Walk into any public library and you are confronted with stacks of begging letters to send out to Mayor Bloomberg and the City Council asking them to keep funding intact for libraries. What you aren’t confronted with… are that antiquated technology known as books.
Trying to find books in a New York Public Library has become a challenge. The library is daring you to go ahead and actually find a book and walk out with it.
The first thing you see when you walk into a library are flyers for a dozen events, none of them having anything to do with books. You can find everything from economic literacy classes to cartoon drawing to a film series on the plight of Group X in period Y. No books though. The events are mostly geared to teens and a lot of them are even more useless than I made them sound.
Next up are the computers. Row after row of computers with patrons using them to play games and mess around with Facebook. Many libraries also have laptops that can be borrowed by patrons, so they can also play games and chat online. The computers can, in theory, be used for research, but most of the time they’re arcades.
After that you reach the counter. There are a few books at the counter, but they’re current bestsellers on a 1 Week loan. Even on the rare occasion when there’s something to read in that pile, there is no actual time to read them.
Past the counter are the reserve shelves, where books that patrons have reserved ahead of time, sit waiting for them. Why put reserve books in a priority space near the exit? I don’t know, but I’ve seen it in enough libraries to assume it’s policy. Instead of walking into a library and seeing books, there are shelves filled with wrapping paper books that no one but their designated borrower can take out.
Now you might think that you’re about to find some books. Good luck. Next stop are the DVD’s. Blockbuster may be out of business, but the New York Public Library, funded by tax dollars, is still in the DVD rental business. Want to see Adam Sandler or Eddie Murphy’s latest movie? Go to the library. Don’t worry, you won’t be distracted by any of those books. The New York Public Library has made sure you won’t be offended by encountering any printed matter on your quest to use your taxpayer subsidized version of Blockbuster Video.
In the corner there might be some audio books to slowly adjust patrons to the idea that there might be actual books in the library. But actual books for adults who can read English? Good luck.
There will be a few bestsellers in the New Fiction and New Non-Fiction shelves somewhere near the front or in the middle of the library. Hope you like James Patterson, Bill O’Reilly, Dean Koontz, diet books, Oprah, Richard North Patterson, Jimmy Fallon, Dan Rather and Jackie Collins.
Most libraries now prioritize foreign language books for immigrants or books for teens. I have seen libraries where you have to go all the way to the back just to find the fiction section. Other libraries where the fiction section is on a high floor. I visited a library where not only was the first floor reserved for teen and foreign language books, but normal patrons were barred from sitting on chairs on the first floor because they were reserved for teens. (It would probably have been illegal to also reserve them for foreign speakers.)
Actually getting to the Fiction section has become a challenge. There was a time, not so long ago, where you could walk into a library and quickly encounter books. Now you have to walk around the library, hoping to one day run into the Fiction section. You have to take elevators and escalators. All to get to the meat and potatoes section of the library. The Fiction section. (Not to mention History, which is often just as hard to get to.)
Science Fiction books take the worst of it. In one library the Science Fiction section has been moved around so many times that it’s approaching light speed. In another the entire Science Fiction section was disintegrated, and combined together with Romance and a few other genres in a mess of books, sorted only by alphabet, that hardly anyone touches. Who benefits from this besides lazy librarians?
Science Fiction isn’t the only section that suffers, but it’s the whipping boy, the one that every library thinks is disposable. Mysteries and Romance have a higher status. They’re more likely to get placement somewhere accessible. They’re better stocked and better positioned.
But the New York Public Library has decided that its core is being a teen hangout and an immigrant reading room. A library should have teen books and foreign language books, but those should not be its main activity. There’s a difference between a social center and a library, and the difference is literacy.
The New York Public Library, like actual businesses, is so desperately catering to people who can’t read or don’t want to read, that it is alienating people who do read and do want to use its services. Who aren’t there to play Facebook games or take out a DVD. The NYPL is alienating readers.
This time around I won’t be signing the begging letters. I want the New York Public Library to stick around, but not in its current state. I don’t believe that in a tough economy where vital services are being cut, that money should be spent on an organization that has slashed its stock of older books to the point that many important volumes aren’t available anymore, even as in-library reading, but has lots of money to spend on laptops for all and DVD’s for people too cheap to get Netflix.
The purpose of a library is to make reading material available to the masses. Its purpose is not to be a teen hangout. There’s plenty of money going to afterschool activities already. Its purpose is not to let people play Mafia Wars, while books are shelved so far out of sight that you need a telescope to find them.
I will support the New York Public Library when it ends its war on books and becomes a reader-friendly environment again.