Saturday, October 29, 2016

Public Libraries Online: Donations and Lottery winners

I have been writing for Public Libraries online. It's all a little iffy at the point I write this. But this would have been published on their website. And since you weren't likely to see it there I, now that I am allowed to, publish it here for you to see.

If you closely follow library stories across the world you may have come across this heartwarming one:

A  small rural public school's largely abandoned library in Las Plumas County, California, was so outdated that it was unusable. A local writer, Margaret Garcia, had a dream of reopening this library, so she put out a call on her blog for people to send a book. Her blog post went viral and people sent in forty seven million books!

I may not have that exact number correct. Indeed all of my facts here are like unto a crayon rendering of the actual story. But the main point is there were a lot of books donated. So many books that they're reopening the library and don't want anymore books, just gift cards, money, and shelving.

If you haven't before heard this story you have heard one like it. It is a cat in the tree story. It is a poor person wins the lottery story. It is hard to fault the story because it seems to restore faith in destiny, in generosity, and in the kindness of strangers. It says despite the problems out there with proper school library funding this good will can solve problems and make things better. And above all it says that people really care about books and libraries.

I am here to rain on your parade. 

Full disclosure: I like raining on your parade, especially if it's a stupid parade for rescued cats who are going back up that tree to be rescued again. And can I just ask here, if firemen are always rescuing cats in trees, wouldn't it stand to reason that occasionally, even just once I would have seen a dead cat in a tree. Have you ever seen a dead cat in a tree?

Which is to say The Reinstated Las Plumas County School Library is almost certainly going back up that tree. The lottery winning poor person is going to squander all the money they won because they have no idea how to manage money, and because everyone they know is poor and didn't win the lottery. And the chance that they will win the lottery again is as unlikely as you winning the lottery for the first time (sorry). It is as unlikely as Margaret Garcia's blog post going viral again in ten years when all these forty seven million books are once more outdated. But there will not be a news story about that. It's not heartwarming.  

It is my guess that miraculously well-heeded calls for books will be far less heeded across the nation when the books are done and the call is for money, gift cards, and shelving. It is a cozy notion that libraries are simply books and by each of us donating a few books we can make a library. It is a less cozy notion that a library is good shelving, a viable cataloging system, a pleasant, safe space to be in with decent furniture and good light. And perhaps it is the least cozy notion of all that a library too is probably a person getting paid $56,880 dollars a year to deal with it all.

I work in a large library in a big city and rarely does a day go by where I am not dealing with book donations. Like the generous donations to the Las Plumas Library they may be intended to save us too. I think we regularly get more donations than they even received in the bonanza at that school in Plumas County. Sadly ours mostly consist of yellowed Ham and Pineapple Cookbooks from the fifties and the early works of Danielle Steele in vintage book club editions that have been fully seasoned by a couple decades of storage in a basement. There's not much we can do with this stuff other than trying to trick people into buying them or furtively recycling them when that fails. All our donations together provide a rare few items we add to the collection and a small stream of miscellaneous income. If you took all the vast thousands of donated books we receive in a year you would not have a library. You would have a rummage sale. Which we do, twice a year.

 But we do have a pretty good tax base here in my city. And a just steady enough commitment to libraries. This allows us to have a greasy but up to date collection of books and movies. It means we have shelving. We have great windows full of light and proper recessed lighting inside as well. And we have librarians, many of them, some good and some not so much. We have clerks and student workers and volunteers and board members, computer people and computers, and open doors. We are a library. I am confident we will be around in five years. I am not so sure about the one in Plumas County. We in no real way rely upon the kindness of strangers. No library should have to, and very few that ever do will thrive, let alone survive.

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