whose home internet has been turned off and for kids whose parents can’t afford it. They’re spaces for introducing young children to literacy, especially young children whose parents’ first language isn’t English (storytime helps parents too!). The libraries around me offer history and music events, storytimes in English, Spanish, and Polish, craft classes, computer training, English as a second language classes, movie nights and story times, they get kids reading in the summmer… They’re invaluable assets to the community and they absolutely raise the value of the community, and it breaks my heart to see people devalue them to the point of thinking they shouldn’t exist.

    Talk to your librarians. They’re always looking for ways to better serve their communities and give their patrons the things they need- but they’re not superhuman. They can only work within the budget allotted by the community, so if you have a complaint about something they’re not offering, talk to the librarian about how you can work to improve their funding. So many of them NEED that.

    Thanks for this wonderful post. Libraries are SO important. I’m not joking when I say that I’ve moved a LOT in my adult life and the very first thing I look at to determine if the town we’re considering is a place I want to live, besides schools, is the library. A good library is the sign of a good place to live, but every library can be improved to make their community better. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      I’m always taken aback when people say “no one uses the library” because what I usually hear is, “I’m affluent enough that I personally don’t use the library and so I’ve decided no one else needs it, either.” There’s a local official where I live who declares the library obsolete every year and tries to pull its funding. I want to ask him if he’s ever bothered walking in the door! Or bothered asking his constituents what THEY think about the library. Because the statistics indicate that a large portion of the community hold active library cards. Not everyone can afford books or movies or classes or even Internet. And libraries are there to serve them specifically because so often no one else will.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Michael J. Miller says:

    For me, I think a lot of it comes down to promoting/understanding the magic of reading. When I was a kid, going to the library was breath-taking because there were SO MANY BOOKS. It seemed infinite! I loved to read so going was so much fun. I struggle with this in my students. I’ve had several who say the only time they read is for school and I’ve read a few depressing educational articles that describe that growing trend too. I know there’s no magic fix but I think the more we share the beauty, fun, and excitement of reading – especially with kids – the more libraries benefit. We will support what we love and I think the surest way to get people passionate about libraries is reminding (or teaching!) adults how great reading is and instilling it in our youth too so, when they grow into voting age, they’ll fight for funding for libraries.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      That’s a good point! There was a recent study (that I was trying to find and couldn’t for some reason) that showed most teachers don’t read. Well, how can teachers encourage their students to read if they don’t love reading??

      Liked by 2 people

      • Michael J. Miller says:

        You are totally right, and it hurts my heart to think of teachers who don’t make time for reading :(. But I understand it. Life gets so busy and after a long day of teaching, grading papers, and lesson planning, sometimes the last thing you want to do is read. I may’ve shared this before but that’s why my friend Hannah and I have divided the year up into three rounds of reading contests. We keep track of the books/pages we read and the loser buys the winner a soft pretzel. It’s delicious and it keeps us reading.

        I used to be able to walk into the bookstore or the library and be familiar with so many random books, authors, new releases, and all of that. Shopping for books for graduation presents for grad parties I had to go to last year made me realize how I’d fallen behind. And I miss that! As a youth minister, I read all the time. It’s a bit more of a fight now, as a teacher, to find the time.

        But it’s a struggle worth fighting because, obviously, reading is the best :).

        Like

        • Krysta says:

          It definitely gets harder to find time to read as you get older! The time I do read is often time stolen away from sleeping. I’m not sure if that’s healthy, but it does somehow seem necessary for my mental health, if not my physical health!

          I’ve read some of Donalyn Miller’s work and she really advocates for 20 mins of independent reading time in class. And I think that would be a great way for teachers to read, too! And be examples of readers. But the obvious problem is that not all schools or administrations make it easy to have such a large chunk of time devoted to independent reading. I also think it’s easier to do with lower grades, which Miller teachers (fifth and sixth). Just making reading fun through free choice reading can work when you aren’t trying to cover content like “American literature until 1900” or whatever high schools, for instance, often do.

          The other problem, which you allude to, is that it’s really hard to keep up with all the books! I am vaguely aware of many books I probably should be reading to be keeping up with the children’s market. But I have limited time. And sometimes I want to reread books or read classics or adult books or things that are not new releases. I think sometimes bloggers and even reading advocates are all about promoting the latest great children’s books–but I don’t want to spend all my time trying to keep up with the market because it’s a losing battle. There are too many books published every year.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Michael J. Miller says:

            This reply gives me anxiety! Hahaha, seriously though, there is so much to keep track of in the book world. I think what I miss most about the days when I had more free time to read wasn’t being on top of everything (because, as you point out, that’s impossible) but just walking into a book store or library and grabbing a book at random and reading it. I don’t feel I have (or take) the time for random, experimental reading as much anymore and I miss that.

            I love the idea of independent reading time in class. Obviously, as you say, there are struggles. But, in theory, it would be such a direct way to illustrate it’s importance for students. The biggest struggles I see (as a high school teacher) would be keeping the kids off their devices, keeping them from doing work for other classes, and keeping some of them awake during that time. But trying to find a way to incorporate more reading time would have to be worth the fight to figure out how to balance it.

            And I would absolutely agree reading is necessary for my health! I’d add writing too, not necessarily public stuff or stuff for the blog (which is more for fun) but personal journaling. Journaling helps me order my mind while reading helps nourish my soul :).

            Like

            • Krysta says:

              I know! I used to walk into bookstores and libraries randomly and let the covers speak to me. Now I have a running list of titles I want to get to and it feels overwhelming! I miss the magic of just pulling things randomly, though I do still do that sometimes when I see things at the library.

              Oh, definitely! It’s difficult to get people to focus anymore, it seems. And it makes me sad. And baffled. I’ve seen more than one person “read” by just scrolling on a screen like letting their eyeballs rest briefly on text is “reading.” Getting someone to sit down for 10, 20 minutes and really concentrate is starting to feel like a bit of an uphill battle.

              And yes! to keeping students awake! They are SO busy! I think many work harder than adults. They have school, jobs, volunteering, extra-curriculars. I wish we could rewind to a time when high schoolers could go to school and then just do one or tow things that interest them. Instead they try to do EVERYTHING to get into college. And they shouldn’t have that kind of stress.

              And journaling is good, too! I don’t journal regularly, but it is relaxing! And a good way to process my thoughts.

              Liked by 1 person

            • Michael J. Miller says:

              Yes! I love that too! I love just wandering and seeing what covers draw you in! Just the other day a friend of mine suggested, now that our summer vacations are almost here, going to the book store, picking up something random we want to read, and then spending the entire day sitting together – in the cafe, down at the beach, in a park, or wherever – just reading our books. I am so excited about it :). Because like you, I’ve missed that too.

              The scrolling thing bothers me too :/. I always want to insert myself into other people’s lives and say, “Uh, you know that’s not reading right? Reading is a thing where you sit with the text, give it your undivided attention, and experience it at a pace that allows you to truly absorb what’s in there. Do you want me to show you how to do it?” But then I don’t say that because I enjoy the coffee shops I hang out in and don’t want to be asked to leave XD. But I will say that to my students!

              Like

            • Krysta says:

              Your friend sounds awesome! That sounds like the perfect, relaxing day!

              Oh my goodness! I really want to use that line now! I used to not understand the point of annotating (which I never have done, really, and probably never will–I made up annotations when required) as a means of “reading actively,” but I am starting to think more and more that that was one way teachers were maybe trying to force us to actually *read* the text. Not just stare at it with our eyeballs. Which is apparently a thing.

              I do sometimes wish teachers had explained their pedagogy more and said things like, “Hey, we think outlines are great for X reasons, but maybe outlines aren’t for you and you can do Y or Z!” Or “Maye you can read actively without writing notes or using highlighters! We’re just hoping you are thinking about and responding to what you are reading! This can be done in your head, too! But maybe write down stuff you want to talk about so you don’t forget, okay? Okay! Good!” But maybe they feared we’d be confused/hear only “You don’t have to annotate.” And then the staring with eyeballs would begin.

              Liked by 1 person

            • Michael J. Miller says:

              This is a major struggle for me, how to a) motivate my students to *really* read and b) ensure they, in fact, are. I just talked extensively with my seniors about it. Given they were on the verge of graduating, I hoped they’d be honest. They said their two biggest frustrations with “reading assignments” were being asked to take notes (because it pulls them out of the experience of reading the book) and being told too much about the author’s history, the message of the story, etc. and so on before they’ve even opened it (because they want to experience it for themselves first, to see what they see). I get that! My note taking is always random. I let whatever I’m reading dictate what I do. Sometimes it feels right to write in the margins and highlight or to jot down thoughts afterwards. Other times, not. So I can completely appreciate their frustrations.

              But it is hard to be sure the students are reading AND to be sure in a way that doesn’t make them resent reading. I’ve tried, with varying degrees of success, to tell my kids, “Okay, if you come in and we have a REAL discussion where you all demonstrate that you’re really reading and thinking about this book, then we don’t have to take notes or have a test on it.” Sometimes it works, others not at all. It really depends on the mix of kids :/.

              Like

            • Krysta says:

              I’m the opposite, though! If I don’t get background on the author and historical time period, and some overview of literary criticism, I feel lost, like “What do you want me to say/present on this? I know nothing about transcendentalism/the Gothic novel/insert something here and yet you want me to say something intelligent about it??” Haha. Maybe I need to relax and just let the story speak to me!

              Yeah, Donalyn Miller is big on walking around discussing books with students instead of doing book reports or that sort of thing. But,, of course, nothing is a fail-proof system. (Sometimes I feel like all career/teaching advice is presented as if it is, though!) I think sometimes you just how to choose the imperfect system that works best for you/that class at that moment. And the students will probably turn out all right.

              Liked by 2 people

            • Michael J. Miller says:

              I think that’s a lot of it – sort of reading the room and seeing what works best for each class. I feel like I’ve had a lot of “great” moments with one class where I’ve ended up falling flat on my face when I try it with a different section of the same course. But that’s part of the fun!

              As to the background in the book/author/etc., I think it’s a case-by-case thing for me. You know? Some books I can jump into with nothing and just let whatever speaks to me, speak to me. Others though, a lack of background makes me feel like I’m left adrift on the ocean with no land in sight XD.

              Liked by 2 people

  6. Isobel Necessary says:

    Love this post and discussion! I’m not in the US but this has inspired me to find out about how my local libraries are funded. So important, especially in poorer communities, to have books and information accessible.

    Like

Leave a Reply! We'd love to read your thoughts!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.