Thursday, May 30, 2013

Breathless at the (Wide) Edge of Innovation

I’m noticing something odd as I dive into a new project assigned to me at the public library where I volunteer.  The director is having me digitize the library board’s meeting minutes with an eye toward composing a scintillating history of the institution to post on the website.  I dove in with some of the earliest type-written minutes available, which reach back to an admittedly only modestly-ancient 1979. (I kid, of course.)  

What I’m finding is that, in my education as a librarian, I’ve had things presented to me as if they’re bold new ideas--but many of the shiniest library school tropes seem to be, actually, time-tested common sense.

Just in the brief chrono-window I peered into, I find a board and staff preoccupied with “library as community center,” with attendant interest in multicultural and bilingual programming.  There was outreach to the Latino community, a program of ‘embedded librarianship’ at local rest homes, and a series of events focused on folklore, of all things.  (Interest in the folkloric underpinnings of our culture seems very un-80s to me, what with Thundercats and all.)

In the arena of “library as tech early-adopter,” I’m finding meticulously-kept tallies of videocassette circulation, and a board eager to procure a slide projector to loan to the public, since the local public school refuses.

There’s also a fair amount of excitement about the ‘minicomputer’ made available for public use through a loan from the library system headquarters, as well as certain forward-thinkers on the board demonstrating great zeal about purchasing a Commodore 64.  (In an early, if slightly misguided, iteration of crowdfunding, one board member put up $50 of his own money if the librarian could find others willing to match him.  He was matched by other board members in the course of that very meeting, and the Commodore 64 was on its way--I’ll have to see if it ever materialized.)

I even found evidence of a preoccupation with “library renovation” and “library greening.”  The board and staff made use of the professional community to acquire used shelving from a nearby library that had been upgraded; we can only hope the items acquired suited a need other than economy.  Meanwhile, the community in general came through to improve the children’s room, with the local Kiwanis club donating its money and manpower to re-carpet that section.  (The minutes note, dryly, that staff “put every book back on the shelf” to ensure proper order was maintained.  Some things are, of course, timeless.)

And environmental concerns didn’t stop with the Boy Scout who volunteered to accomplish the building’s landscaping one spring; there are actually several indications of staff attending professional development sessions on greening the library.  And this at the dawn of the Reagan Era!

Speaking of Reagan-era surprises, I found a page in the minutes called “Economic Impact Report 1980.” I was sure no one had bothered calculating this type of thing until the 2000s, at least!  The quaint sheaf (which offers no evidence that it was ever shared beyond the membership of the library board, for shame) states that “If the materials and services used by the public last year were ‘purchased’ by them, this is what the approximate cost would have been.” Rather more bluntly put than our PR gurus would advise today, but imagine the jarring impact of finding that sentiment inscribed in blocky Courier font on wafer-thin mimeograph paper! (For the record, this library saved its patrons an estimated $960,953.  Pretty hefty in a nation still getting over Jimmy Carter’s ‘malaise’ speech.)

Perhaps I shouldn’t be as surprised as I am to find these indications of contemporary-feeling thought on the part of librarian-types a generation or two removed, but my recent stint in library school had me primed to view all of these progressive movements as brand new.  Or maybe it’s a symptom of my own “Millennial” status--maybe we’re as self-centered as everyone wants to believe we are, thinking that nothing positive could ever have come from any other time and place.  But I could swear I’m not fabricating my memories of breathlessness in speech and print when I’ve brushed up on these types of subjects in sources dating back no earlier than 2010 or so.

Of course, there is a downside to realizing that these efforts have been in progress for decades.

Yes, most every library you walk into has transitioned to successful public computer technology lab--a testament to the field’s overriding character, I think, as the outriders of information access and provision.  Put another way, I don’t think we’ve progressed so much as we’ve continued to be comfortable in our role, and have adapted and expanded as technology has done the same.  Laudable, but not really earth-shaking news.

Less encouraging is progress on the green front.  We’re a long, long way from every library ballyhooing its carbon neutrality, from every librarian as paper-free as reasonable, from rooftop gardens on every building and rainwater cisterns in every nearby alleyway.  Perhaps the “let’s get green!” sentiment seems so new because it stalled out at some point and is only recently seeing a revival.  I hope that’s the case, anyway, or I’ll feel even more dismal about our prospects than I do. I’m hoping this catches the librarian community’s attention span, this time, as readily and permanently as e-readers have.

On a more local level--what happened to all that delightful multiculturalism at this particular library?  Well, I know what happened--it’s a struggle to keep up with the needs of a single constituency, much less the great variety that can be found in my community.  I regret that very much, and I suspect that multicultural community-building has fallen by the wayside at many more small libraries beyond my own.  There are segments of the population that are going terribly underserved, and I’m not sure how to address the problem.

But this glimpse into yesteryear gives me helpful insight; apparently a Polish-themed heritage film festival drew great crowds--now to figure out how to repeat that success with other populations.  And immensely popular (in 1980) American Sign Language “mini-courses” could certainly merit a cross-cultural revival.  There’s potential here.

Progress and inertia--an eternal dance.  Perhaps I should welcome the breathlessness that comes about when all things old become new again.  But I can’t help feeling like we should just let it be “normal.”  Nod and smile and carry on.  Celebrate progress when it takes hold.  But the act of setting it all up as arch-nouveau makes this progress seem somehow broadly unattainable.  It’s not--we’ve been cultural centers and tech labs and environmental boosters for decades now; let’s own that.  Save the cover of the next American Libraries for something truly new, and let us get back to work cementing these types of very worthy--and apparently venerable--initiatives.


  1. The Commodore 64 did materialize and was offered through a news article for lending. Your father and I read the story and repaired directly to the library to get on the list to borrow it--and discovered we would be able to sign it out right then and there. It was a Friday evening; we were allowed to keep it over the weekend and had to return it by, I believe, 6:00 p.m. the following Monday. We took it home, plugged it in and spent far, far too many hours that weekend composing music on it. It was the first time either one of us had seen a personal computer up close and, you know, "personal". Those were heady days!

  2. BTW, freakin' LOVE the title.