Or do we?
Librarian in Black and The M Word - Marketing Libraries are talking about a "staffless" library has opened in Kings County. There is interesting talk, pro and con, at those two blogs, so click on through to add to the discussion. The story the blog posts are based on is at Library Journal.
My first thought: good on that library system! The staffless library is basically a branch in a larger system, and that system actually did what libraries usually just talk about: they listened to what their customers wanted and gave it to them. What I've seen/heard in libraryland is often a "ask customers, pretend to listen, and in the end give them what we think the library thinks they need" philosophy. So yay for that library system for listening rather than paying lip service.
My second thought: just because you cannot see the person doing readers advisory doesn't mean it doesn't happen. (Actually, I owe you all my two cents worth on how RA and libraries is criminally undervalued. Maybe I'll have time in February.)
In having this type of "staffless" library, what the community, the library, and librarians need to remember is that it is NOT staffless. The Librarian in Black listed all the building costs and some of the services that staff a staffless building.
I saw that list and thought, "but wait! There's more!"
So here is what staff is still doing for this customer base -- and what, truly, all libraries should be doing well because we all have people who just want their materials. Disclaimer: include me in that. I work long hours, I get home, no, I don't want to go to a library program and don't care what they offer. I want my books, thank you very much.
Professional services that are still being done and need to be done very well:
Catalog. About five years back, when I was complaining about catalogs and poor cataloging so it was so damn hard to find books and DVDs and music on it, I was told by muckety mucks in the library world that it is a well known library fact that patrons don't use the catalog to find the books they want. They browse. Conclusion unsaid: so it doesn't matter that something is hard to find in the catalog.
I'm sure you can point me to those studies. I browse myself. But with the advancement of online searching, and Amazon, etc., the truth is people are used to going to a computer and using it to find what they want -- with a different set of browsing expectations. Expectations not of the shelf but of the catalog. If you have people relying on placing holds to get materials, a library has to pay attention to its catalog and what is in it. A valuable professional service right there, done by a professional librarian who is savvy enough and customer-friendly enough to create the online public access catalog that is about finding books rather than organizing and classifying them.
Website. As a member of the book blogging community, I can tell you -- websites matter. Readers Advisory is not about the check out person noticing someone with Nora Roberts and recommending LaVyrle Spencer (and, sadly, too many librarians believe this.) It's about the reviews and booklists and information you provide on your website. Call it handselling, call it booktalking, call it readers advisory -- book blogs are doing this every day and our readers love it. I'm not saying the library website should look like a book blog; but it is so 2001 to believe that your patron won't get suggestions on what to read next from your website.
The important thing, as with everything else about your library, is it has to be done well and it has to be kept fresh. This alone could be a full time job for a librarian. I, for one, would LOVE that job. Right there -- another professional staff for the staffless library.
Collection Development. Kirkus has left the building; and sadly many libraries think this is an area that can be outsourced to someone else. If Collection Development was a science, perhaps it could be, but I see it more as an art. I think Collection Development done with librarians who staff the libraries is important and critical. Note I say done with -- delegating, say, purchasing all the New York Times bestsellers or certain top authors makes sense. So, too, does centralized purchasing for large systems. But local staff should still be empowered to have the input to say "this series does well at my branch," "this genre sits on the shelf," "people are looking for x and we don't have it."
How to do this when you're not seeing the patrons? Analyze what is being placed on hold, both from a pure statistical approach (individual titles, genre, author, age) as well as from a holistic approach.
Example: Twilight is being check out, along with a lot of vampire books. Doing just a math approach, collection development adds more teen vampire books. WRONG. The skilled librarian who is up on their literature -- the librarian who knows books -- knows the Twilight inspired reading also includes paranormal romance and straightforward romance and buys those titles, also. Easy? No. Impossible? No. Requires a whole new skill set and way of thinking? Yes. Requires staff? Yes.
A Loud Mouth. Marketing, advertising, press -- none of those are quite the words I'm looking for so I'll just go with "loud mouth." The "staffless" library still requires promotion, letting people know it's there and what it offers. In a way it will require a louder mouth, so that the taxpayers and budget makers don't think, "staffless" means staffless. The library has to let people know, there is staff -- professional, educated, skilled, talented, staff -- and the patrons at the staffless library benefit from the expertise of that staff. So no, you cannot fire them; no, this isn't the answer to your budgeting dreams. And as with everything else -- being loud is a talent. Doing it right matters. So yet again... here is another place where staff is needed to make the staffless library work.
You don't need a building to be a library. Garnet Hill may lack a traditional store and still be a store; it still has staff selecting clothes, marketing clothes, advertising clothes. So, too, can a library lack a "library" yet still be a "library." And you still need staff.
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Cross posted at Pop Goes the Library.
© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy