The Deep Mission of Public Libraries

Why do we have public libraries?

Many of today’s librarians like to talk about themselves as “information brokers” or “knowledge facilitators.”  We talk about our skill in finding and organizing information.  And sure, we’ve got those skills.

But what we really do is support literacy.  This is our deeper mission.

In the minds of our patrons, the most prevalent definition of a public library is “that place that has all the books.”

But why bother having all those books?  Those books allow our community to be more literate.  They provide a way for us to share and promote reading, at all levels, for all kinds of people.  The library provides a way for people who would not otherwise have access to books, to have access to books, and to connect people who have books, with different kinds of books. The library provides a wide range of books for a wide diversity of people.  It allows the community to practice and perfect our skill in understanding and appreciating the printed word.

miller avenue branch library

Books are becoming less central to our perception of literacy.  It’s not that physical books are dying, but they are no longer the only occupiers of their ecological niche.  Digital media, whether it be eBooks, or web pages, or apps, or texting, or whatever else you want to add to the list, is encroaching.  It is ubiquitous and consuming.

Libraries are not dying, but as books become less central, libraries too need to evolve, or we will be edged out.

What should public library evolution look like?


Talking about libraries as places for information, rather than books, is one way to think about it.  This model puts the librarian at the center of the library.  She is collecting, curating, and disseminating information.  She is a better-than-Google search ninja.

Another way to think about our future libraries is to expand our understanding of literacy.  Literacy has been a fluid concept, looking back through time.  We have defined literacy variously, as being able to recite, as being able to write one’s name, as reading, as reading and understanding.  As opportunities to read became more common, due in part to improved printing and communication technology, our definition of literacy became more sophisticated.

Our definition of literacy needs now to expand again in response to our culture of rapid technological innovation.

Public libraries need to embrace digital and technological skills as part of our deep mission to support literacy.

This model, where libraries support an expanded idea of literacy, puts the patron at the center of the library.  The library is about supporting and improving the patron’s life.  It is about allowing the patron to move from consumer to maker, breaker, creator and repairer.  I prefer this model, to the information broker model.  It’s messier.  It’s sexier.  It’s more interesting.  And it’s more necessary.


Our patrons need help with every level of technology literacy.  From those who come in who don’t know how to use a mouse, to those who’re interested in building a computer from scratch, the library could provide a wide range of resources for a wide diversity of people.  We can help our community to practice and perfect our skill in understanding, using, and appreciating technology and digital content.

We’re kind-of getting there.  We’ve got computers and the free internet for our patrons.  We’re doing some classes and programs to help people develop their skills.  And then of course we’ve got the maker movement.

It is in this context, of expanded literacy, that the maker fad starts to become something more important.  Maker Spaces are totally hot right now.  Everybody wants a 3D printer.

We’re in a bubble of bandwagonism.  But after this settles down, I think we’ll be in a better place.  It will be more accepted to support digital literacy, from helping patrons understand where the url bar is to helping patrons understand how to build an app, wire a circuit, or repair their PC.  We won’t be so rabid about it, but we’ll have the foundations in place to really get down to work.

Photo: Miller Avenue Abandoned Library by Flickr User aaron.michaels, Creative Commons License

Photo: Evolution Des Wissens By Johanna Pun for Wikimedia Deutschland (Wikimedia Deutschland) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Floppy knows that feel, Cassette. From Obsolete Technology by paperbeatsscissors. Creative Commons License.

Navigating Social Services with Patrons (More on Libraries and the Homeless)

I’m trying to work out some of my thoughts about library services for homeless people.  I talked a little bit about them here and here. Below are some more ramblings and mutterings.

I recently listened to this archived Infopeople webinar, WHAT DO I DO NOW? Handling Challenging Situations with Mentally Ill and Homeless Library Users, Part I (the audio issues do get solved eventually, hang in there).  The presenters are two people from the San Francisco Public Library, the acting Chief of Main, and the social worker who works full time in the library.  I’m very impressed both by the program, and by the strategies presented in this webinar.  The social worker, Leah Esguerra, not only directly helps homeless patrons, but helps train library workers so they can both better help homeless patrons and better cope with the “difficult-ness” of homeless patrons.

One of the biggest frustrations, in helping homeless patrons, is that they need services and can’t, for whatever reason, get them.  The social services system is complicated enough that it is difficult to find the right place to send someone who is looking for housing assistance, for example.  Then once you find the right agency, you have to take into account the patron’s abilities and resources.  Do they have a phone? Computer skills? Transportation, or money for transportation?  Can they remember what you tell them?  Will they be able to navigate the bureaucracy?  Will they have the capability, patience or attention span necessary to see their inquiry through to the end?

I can see how having someone in the library who understands this system, and can help patrons navigate it, would be invaluable.


Hating Our Patrons

It may come as a surprise, but not everyone that visits the library is a sweet darling.  Some patrons are slightly unsavory and some are even real jerks.

There’s this Tumblr called Librarian Shaming, and on it some of the anonymous contributors have admitted to their dislike or even hatred of their patrons.  Some other people who blog think that all this negativity is bad, especially for The Librarian Image.  Some people take The Librarian Image very seriously.  Then one person contributed to Librarian Shaming, saying that all the librarians who hate their patrons should just feel lucky because all this person wanted to do was love and cherish patrons but she couldn’t because there were no jobs – they must have all been taken by patron-hating librarians.

I remember in my first few months as a real librarian, some more seasoned librarians were commenting on my enthusiasm.  “How long does that last?” one aked the other, “five years?”

I’ve certainly seen at least a generous handful of burned out librarians. There are grizzled veterans, who greet patrons with the dry eyed lizard stare and make extensive use of silent pointing.  You may think that older librarians might be less tech-savvy.  This is simply untrue of the burned out social butterfly librarian, for whom helping patrons never gets in the way of quality time with FaceBook.

Consider also that some of the contributors to librarian shaming may not be librarians at all.  I’ve seen a lot of patron-hating and curmudgeonly behavior from *some* (not all, not a majority) pages, aides, and LAs.  I think it’s understandable. Think about some of the differences between librarians and support staff.  Librarians choose librarianship. They actually go out and earn a degree. They deliberately and purposefully choose a job that seeks to help patrons.  It may be minimal, but they should have at least some theoretical familiarity with the ideals behind service to patrons.  Support staff may fall into libraries.  They haven’t spent time and money on an expensive educational investment that reinforces their commitment to libraries and patron service.  And they may be on the front lines with patrons nearly constantly.  It’s kind of amazing that the are so many awesome support services workers, if you think about it, when there are so many reasons to be an unhappy chappy.

Because here’s the thing with customer service.  It can be kind of soul killing.  For reals.  It is service.  It is sublimating your needs in order to meet other people’s.  It is helping people who aren’t necessarily lifting a finger to help you.  It’s being nice to mean people, polite to rude people, and solicitous to the mentally deranged.  You can get a lot out of providing excellent service. It can be very rewarding to turn someone’s day around, or to be utterly charmed by a stranger.  But it can also suck the life force out of your juicy body like nothing else.

No matter who you are, it can get you down.  There is no shame in admitting that.  This is why librarianship, or working as support staff in a library, is work.  You have to give good customer service, even if you don’t really feel like it.

In fact, I think it’s important that we DO admit that sometimes it just really motherfluffing sucks.  Because then we can work on ways to create better service for ourselves and for our patrons.  We can examine our service strategies, and take care to keep ourselves professionally juiced. We have to admit that service can be problematic in order to engage in problem solving to improve service.

And we don’t have to hide that behind a curtain.  We can be real people and maybe even laugh about it.  I guarantee no one is taking librarian shaming as seriously as librarians.

spirit photo

Some Patrons are More Equal than Others

I’m trying to work out some of my thoughts about library services for homeless people.  I talked a little bit about them here, and here are some more ramblings and mutterings.

Of course, the library isn’t just for poor people.  But poor people benefit tremendously from the library.

Homeless people specifically benefit both in the Victorian-esque sense of being “improved” (e.g. increased literacy, or knowledge) and in the more modern sense of improved quality of life – from the basic “warm place to sit” to diversion and learning via library materials to social connections, whether with other patrons, staff, or virtually, in using computer time to go on social media sites, or email, etc.   From both a missionary and a compassionate viewpoint, libraries are good for homeless people.

Library funding comes largely from property taxes. Thus, homeless people are not the ones who pay for the library.  And homeless people are frequently the losers when there is conflict between the way the homeless people use the library and the way that housed people use the library.

Homeless people are often “difficult patrons.” Libraries make attempts to manage conflict by writing policies.  Sometimes these policies clearly target homeless people, even though they may not say so outright.  For example, it is generally frowned upon to bring lots of possessions into the library (bag policies) or to bathe in library bathrooms (bathing policies).

Homeless people who are also mentally ill are particularly “difficult patrons.”  Not just for librarians, but for other patrons who may also end up interacting with them.  I wrote a bit about helping people that you don’t really want to help here and about needy patrons here.

This is a good read:  There’s a sentence in there that reads:

Although, it is not the job of libraries to alleviate the issue of homelessness, many public libraries provide a refuge or sanctuary to those stricken by poverty.21

But I think maybe we should consider it our job.  Not as in, “we should start replacing the stacks with cots,” but as in, “homeless people are a key patron group, let’s be better about understanding and providing services.”

Bowery_men_waiting_for_bread_in_bread_line,_New_York_City,_Bain_Collection (1)

Can You Have a Third Place if There’s No First or Second?

At the interview for my first librarian job, one of the questions I asked was “What does ‘third place’ mean?”  This library’s customer service plan, which had been discussed in the supplemental questions, included a sentence that declared they wanted customers to use the library as a “third place.”

As they told me, and as I’ve come to understand from my own work, “third place” is the concept of the community living room.  Your first place is your home, your second place is your work, and your “third place” is an informal, drop-in meeting place. It’s often where you go to socialize, with old and new friends. It could be a barbershop, a cafe, a pub, a bowling alley, a church basement, somewhere in Second Life (although probably only if you were teaching at an online library school about five or six years ago), or it could be a library .

Dans un cafeFrom my own  perspective as a working, housed individual, I can really get behind this concept of the “third place.” I’ve been finding third places all my life. It fits with my memories of being a bored suburban teenager looking for a place to hang out (I had romantic notions based around French cafe culture and a passing and likely misinformed familiarity with the working style of Jean Paul Sarte).  I have fond memories of Sunday lunch in English pubs, where people from ages 0 to 100 gather to eat, drink beer, and/or run around. And finally, my husband and I have crammed ourselves into tiny apartments for the last ten years, and found necessary breathing room in all kinds of third places.

What a wonderful concept, for the library to be our “third place”!  Patrons should come hang out, chat with each other, enjoy a sense of community, and then head home and sleep soundly in their own beds.

But now I’ve been thinking, what does this notion of third place mean for people who don’t have a first or second place?

Many of our patrons are people who don’t.  Patrons who are homeless and/or jobless are often heavy library users.  And not so much in that happy, take-your-cute-kids-to-storytime way.  More in that using-computers, sleeping, hanging-out-cause-there’s-nowhere-else-to-go way.  Jobbed, housed patrons and staff often take issue with homeless patrons, probably in three main categories: smells, possessions, and outre talk or behavior.

There’s this undercurrent, both from staff and patrons, that homeless patrons hanging out, doing third place behavior, is improper library use.  And yet we spend time enticing our housed patrons to do just that.

Do we need to rethink something here?