I’ve shown you my sad set of MLK’s Library photos from when I went to DC. My friend Mary Early has found an older, niftier looking set of photos of the same library back when it was new and lovely and full of hope and promise. I wish the Save DC Libraries site looked like it was still alive. The DC Friends site is still kicking, albeit with bad news and the DC Public Library Foundation looks like they spent all their money on web design. Meanwhile DC Public hires teens to shelve books and answer phones which seems like a real good news/bad news situation in a library dealing with massive underfunding and understaffing.
I was in Seattle over the weekend. Sorry I didn’t call you. I went to a wedding and then got a terrible cold and spent the last day and a half on my friend’s couch reading comic books until flying home on a red eye the day before yesterday. I am recovered now, mostly. The one thing on my to do list was to see the new library. When I left Seattle four years ago, it was just a hole in the ground and a loose frame but not yet open to the public. I had really liked the old library — though understood why it needed updating — and I even liked the temporary library. I can’t say the same for the new library.
Now, there are many great things about the new library. I connected to the wifi/internet no problem. All the people I asked for advice and directions were super friendly and helpful. I liked having the option to get a cup of coffee and have a dozen interesting places to hang out with it. The place is fun to look at and explore. I enjoyed getting to pore through bound volumes of old periodicals that were right there on the shelves. The online catalog has finally improved to the point where it’s easy to use and makes a fair amount of sense; at SPL in particular that was not always true.
However, I saw a real disconnect beween the lovely outside and grand entry spaces to the library, plus a few other very design-y areas, and the rest of the building. Materials were hard to find. VERY hard to find. Signage was abysmal, often just laserprinted pieces of paper, sometimes laminated and sometimes not. Doors to areas that may have been public were forbidding and unwelcoming. There weren’t enough elevators. There weren’t enough bathrooms. There wasn’t a comfortable place to sit in the entire building. There were lots of “dead spaces” that, because of architecture, couldn’t really be used for anything and they were collecting dust. The lighting was bad. Stack areas were dim and narrow. The teen area seemed like an afterthought. Bizarre display areas with a table and some books on it were in the middle of vast open areas. Most of the place felt like it was too big and then the stacks felt too crowded and I had to climb around people working to find things. Shelvers shut down the entire “spiral” concept with booktrucks. The writer’s area in this library is a shadow of the glorious writers room in the old downtown building where I had a desk briefly.
Did I think it was going to be different? Maybe a little. I left Seattle specifically because its idea of progress and mine were fundamentally at odds and I didn’t enjoy the destabilizing effect of a city always under construction and didn’t get enough from the things that were eventually constructed. This library looks like it was built for a bookless future where we get all of our information from the internet and the digital realm. For now, we’ll just keep the books on hand because people will bitch if they don’t get to read them, but they’re no longer the reason for the library, and they’re no longer honored and appreciated as the things we love and build libraries to house.
My small photoset of the Seattle Public Library is here.
update: I was pointed to a PUBLIB posting by a librarian who was at SPL quite recently who makes many of the same points that I do in different ways.
Michael blogged about this last week I figured I’d add some more information. These are two students of mine that I visit irregularly at the Tunbridge Public Library. They’ve got pretty good computers and sharp minds but don’t know the first thing about how to navigate a file system or compose a message to save for later. We sit down and talk about how to do the things they want to do. The last time I was there, I made a little video and you can see it on YouTube.
I feel like I can just say “blah blah insert digital divide lecture here” but really, the library is doing an invaluable service here, and the job I have isn’t even paid for by the library. I’m an employee of a local technical high school that happens to take its outreach mandate very seriously and sends me to these places that happen to be libraries. If I had any tips for people wanting to do this same sort of thing, here they are.
- Encourage people to get laptops. I’m not a real Dell fanatic, personally, but because of them laptops aren’t as fiendishly expensive as they used to be. I really liked that my students were both using Macs because a) it’s the same kind of computer that I have and b) I find them much easier to use for someone who has never used a computer before. No need to start a flame war, but I’ve been doing this for several years and I’ve observed that my Mac students are happier with their computers. You can save people serious money if they have a laptop and they can use the library’s internet service occasionally and not have to pay to get broadband at home.
- Invest in wifi. If students have their own computers then you can teach them about the internet using their own computers. No matter how awesome our public access computers are, they’re not identical to the computers our patrons have at home, they’re just not. Students can learn things on the computers and then take them home and practice the exact same things.
- Solve problems. I used to teach a basic email class at the public library I worked at. It went great. However I would find that time and time again people would come to the class and sit through it because they had one loosely email-related question to ask. They didn’t even need an email class but there was no other way to get five minutes of dedicated staff time to ask a computer question. Consider being available in a way so that people who want a class get a class and people who just have questions can ask them. Also stress that they should come in with a problem to be solved, not just “I want to learn about computers” People who just want to learn about computers should probably go to a class.
- Larger groups help everyone learn. My two students got along great and it was excellent to have them learn from and teach each other as well as learn from me. Having multiple students (not a ton, maybe just two or three) encourages people to see tech support time as a limited resource, lets people see other people’s computers and their problems in a larger context, and makes computer time more sociable and less like school. Also I think people are less likely to let their technostress get the best of them if they are not in a private session with you.
- Keep it regular and keep it brief. Have set times when you offer tech support help. This keeps people queueing their questions to bring to you, can free up other less-savvy staff to refer people to you appropriately and the time limit means people will ask pressing questions first and prioritize their own concerns.
- Share with staff, create a FAQ. If I solve a problem that I see frequently (for example: how do I print just part of a web page) I’ll often share the solution with the staff so that they can know how to help people who come in with the same problem.
- Know when to say when. Unfortunately, the biggest problem in my area is that people need help at home, figuring out their printer, or their network or their desktop machine. I decided early on that going to people’s houses would not be part of my job. There has been a rare case where a patron got DSL and wasn’t sure how to do the self-install and I’ve traded help for a free dinner or something. Usually I’ll refer people to the professionals when they need help either buying equipment, installing something at home, or fixing a complicated problem with some legacy frankenstein PC. It’s too easy to own all of people’s future problems if you get too involved with some of these situations and I’ve sometimes had to tell people that I won’t be able to keep working with them unless they get a more stable computer or start practicing better computer hygeine.
Those are just some top-of-the-head ideas. My library background doesn’t make me special in this regard. Anyone who is okay dealing with people and knows technical stuff well could be part of an informal tech support program at your library.
I’ll put up some pictures later but I’m using the wifi in DC Public before heading out to hang out with my pal Chris from Libraryola. Yesterday I went to a tasty and fun lunch with Dorothea and then had a great chat with Ron (who I met on MetaFilter) who works at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum Library. After the conference I also got to hang out with my friend Tom Hyry who was on the SAA Program Committee who is the reason I was in DC in the first place. I’ve got a list of libraries I’d like to hit in Baltimore and then I have to find a place to stock up on books for the trip home.
I have this to say about DC Public: it’s all true. I had been reading about the sorry state of the library system here for a while but I don’t think I’d ever been to the big downtown branch. It’s hot here, and dirty here. One bank of elevators isn’t working and I have yet to see a staff person who isn’t reading a book or idly surfing the web. There are a lot of people here, though they tend towards the middle-aged men demographic. There are no families, no older people that I’ve seen, and no people my age. This place is the place that time forgot. I had to go through a metal detector and empty my pockets before I could even come inside. I like being able to use the wifi but I only discovered it because I opened up my laptop, not because it’s advertised or publicized in any way. I’m the only person here using a laptop, I think in the entire library but I won’t be using it much longer because there is barely any air conditioning and the sweat is affecting my typing accuracy. The lobby smells like diapers and disinfectant. Everyone I have talked to that lives in DC doesn’t use the library, they either buy books or find a way to use the suburban libraries or ones at the local schools. This is a big problem, and it’s still unclear what is being done to straighten it out.