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What is a library for?

February 9, 2012

This isn’t going to be long because I’ve been thinking about it so much I almost feel like I have nothing else to share on the topic but I wanted to give a brief commentary non the less.  I wrote a blog post previously about serving our patrons and asking who the patron really is in a career college.  I was looking at it in terms of who is the person to reach, the faculty or the student or do you reach one through the other?  Patrons are the lifeblood of the library, we do provide a service after all so if there is no one to provide for we have no purpose.  Why then would a library not find out about what their little community wants?

Yesterday I read the Annoyed Librarian‘s blog on Internet porn in Seattle’s Public Library.  I don’t follow Annoyed’s blog really but a colleague posted on it via Facebook so I took a quick read.  I try really hard to not have volatile emotional responses to these types of things because I recognize that every situation is way more complicated then it seems on the surface – but I’ll admit it, I was angry at Seattle’s library because of this.  And not because of the porn, but because it seemed they had completely disregarded the wants and more importantly the needs of their patrons.  BTW – if anyone knows more about this and can show that Seattle is listening to their patrons I really really want to know.  I would feel so much better, so please don’t hesitate to share.

Ok, here it is, my opinion very simply.  Libraries are places (virtually or physically) that help to provide answers to an individual’s questions.  We are here in essence to ensure that everyone in our community (patron, customer, student, whatever) has their information need filled.  I will add that I don’t believe it is the librarians role to make judgement calls on what an individual defines as “information of value”.  And I mean that both ways, in the porn example, we should respect the for and the against, regardless of our own personal feelings on the matter.  That is our ethical responsibility.

I can hear the flip of this too.  We also have an ethical responsibility to encourage exploration of ideas, that however does not translate into TELLING the community you serve what they need and/or want.

Where is the dialog between the Seattle Public Library and the community it has an ethical responsibility to serve??

What if 65% of the patron base doesn’t WANT porn in the library??  Did that discussion happen?

Ehhhh….I guess that was a little longer than I thought it would be.  I just find that so frustrating.  Does anyone else get what I’m saying here?  Am I missing some critical piece of information?  Please share!!

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Lee permalink
    February 9, 2012 6:29 pm

    Okay, let’s do this one:
    ” I will add that I don’t believe it is the librarians role to make judgement calls on what an individual defines as “information of value”. ”

    But… what if the patron asks you for direction to “information of value”? Something like that. Or, perhaps, you might want to be known as someone who can direct the searcher to “information of value”? Or do you want to defer to the faculty in all circumstances?

    And I think different libraries have different purposes. SPL has its own mission, and it’s welcome to it. CC’s have theirs, as inarticulate as they may be.

    • February 9, 2012 7:34 pm

      Agreed Lee and I appreciate your thoughts. Admittedly this is no easy question to answer. The point I was hoping to make was that we are to do everything we can to assist in exploration, not suggestion. Is it appropriate to make a differentiation between the two? I remember discussions about this very topic in library school in regard to the reference interview – how do you find out why a person might need information without asking why?? It is a fine balance – thank you for offering your objectivity I really and truly appreciate it.

  2. Alice Graves permalink
    February 9, 2012 7:36 pm

    I don’t believe in the censorship of ideas, but I cringe at the idea of people looking at pornography in a public library. Pornography is demeaning, dehumanizing and serves no social purpose (if you’re a doctoral candidate doing a dissertation on porn–change your topic!). Should a library allow users to look at photos of children being tortured? Of women being raped? If you have to look at porn at a public library you have some serious issues. Buy a copy of Penthouse and lock yourself in the bathroom. And don’t come out until you get some therapy.

    • February 9, 2012 8:06 pm

      It is an extremely touchy topic Alice for sure. I know my feelings on it as a mother are certainly different then an administrator. In some cases it comes down to how do we morally correct our own society? I don’t have answers to that question but it is an area that I believe the US has struggled in recent years. Perhaps we have moved so far to the “freedom” side that we allow harm to come to the society as a whole. Then again, who gets to choose who is “right”? Thank you for your thoughts – I realize this topic can cause some intense feelings so thank you.

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