Magazine article American Libraries

Some Transactions Have Nothing to Do with Books or Information

Magazine article American Libraries

Some Transactions Have Nothing to Do with Books or Information

Article excerpt

In Selling the Invisible (Warner Books. 1997), author Harry Beckwith theorizes that Burger King has not won "the burger wars" against McDonald's because the latter enterprise sells experiences, and not.just sandwiches.

Reading this, it occurred to me that this could account for my friend Robin's having made an art form out of collecting memorabilia at the "golden arches," my children's invitations to birthday parties there, and Ronald McDonald's annual appearance in the Autumn Leaf Festival Parade through beautiful downtown Clarion, Pennsylvania. But what really piqued my interest was how such commercial "experiences" translated into the nonprofit world - in other words, the expectations users bring to their public library visits.

Are books and information really as central to all our clients' needs as we think, or are library customers also in search of something else? For that matter, are public libraries really in the information business?

In light of how rapidly library reality is changing as we apply information technology, these are crucial questions we need to articulate for all types of libraries. Most particularly, small and rural libraries must reexamine their roles. With 80% of all public libraries in this country serving populations of 25.000 or less, these institutions comprise the backbone of U.S. public librarianship (AL, Dec. 1997, p. 37-38).

After hearing my concerns, some of my Clarion University library school students helped me identify the factors driving the amazingly rapid deployment of technology in small and rural libraries. Unsurprisingly, our list included: the romantic and practical values library users and staff members alike assign to technology, the increasing affordability of computer hardware and software, governmental automation initiatives at regional and state levels. the introduction of the universal-service discount, and the largesse of private entities such as Bell Atlantic and the Gates Library Foundation.

We also discussed the challenges facing staffers as they attempt to integrate yet another new set of skills into their professional repertoire, especially since most (albeit enthusiastic) library directors serving small communities have had no formal library education. Inevitably, we concluded, some personal relationships with library clientele must end up suffering. After all, there are only so many hours in a day, and we all know that there is no such thing as rime freed up by the application of technology.

Of course, none of us were advocating a return to traditional library values at the expense of technology. But we had to acknowledge that, notwithstanding the evolutionary shift in emphasis throughout Libraryland away from the tactile world of books, there may be a less obvious set of on-site user experiences left unfulfilled by our fervent rush to the Internet - a gap filled by the laid-back ambiance of super bookstores and Internet cafes.

Here's our list of those subtler, endangered face-time experiences:

1. Community center. As the only publicly funded facility that is open daily in some small or rural communities, the public library may afford its users their only opportunity to meet each other.

It's only in public libraries that organizations and individuals are equally welcome, the former to convene important meetings anti the latter to do nothing more serious than play cards, if they so desire. …

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