Monday, March 15, 2010

Libraries as Physical Places

I'm listening to a podcast about the Boston Public Library situation--they have a budget shortfall, so they're looking at closing some branches. Sound familiar? Oooooh, they just got to the part where they compare the situation to the Providence situation. Ann Robinson is on the line!

Anyway, I think what's at stake here is the library as physical place. Unless we get a lot more money, libraries can't be everything people want them to be: children's playroom, research institution, internet cafe, senior center, homeless shelter, continuing education extension, video store, after school program, etc. But one of the biggest either-or decisions we have to make is whether we're going to be a physical place or an online presence.

In Providence, we've already taken sides. PCL is keeping the physical spaces open--both in terms of locations and hours--and naturally that means other things have to take a hit--collections, staffing, building maintenance, etc. Dale Thompson has embraced the other path, where the assumption is that people have computers and can access your resources 24/7 from wherever.

Maybe another thing that's at stake is whether the library is a social service for people with lower incomes (and the homeless) or an institution that will compete with Netflix and Google to attract the middle to upper class. Maybe we don't have to choose between these two particular extremes, but I don't think we can be everything to everyone in this economy, so we need to commit. To something. Know who we are and be that.

Note: I'm not the first blogger to talk about this, obviously, although it's more often a discussion at University Libraries.

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