Thursday, 29 May 2014

Gimmicks, Guides, and Getting Involved

In the movie “You’ve Got Mail,” Tom Hanks is part of a family that owns a fictional version of The Chain. He jokes that their plan to draw customers/readers into the store is through things that don’t have that much to do with books: “our square footage . . . and our deep armchairs, and our cappuccino.” Although The Chain is the bad guy for 95% of the film and these extras seem more like a trap than a benefit, it’s actually not a bad point of comparison for what is happening right now with the Boston Public Library. According to an article in the New York Times, the BPL renovation will add things like rooms for teens to get involved with technology, a coffee shop, and possibly even an area for static exercise bikes. The aim is to create a cultural centre—the exact opposite of the funeral parlour scene some still seem to imagine when they think of the future of libraries.

The Boston Public Library (BPL) is not only America’s first public city library, but also second in the country in terms of the number of physical books. However, organizers of the renovation project have no plans to use this long history and obvious commitment to physical books as a reason to continue unchangingly until they are utterly outdated. Their technology departments are expanding and Susan Benton of the Urban Libraries Council claims that “physical visits and virtual visits are off the charts.” The article postulates that by turning the BPL into a more welcoming and tech-savvy environment will not only improve the spread of knowledge and information, but also increase the creativity of those who use the space.

I think this is a fantastic idea and a great way to keep kids coming back to the library as they grow up. An article by the independent newspaper of Boston College mentions that people aged 20 to 35 are the hardest demographic for a library to attract. I remember using the library much more when I was a kid, then really only coming back as a university student to get books for pleasure reading in my spare time. On the other hand, I know that when some kids start to move away from books and towards computers, they can become very solitary and introverted. If kids and teens feel more inclined to read when they can do so on an ereader, that’s great. If they choose to go to a local library where this is made available to them in a common area filled with their peers and designed to inspire and engage them, even better.

I imagine that giving children and teens resources like these will help them become more independent and knowledgeable about technology. In this case, what happens to that other fixture of libraries: the librarian? The president of the BPL, Amy Ryan, insists that libraries are as important as ever, stating that “people turn to librarians to help them sift through the 10 million answers they find on the Internet. We’re more like navigators.” Ryan’s point echoes what Barbara K. Stripling stated in the WSJ articles about libraries as “digital guides”. What I’m getting from this is that basically, every librarian wants to be the Hikaru Sulu of the starship Library, piloting the way into new technologies where no librarian has gone before. Boston College’s newspaper believes that the staff of the library will more closely resemble those in the indie bookstore trade. This means they will possess valuable, specialized knowledge, used to cultivate exciting conversations about books, whether digital or physical.

I can easily get on board with this concept. In my mind, being able to talk with someone of authority on the subject of a book you’re really curious about is a huge benefit of the independent bookstore, and one that I haven’t really experienced since the closure of my hometown’s (London, Ontario’s) Wendell Holmes stores. For the past year before starting the publishing program at Humber, I worked at the bookstore of my alma mater, UWO. Although the majority of our customers came solely for their course books, it was always a pleasure when someone asked me to recommend a work of fiction for them to read for fun. I began writing my own book reviews on note cards and tucking one end under the book on the shelf. One day, a man came up to the counter where I worked and, having seen my name under the review, asked me to go into greater detail about one book, Michael Winter’s Minister Without Portfolio. He ended up selecting the book as mandatory reading for his local men’s book club, which made me feel very proud.

When you have a passion for something like reading, nothing is more gratifying than having someone acknowledge and trust your opinion. This is how I picture librarians feeling as well when they can perform the service of an indie bookstore worker instead of being ignored, underestimated, or even let go from their jobs as their career and training become irrelevant with the onset of new technology. I think the mention in the New York Times article of increased creativity is so important. People who read more create more, and I hope that libraries can continue to encourage this outward turn through all manifestations of the written word.

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