In 1998, I attended a metadata conference with six colleagues from the University of Minnesota Libraries. As always, I made sure to bring along a book for bedtime reading that would clear my mind of the day's proceedings (especially important during a metadata conference, trust me). I checked out D-Day by Stephen Ambrose from UMinn's Wilson Library. While waiting at the airport, my colleagues and I were reading the books we brought when one of them looked around and noted, "Shane is the only one of us reading a library book!" We all laughed, but the moment got me to thinking.
How much do librarians and library staff actually use libraries? Of course, librarians use libraries every day in the nature of working there. But how much do we use libraries when we are not paid to? I decided to find out.
Granted, this is a tough question to answer. By what standard should we judge librarians' personal library use when a library offers so much: books, magazines, CDs, archival resources, maps, and more--not to mention services such as reference, interlibrary loan, and document delivery? However, I chose library-book borrowing as my measurement tool.
Ask any 5-year-old what a library has to offer and invariably his or her answer will include books. Besides, there is the old cliche about librarians and books: Librarians tend to be drawn to the field by their love of books. So, no matter how weak the correlation, I decided that a librarian's general patronage of libraries could be measured by whether or not that librarian reads library books.
I began by inspecting the books librarians bring to library-related conferences. Obviously, I don't get to every conference, but I attend enough to make some rudimentary observations. I looked for conference attendees holding books that had the tell-tale sign of a library book: dog-eared corners and pages, call-number stickers, cellophane plastic wrapping around the book jacket, or--the grand poobah of all tell-tale signs--a barcode. To my surprise, I saw hardly any library books.
Taken aback, I was determined to investigate further. I devised a simple survey that wouldn't take too much time to complete or correlate, and distributed it to my colleagues at the UMinn Libraries. (I considered surveying subscribers to library-related electronic discussion groups, but decided to keep the sample small and defined so I could compile a response rate.) The survey asked the basic question: Are you currently reading a library book?
True, just because a librarian isn't currently reading a library book doesn't mean he or she hasn't read one in the past, or won't in the future--or, for that matter, indicate whether the bulk of a librarian's annual reading is borrowed from libraries. However, my unscientific theory is that the ratio of an individual librarian's library-book use to non-library book use wouldn't change much no matter how many times that individual was surveyed.
The survey (see p. 49) was sent out on August 2, 2001; over the next seven days, 135 people, or 44% of the library staff, participated. All in all, 62% of the UMinn librarians responded, and 33% of non-MLS staff.
First of all, the UMinn Libraries could only muster up 50% of librarians and library staff who are currently reading a library book; I told myself before I sent out the survey that anything under 75% would be shameful. True, this is only one library system's staff, but I have a funny feeling these statistics would repeat themselves at other college and research libraries, as well as public and special libraries.
How can we expect to improve the functionality, efficiency, and services of our libraries if we do not use them ourselves? One respondent echoed my sentiments succinctly by writing, "Staff should be users of the library; if you are just a warehouse caretaker you have no clue what to do to help your researching patrons. …