Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The library is the bastard child

I started working in a library during a different political era. At that time we were the bastard child of the County. Our public popularity was boundless, but we had to struggle on in a world where less exciting government services dominated and we had to skimp by on meager budgets. We were barely recognized, little spoken of, begrudgingly tolerated.

But oh that popularity! As the Nation's ideology hammered down on the uselessness of government and the inevitable drabness of Socialism, there we were, untouchable, raggedly beautiful; Socialist Government smelling ever like a rose. Or perhaps that's not a good analogy because we don't usually smell so great, but still, everyone loved us at the library. We just sat there, handing out books and movies and music, nothing much else to it really, sometimes we helped people find information, and they were smitten with us! Smitten!

But we were still the bastard child of the County.

So we started selling the County on how loved we were. Our management got more political and clever. We hired a non librarian administrator to be our library director. We conducted opinion polls that were ridiculously favorable towards us. We spread out. We taught classes and hosted programs and did outreach. We employed dynamic librarians to walk the land preaching 3D printers and interactive science and the great electronic conspiracy. We allied with schools and government agencies and Social Services. The County sat up and noticed. They got interested. Our budgets started beating the curve every time. We built an array of grand new modern buildings and our bureaucracy and power grew.

But here's the weird part, the funny part: All the new money and new space went to all the new things. The book budget struggled on with no gains and occasional losses, as did the space for those books and the hours we were open. Meanwhile programs and classes and dynamic modern ventures like chromebook and ipad schemes with school systems, social services hosting, homework helping, computer classes and community outreach, performances and technology all grew and grew. We stopped really talking about the ancient library of books on shelves and a static, passive, interesting, useful place to go. At my library's In Service Day one might hardly know we were a library by the old standard. We looked forward and ever struggled to redefine ourselves, modern, innovative, clawing to the imagined future.

But underneath, there we were. Books on the shelves, tables and chairs, a few staffed desks with someone reasonably knowledgeable ( well, roughly 60% of the time they're knowledgeable!) to help. A library. Our space, the old library's space is unchanged, our budget if anything is less. But it's still what it's all about. It's still what everyone who loves a library really cares about. When the library talks about the library it is all initiatives and outreach and programs, but nearly always, when someone talks about loving the library, they just mean the stuff they can check out, the place they can go, and maybe a little bit the help they can get with the stuff.

Once my library was the bastard child of the County. Now my library is the bastard child of the library itself. But it doesn't much matter. Leave the library as an underdog. I don't mind working in the coalpit of the circulation department. I am a renegade plumber of the information empire. Let my director and her ilk fuss with glamour. The library is supposed to be a bastard. It is happiest that way. Down on the ground you plant your feet and grunt and heave and hand out literature and give people bad ideas, dangerous ideas, all the wrong ideas, and the door to the light stays cracked open. 

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