Monday, April 10, 2006

ALA's "State of America's Libraries"

The American Library Association (ALA) last week released its first ever "State of America's Libraries" report--a skimpy 13-page document that presents its own take on libraries and is apparently intended for the consumption of the mainstream (old) media.

So far, no one has consumed it except for a short notice in the New York Times as part of a larger article on various topics.

The message is that libraries are responding positively to the challenges of what ALA terms "the Age of Google." Libraries are considered a valuable resource, they are doing a fabulous job despite natural disasters, funding problems, evil politicians, and censors. The ALA paints itself as an association that wields a healthy share of power and influence, is working successfully for the betterment of the country, and so forth.

It worries me a bit when ALA, by itself, produces this sort of document, for all the obvious reasons. I would prefer that a commission composed of various library interests would jointly create a paper like this: ALA, the Special Libraries Association, friends of libraries, library schools, and others I'm sure.

"Libraries and librarians are good citizens."

This is the first point at the top of the 1-page Executive Summary. (Funnily, when I first saw this paper, I assumed all 13 pages were the Executive Summary and there must be a much larger complete paper somewhere.) Is there a problem here? Can you imagine a paper on the state of America's engineers or lawyers or doctors starting with this declarative statement: "Engineers are good citizens!" or "Hospitals and doctors are good citizens!" Has someone said librarians aren't "good citizens?" As with any other group, you will find both good and bad citizens among librarians. I've known both.

More people may regard librarians as "bad citizens" these days because they are more vocal in advocating partisan radical causes, closely aligning themselves with one particular political party, hesitating to cooperate with law enforcement officials, pushing materials into public libraries that are inappropriate for their communities, etc. Perhaps this is why the report starts off as it does--because this is now an open question in the minds of a lot of people who didn't question it before.

Helping to Rescue a Ravaged Region

It's always nice to help in some way those who need it, but this section includes the following quote:

"And barely three weeks after Rita, following intense deliberation, the ALA decided, on October 12, to proceed with its plans to hold its 2006 Annual Conference, scheduled for June 22-28, in New Orleans."

Some might call it a reckless gamble to hold the conference in New Orleans when no one really knew whether that would cause countless problems and dangers to thousands of ALA members. Some might say the ALA should do what is in the best interests of its members, not pretend it is the job of a library association to "rebuild New Orleans" or any other city.

ALA President Michael Gorman is quoted:

“We speak often of how libraries build communities, and now we have a chance to show the country and the world that librarians build communities, too.”

Note to ALA Conference attendees: Bring your hammers.

Public Library Report Card

I'm stunned at the results of this survey. Are so many people really so thoroughly satisfied with public libraries? It's good news if we are pleasing our customers to this extent. Maybe I see problems that they don't, from my view on the inside. But I think a lot of librarians, besides myself, would dispute these rosy numbers. Library Journal mentioned that this paper downplays negative parts of the survey that showed one-third of adults hadn't visited a library in a year (although I'm not so sure that's necessarily a bad thing).

Let's not gloss over all the problems we know exist, regardless of any face-saving survey:

1. Many librarians act as if they don't want to be there; the patrons see it, and we know it.
2. Many librarians are not highly skilled, and don't want to be.
3. Many librarians have no interest in keeping up with the standard technology used by many patrons.
4. Many librarians are not friendly.
5. Many libraries are not "comfortable."
6. Many libraries are not "modern."
7. Many libraries are not user-friendly and show no interest in becoming so.

Library education

The library profession doesn't attract higher quality students. I'd say that's due to the historically low salaries and the image of librarians as not ambitious, living in the past, etc. A greater emphasis on technology in the curriculum (not to mention a few basic courses on customer service) can help to raise up the profession and push out the undesirables among us who are "reluctant librarians."

The Continuing Battle Against Censorship

My impression on reading this section is that it is drenched in emotion inappropriate for such a document. Not all books belong in libraries. Communities usually have very good reasons for not wanting certain types of materials in their tax-funded public libraries. Many banned books deserved it. From the report:

A mother overwhelmed the city schools' materials-review procedures by requesting the removal of 70 titles she considered sexually explicit.

So a taxpayer who funds school libraries and goes through proper legal channels to challenge offensive materials should just shut up because the "materials-review procedures" can't handle the terrible workload? Or is it that they don't want to review questionable books? Or should patrons not question anything librarians inflict on them to satisfy their own personal obsessions?

From my vantage point, it's a somewhat odd report. We'll see what the mainstream media makes of it, if anything. It might be time for a report on "The State of the American Library Association" by an independent panel. It's been my feeling that ALA doesn't always work in the best interests of the library profession. For one thing, it needs to plot a centrist political course and keep the doors open on both sides of the political aisle. We all know that isn't the case today.

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