Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Re-return of "Chilly"

Just a caveat: "Chilly" is outdated. The blog came from my opinions about the influence of neoliberalism on our society, and particularly on libraries. I'm still very interested in the topic, and may revive it, but for right now please consider contents old news.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The return of "Chilly"

I'm back, after a long hiatus, and with a revived interest in the topic of neoliberalism, and particularly how this concept applies to libraries. I'm especially concerned in exploring how neoliberalism may relate to the current situation in Wisconsin, as Governor Walker tries to disassemble public-employee unions with the assistance of the oil-grubbing Koch brothers. More soon.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Bookstore model "how-to" website

As an example of a library system that's gone hog-wild for the bookstore model, the South Jersey Regional Library Cooperative takes the cake. These folks came up with a project called "Trading Spaces: Reinventing the Library Environment." Essentially, the project, presented on their website, is a guide to turning your library into a bookstore. Reading the site's content, you'll find countless references to "customers" (of course), ominous phrases like "merchandizing the collection" and statements that reek of business-oriented new agey pretension: "library staff at all points on the change-oriented and traditional scale can thrive in a library where the collection and services star." There's even a paragraph that makes the library seem to be striving to emulate a bank!

South Jersey offers training to assist in a library's transformation. There's advice on how to make your books face out on the shelves, how to walk around and make things spiffy, how to be a good greeter to folks who walk in the door. (Forget the bookstore--this sounds like Walmart!) Unfortunately, none of their advice seems to concern helping people find a particularly useful book or answer a reference question.

For an ominous moment, I even thought South Jersey had done away with a classification system. Luckily, I found a reference to DDC buried in one of their guides.

Well, maybe it's not all that bad. From the looks of the website, updates have been pretty infrequent, so the South Jersey staff must be pretty busy. There's a lot of postings from last year's PLA, for instance. It must be working out ok, though, 'cause South Jersey even offers a DIY toolkit on how to do what they did to their library to yours. Check it out--if you dare.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Bookstore model...disaster?

I just read a piece about the bookstore model run amuck. The story would almost be funny; instead, it's a little bit scary, because what happened at the featured library illustrates the direction in which a lot of libraries are moving.

Here's the story, in a nutshell: the library system in question, Washington DC, apparently has some of those administrators who are now as common as mud in April: they read in LJ or hear a conference presentation about a trend and jump in, head over heels, never giving a thought to the consequences. In this case they decided to implement the bookstore model for their system. So, to start, they took a branch library, weeded the collection in half (apparently by circulation figures and condition), then added lots of books with bright shiny covers, included tons of self-help, "Idiot's" guides. Science and history areas were decimated.

The only trouble was that some patrons (users/customers) in that part of town didn't want this kind of material. They're a highly education demograph (unlike a large part of DC), and those folks wanted good stuff on the shelves, including Caucer's Canterbury Tales. Which, guess what, was no longer available--although quotes from the book were ornately inscribed in glass panels on the library's shelves.

Now, at this point, I have to admit it--this is old news. The above all happened in 2007 and a lot of folks seem to have adjusted just fine. Turnstile and circulation numbers are up and the library has increased its db subscriptions as well. And as for Canterbury Tales, there's a number of copies in the system, including those at DC's Martin Luther King Jr. research-oriented library. Still, there seem to be some patrons who don't like what's happened to their neighborhood library.

So, I wonder: what would have been wrong with just weeding more judiciously at the above library, and retaining some the reference books and less-circulating material with re-bound covers, etc.? Sure, the shelves could be thinned, faceouts added, that kind of "bookstore" stuff. But don't the patrons at this library deserve at least some research material or less-read books such as classics that have fallen out of favor with most modern readers? Why should they have to go to another library, or wait for a book to be shipped to one closer to them? As I've said previously, the bookstore model isn't necessarily a bad thing. It just often seems to be applied without much thought given to a library's mission, collection or all the patrons/users/customers.

Here's a couple links about the story. One's from the The Hill, a DC paper. The other's from the Examiner website. Read 'em; see what you think.

Monday, February 23, 2009

More on neoliberalism in the library

Another aspect of the influence of neoliberalism in my library is the common use of the word "customer" to refer to patrons or users. I encountered this quite a while ago in library literature, as more and more articles seemed to focus on "customer" service. Most of these pieces tacitly accepted the bookstore model for running a library, and with it the notion that users get better service at bookstores than libraries. I find this problematic. As an example, consider direct interaction between users and staff: is a customer/patron treated better by an ill-paid, under-employed, should-be academic at B&N or an unfireable, union-protected, civil-service-hired clerk at the public library?

To be fair, this slightly negative comparison of public-service between libraries and bookstores is only a part of the model. Other concepts of the bookstore model are actually promising and can be applied to reference libraries as well those intended for browsing: users can find books more easily when library shelves aren't dusty or cluttered; books shelved face-out attract attention; there's no reason why old, battered items can't be rebound to make the books look nice; weeding can be done judiciously to keep material current (if guidelines aren't too focused on condition or circulation figures) or sent to stacks for reference-use retention. And getting back to "customer" service--patrons should be treated with respect and friendliness.

Still, despite these positive sides of the bookstore model, I can't see the overall advantage for treating the library as one. Except, of course, to library administrators who rather like the B&N staffing concept of paying minimum wage to under-employed academics. In the long run, though, they may be unable to pull that off. With the recession and decline in people's purchasing power, more folks are using libraries than ever. In fact, it may be possible that more books are being circulated by the nation's libraries than being bought at bookstores. The powers-that-be in the library world should remember--bookstores are designed for one thing: to sell books to customers. Libraries are intended for so much more.

Monday, January 12, 2009

New year, new post

My last postings began a new theme for this blog, focusing on libraries, especially public libraries, and the influence of neoliberalism. To define the latter, in my terms: the creeping influence of capitalism on every aspect of society, giving virtually anything the potential of becoming a commodity, including the library.

In the library world the influence of neoliberalism can be seen in various ways. A good example is the bookstore model, most famously considered by Steve Coffman in a 1997 issue of American Libraries ("What if you ran your library like a bookstore?") and developed further in Jeanette Woodward's Creating the Customer-Driven Library: Building on the Bookstore Model. Designing such a model involved significant changes in the traditional library, such as tailoring collection development toward very popular materials that are certain to check out a lot, thus driving higher circulation numbers. Circulation is a traditional signal of overall library usage, which helps earn potential higher tax levies from voters and respect from politicians who divvy up tax dollars. Another example of neoliberalism, more blatant, is the funding of library capital projects by corporations and their owners, creating such facilities as the Target computer lab or the Carl Pohlad performance hall. Add such support to the artificially created "success" of the bookstore model with its high circulation numbers, and neoliberalism would seem to be well on the way to taking over the library.

Of course, for most, rich folks and corporations giving dollars to libraries seems a no-brainer--every corporate dollar means less taxes paid by the average joe. And high library usage, of course, is a good thing--as long as one realizes there is more to a library than the number of books checked out. Consider a reference collection, for instance, with its maddening inability to generate statistics. But here's the rub: what if that reference collection begins to be underfunded because the library is buying material that adds only to its circulation luster, such as dvds and best-sellers?

One of the problems with this can be seen in my shop. I work in one of the last great urban public reference libraries. While we have plenty of computers for the public and dvds and best sellers and databases and programming, we also have an in-depth reference collection of monographs, continuations and serials. Right now this collection is at risk: Last year my taxbase-deprived city library system was merged into the larger, richer county entity, and some of the new people in positions of power now seem to wonder why my library has to be different from all the rest: why do we need all those dusty old books and serials at the downtown location? How come there's all those subscriptions for "obscure" trade journals? And why shouldn't my library be buying the same kind of books as all the other libraries in the system?

Reading this, one can see my library has a dual mission: to serve as a popular, browsing library and simultaneously as a facility for scholarly research. And with this duality, of course, comes tension. It's inherently difficult for both sides to receive equality. Especially during this time of economic downturn and malaise and reduced funding from the Feds and state, when every dollar must be spent wisely. And add to this the common belief that book are passe', because "everything can be found on the internet," and the reference collection is clearly in trouble.

So what's the solution? The discussion of that will start with my next post.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Still Researching

I promised I'd be posting more often, I know, but one gets BUSY. But I'm still on my agenda of letting people know, especially library folks, something about neoliberalism. I've just got to do more reading on the topic until I can justify an intelligent conversation. So, there's more to come--I just have to finish working through the books on that bib I posted a while ago.
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