Debbie Downer and the Dystopian Library Scenario

I’m coming at this article with an emotional reaction that is out of proportion to the actual text, and I’m reacting to context, because this column ran in Publishers Weekly. I’ve read the article twice now, and I’m still twitching about it, but I want it clear that this reaction may not be completely fair.

In this article, Sari Feldman, currently a Publishers Weekly columnist, imagines the worst case case – no, actually, only the second-worst-case — scenario for libraries on the other side of the coronavirus pandemic, and puts forth a call to action, without suggesting many solutions or alternatives. My sense on the first read, given where the column was placed, and her tone, was that this was an uneasy example of “concern trolling;” (“Oh, it’s so bad about those poor libraries that aren’t going to survive!”) and the careful, deliberate setting up of a narrative, so it can be amplified and “normalized.” My first impression of that narrative was, “Libraries won’t survive the pandemic.”

Probably, neither assumption is fair.

Sari Feldman, former American Library Association President, is actually an advocate for libraries.Really an advocate. I guess her role as a columnist for Publishers Weekly gives her a bully pulpit. Or maybe she’s like a diplomat whose county assigned her to another country who is technically an ally, but doesn’t like them. And I’m probably engaging in some “shooting the messenger” here; while a group of publishers proposed an outright attack on libraries last year, with arguments over e-books, and PW covered that, PW never said they supported that attack.

Feldman takes a look at the immediate challenges libraries are facing. She doesn’t put them in particular context. Here are the immediate challenges:

  • Brick and mortar libraries are currently closed.
  • Some libraries can’t or aren’t keeping up websites.
  • Delays and dilution in publishers’ schedules, and cancellations of author events, limit librarians’ abilities to take the lead on recommending new books, even when they are hosting Zoom meetings and so on.
  • Online is going great guns, but not all people in the USA have access to reliable and fast internet.

Once Shelter in Place is relaxed, here are some things that worry Feldman about the future:

  • People won’t want to touch physical books if they don’t know they’ve been cleaned.
  • How will libraries guarantee clean workstations/keyboards?
  • Who will ever want to come to a community event at a library?

This last one tipped me over the edge into the “concern trolling” judgment, and it was actually this sentence; “Will parents and caregivers still want to bring their children to a ‘Baby and me” gathering?” That’s a quote, folks.

In fact, these are all good questions. By focusing the article narrowly on libraries, Feldman creates a doomsday scenario that she probably did not intend. A few of these things beg for obvious commenting:

Libraries are closed. You know who else is closed? Bookstores, printers, and probably a lot of publishers’ offices, while some people work from home. Live theater, musical performances, TV and streaming, and movies. Comedy shows. Dance studios. Not to mention haircutters, specialty shops, clothing shops, bakeries, food processing plants and all kinds of businesses. This is not a condition unique to libraries, although it may sound that way in the article.

Libraries can’t “get out ahead” of upcoming books and maintain a role of leadership in recommending new works.  Well, recommend existing books then. Because, and correct me if I’m wrong here, if a lot of new books aren’t coming out to be recommended, you aren’t falling behind by not recommending them, are you?

Recommend classics, guilty pleasures or old favorites. Go back to what every good librarian can do, “If you live [Book Title A], give [Book Title B] a try.” Or open up the discussion. What are the library patrons reading right now?

Leadership can have a lot of different looks, and sometimes it lets the community step up. It doesn’t always have to be top down.

As for the cancellation of events, local and regional libraries could certainly do what dozens of groups (and, oh, by the way, independent bookstores) are doing all over social media; track down authors whose book launches have been curtailed (no live events) and boost their signal on Twitter, Instagram, etc. Reach out to publicists and offer to host an online reading for a regional writer. Feldman acknowledges in the article that some libraries and librarians are using Zoom already. The pieces are in place. Why isn’t Feldman suggesting that instead of dooming-and-glooming?

Like every single business, church, government office, and… well, everything, libraries will have to make decisions once things begin to reopen. They’ll have to decide how to balance their role as a community center with the need to people safe from infection. Yes, libraries will have to look at whether/how books get cleaned when they are returned. Something will have to be done in order to provide online access for the public while maintaining sanitary keyboards and monitors. We all know that everywhere, public gatherings will be different for a time and maybe forever.

Librarians are smart people. They will figure this out. Feldman is clearly a smart person. I wish she had devoted some time to offering suggestions instead of just catastrophizing, from her seat in the section of society that no longer sees libraries as a partner with an equal but different role and views them instead as a competitor.

Feldman ends, though, on a note I completely agree with. One thing we’ve learned from the pandemic, internet and connectivity is not a luxury or a nice-to-have. It is a utility. I support her declaration that the ALA (and all of us) must push our elected representatives for a comprehensive nationwide plan and rollout of broad band.

But in the meantime, Ms. Feldman, can you celebrate the steps local and regional libraries are taking to help people through this crisis? Can you stop being Debbie Downer?

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