5 Ways I Think Public Libraries Can Continue to Improve

Ways I Think the Public Library Can Improve

We love libraries here at Pages Unbound! From books to computers to programs, libraries offer many services that support their communities and promote equal access. Still, there’s always room for improvement, right? Here are some of my thoughts on how public libraries can continue to improve.

Advertise tutoring services as a positive tool for everyone–not just struggling students.

Often, I see “cute” little social media posts showing frustrated students who need tutoring because they’re apparently just so bad at school, but the library can help with their tutoring program! I don’t like the implication that tutoring is only for failing students because it stigmatizes the process and makes it seem like people who need tutoring should be ashamed of it. I’d rather see libraries advertise tutoring as a positive tool that can be used by everyone as a way to improve. Firstly because students should not be encouraged to wait until they are failing to seek tutoring. By that point, the semester is usually over and their grades can’t make the same improvement they would if they had been getting feedback all along. Secondly, even “good” students can benefit from personalized feedback. Showing some motivated-looking students in the pictures and writing a blurb about how tutoring is beneficial for all would go a long way towards encouraging more students to try it.

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Stop making jokes about how hard math is/how no one likes math.

It seems like libraries attract many workers who see themselves as “humanities-oriented” and who are self-proclaimed, “Bad at math.” I have heard many librarians over the years joke about how they can’t do basic math functions like addition and subtraction. I have heard them assume that, “No one likes math,” because, apparently, they personally don’t. I even see the aforementioned tutoring services offered explicitly in connection with math, as if it is to be understood that MATH IS VERY DIFFICULT and everyone struggles.

This…isn’t true. I really liked math as a kid. Lots of kids like math. It always felt very alienating for me as a kid to go to the library and watch the staff struggle to add up my minutes read and hear them joke about math like it’s a dirty word. Libraries are supposed to be all about making learning accessible and fun these days. That should include math, even if all the staff aren’t equally comfortable with their own math skills. They don’t have to solve equations flawlessly in front of the public, just not unthinkingly disseminate the ideas that everyone should find math scary, or that people can only be good at one thing–English or math.

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Don’t worry about going viral.

I like seeing library staff making funny videos as much as anyone. However, sometimes it seems like libraries are taking social media advice that isn’t particularly meant for libraries. I check library social media pages to see what programs and services are being offered, and to learn about closures. I don’t follow them for the pun of the day, cat memes, and other non-library content that gets a lot of “likes” but isn’t related to informing the public about how the library works and what it offers.

Going viral can feel nice, but I don’t know if churning out a bunch of funny content just for the views makes sense for libraries. The goal surely is to appeal to their service area so local people understand what the library can do for them–and consequently then walk into the library to increase circulation, program stats, etc. A secondary goal could be to inform people in general about what libraries offer–and humor could help with this. But high views on random, non-library content won’t translate into increased library usage. And cluttering a library page with non-library content is frankly baffling.

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Remove library policies that allow patrons to be removed for body odor.

These types of policies still seem to be floating around. They are explicitly aimed at people experiencing homelessness and they are very unwelcoming. Yes, other patrons might be bothered by body odor, but it’s not a person’s fault if they do not have access to bathing and laundry facilities, and it seems cruel to tell them they cannot stay in a safe space because of that. Libraries are public buildings and that means people will be exposed to other people from all walks of life. And that is okay.

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Remove the one-desk model–or accept that all staff at the front desk should be trained (and paid for) reference duties.

Back in ye olden days, most libraries had two desks–the circulation desk and the reference desk. The staff at the circulation desk only did circulation duties–checking books in and out, and looking up accounts. The staff at the reference desk did reference duties–looking up the locations of materials, suggesting books that could help with research or providing suggestions for read-alikes, placing inter-library loans, etc. The reference staff traditionally had to have more education/degrees and were subsequently paid more. Then, libraries thought customer service would be improved by a one-desk model. This meant patrons did not have to puzzle through which desk to approach, or get annoyed if they approached one desk and were asked to talk to someone at the other desk instead. Now, everywhere seems to have a one-desk model.

The difficulty? Patrons don’t know if they are talking to a circulation staff member who has only been trained on circulation duties, or a reference librarian. In my personal experience, the reference librarians provide much more helpful reference services (no surprise–they are trained on these duties). The other problem is that the circulation staff are now doing the same job as the reference staff–but they are still usually getting paid less. If library administration want circulation staff to be doing reference at the front desk, that’s fine–but they need their pay to reflect this. Having a one-desk model sometimes seems like a sneaky way to save money because the public usually do not know the difference between job roles and assume everyone at the desk is equally trained and equally paid. But many libraries have begun talking about equity in the past few years. Why not take action with a little pay equity?

What ways do you think the public library can improve?

13 thoughts on “5 Ways I Think Public Libraries Can Continue to Improve

  1. danielle pitter says:

    As a grad student studying to become a librarian, this post is really helpful! I don’t agree with your point of removing policies of patrons with body odor though. If someone has an odor and other patrons complain about it, then there’s only so much we can do. Keeping them in a public area that has the potential to distract.
    And I’m also taking a reference class, and a lot of my classmates share stories of being behind the desk. A lot of them would love it if more staff were trained at reference. I think it has to do with financing and budgeting, as well.


    • Krysta says:

      In my admittedly limited experience, there’s usually only one person with body odor in the building at a time and they are usually somewhat aware, and will keep in a corner. I have heard patrons complain and ask for the person to be removed. For my part, I think it’s easier for me to move to a table farther away than it is for some other person to be out in extreme weather for the day because of their smell. I could see if a library were having hordes of patrons come in and the smell permeated the entire building, it could be an issue. But, really, I accept that when I walk into the library, some people might smell. I browse quickly in the area and then, if I need to sit, I sit in a different area. I’m always disheartened when I hear other patrons trying to get a homeless person kicked out when they’re not being actively disruptive, and I have let my hometown library know I am disappointed in their policies. I don’t need to be in the building all day to be safe; that person probably does.

      And, yeah, budgets are tough! Libraries are so underfunded in the U.S. But I really do think the solution is to advocate for more funding or find ways to divert some more funding to staff. I want to support nonprofits, but when they are relying on their staff to “sacrifice for the cause” I get less supportive. I do look at the financial reports of libraries around me and some seem, to me, an outsider, odd. Several new admin positions created, technology upgrades that seem unnecessary, and departments that receive lots of money that is never fully spent. But the front line staff isn’t making a living wage for the area? There was only a 2% COLA this year in the face of rampant inflation? I wonder what could be rethought to help the staff get paid fairly for the work they are doing. Good companies don’t let staff do the work of higher position without the equivalent job title and pay. I love and support libraries. I know they need money. But I don’t think asking staff to be underpaid is a good long-term solution, not if the libraries want to retain qualified staff. (Staff turnover is VERY high where I am.)

      Liked by 1 person

      • danielle pitter says:

        I agree on your budgeting thoughts. I did a management consulting report for school last semester on a nonprofit organization, and most of their funds go to annual conferences that happen every year. But if not enough people attend yearly, then what happens to their crew and staff? It falls back on them because the nonprofit organization’s foundation structure. It’s all fragile at the end of the day. I LOVEEE my libraries too! But it’s time for a change.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Eustacia | Eustea Reads says:

    I really like the point about not being focused on going viral – unless they went viral in the community and that increases the number of visits, being popular online doesn’t really do much for the library.


    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      I’ve been musing about people’s obsession with going viral and “creating content” and it just seems . . . addictive? Like why is everyone trying to get tons of views on everyone when there’s literally no benefit to it? Like the library doesn’t get more patrons if their TikTok goes viral, and my cousin doesn’t get anything if HER TikTok goes viral. You just get views! Unless someone is actually an influencer who’s getting money/sponsorships, then we’re all obsessed with getting views for literally no reason!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Krysta says:

        This is why the desire to go viral baffles me, too. Especially on the non-library content. Going viral on something related to the organization I guess could make the post show up more in the feeds of your local followers, who could actually benefit. But if you get tons of views on something like a random pun (not even book related!), what’s the point? You feel good, I guess? That’s it?


  3. theorangutanlibrarian says:

    haha yeah I have a lot of feelings about the one desk model. Not gonna get into too much detail, but I think that the model is fine, it’s just a matter of not paying/appreciating the people working on the frontline as much (even though they have to know all the same things). Also very much agree with you about going viral- getting lots of attention on social media doesn’t equate to getting people in the door. For the libraries I work in, it equates to the same issue as the desk- as we have staff who are employed to work in the back and are paid more to manage social media etc… which doesn’t make sense imo. We see no real influence from a social media post, but could do with staff in the actual library!


    • Krysta says:

      I think people really overemphasize the impact of social media sometimes. It can be helpful and it’s another avenue for communication and marketing, but it’s not magic. Most people I know seemingly don’t even follow their library on social media or even check the library website. They just go in when they want something, get it, and leave.

      I think library social media is for people who are REALLY into the library, but it’s obviously not going to capture everyone. Someone who hasn’t been to the library in over ten years and hasn’t realized they have DVDs yet surely isn’t following the library on Facebook! (And I do know several such people.) But there’s such a push for everyone to be the next social media breakout star. Or maybe libraries just rely on it so much because it’s free.

      I would love so much for all the front desk staff to be trained and paid equally, but every time I mention it, there are choruses of, “But the budget!” And even library staff often don’t seem to care about the pay discrepancy. I was talking to a circulation assistant awhile back and she told me she wanted to get into programming (I think she thought it seemed more interesting than just checking out books?) and all I could think was, “But if that’s the job of the reference librarians, why would you offer to do their job free??”

      And, yeah, I see the frontline staff as so valuable! There would be nothing to promote on social media without their work! And if they are interacting with the public, they can do more targeted word-of-mouth marketing like, “Oh, yeah, I see you want that SAT book, but did you know we have a free SAT course coming up?” or whatever. They’re the ones getting to know the community and their needs, right?


  4. Delaney says:

    I love this post! I definitely agree with the math thing, it’s an issue we have in our overall society. But we’re just discouraging kids from learning math!


  5. Michael J. Miller says:

    I love of all of this. And with the tutoring, so many students (and their parents!) are sooooo focused on getting into college. To reframe tutoring as something fun to do and maybe get a leg up on challenges before the class is challenging (which would then help them for college) could change the narrative around tutoring and draw a different group of patrons than those who may traditionally look to it, too.


    • Krysta says:

      True! I think everyone can benefit from feedback and from extra, guided support, so why not? Why is the discourse around tutoring always that it’s for people who are struggling? And what if I am in denial that I am struggling and keep telling myself I will figure it out if I just keep working harder? I’m losing out on all this great support I could get!


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