Wednesday, November 26, 2003

"That Mildewey Decimal Smell"

I've been spending a lot of time in the public library. I'm not interested in books, however; I'm interested in people. What are they doing there? For the life of me, I have no idea.

If I had to guess, I would say that people--primarily old white males--come to the library to read the paper all by themselves. Others--primarily Asian high school students--come to do homework.

Something else must be going on.

Luckily Dervin & Benson (1985) give us a taxonomy of various library behaviours?or helps [reproduced in its entirety so I never have to go back to the source]:

1. Got ideas and understandings.
2. Planned, decided what, when, where.
3. Got skills needed to do something.
4. Accomplished or finished something.
5. Kept going when it seemed hard.
6. Got started or motivated.
7. Got confirmation that I was doing the right thing.
8. Got out of or avoided a bad situation.
9. Calmed down or eased worries.
10. Took mind off things.
11. Felt reassured or hopeful.
12. Felt good about self.
13. Rested or relaxed.
14. Got happiness or pleasure.
15. Made contact with others.
16. Felt connected or not alone.

To be honest, Dervin's categories are a bit artificial for what I'm actually witnessing in the library. They do, however, seem like good criteria for the design of effective information technology. Although written in 1985, the categories perfectly describe what I want out of my computer. I use it to get stuff done, stay connected with friends, plan my weekends, and procrastinate... er, "[take my] mind off things". Given the tension in the literature between libraries and information technology, I find this resonance ironic. Given the popularity of the library's computer terminals, perhaps I shouldn't.

I previously expressed concerns that libraries are becoming non-places (see Olley, 1997 for original ref). I wonder if the imposition of information technology and the digital frontier--an emerging third space--into libraries--an impending non-space--can possibly save this public institution from certain demise. A recent column in the Philadelphia Weekly by Tim Whitaker takes a particularly bleak view:

"If anyone had any vision in this godforsaken city, they'd order the main branch of the Free Library at 19th and Vine streets gutted. Pull up a fleet of dumpster trucks to the front and throw in all the passe books written by the long since dead and decayed--books that nobody looks at anyway... Once the joint has been emptied (and fumigated to get rid of that mildewey decimal smell), another fleet of trucks would pull up. Out would come the computers. Thousands of them. They'd be carried in and set up on dozens of wall-to-wall tables lining the library floor. The computers would be plugged in, and a squadron of techies would get to work installing and downloading all the right programs before making them cable-modem ready." (Asshole 2003)

Is this satire? (nb. Satire: a literary genre evident in "books" like Swift's classic Gulliver's Travels) Perhaps it should be. But it's not.

So what are public libraries if Dervin's taxonomy is more applicable to my computer than my local branch library? Molz and Dain (1999) provide one description: ?agencies offering to the public the means of acquiring information, knowledge, education, aesthetic experience, and entertainment.? (pg. 2) So is that guy sitting over there dozing beside the paperbacks at the library for "aesthetic experience" or "entertainment"? He must be doing something in this place.

Other public spaces come with rituals. At church, we pray. At city hall, we pay our parking tickets or our taxes. At the arena, we either skate or we watch hockey. At the university, we attend classes or procrastinate... er, "[take our] mind off things".

So what is the ritual of the public library? the reference interview? searching for that last unoccupied table so we can be as far as possible from other patrons?

I suspect that Whitaker would tell us about the real ritual of the public library: getting our parking validated.


Dervin, B., & Fraser, B. (1985). How Libraries Help. Stockton CA: University of the Pacific. Prepared for California State Library, Sacramento CA.
Molz, R. K., & Dain, P. (1999). Civic space/cyberspace : the American public library in the information age. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
Olley, J. (1997). The Art of Reading. In M. Brawne (Ed.), Library Builders. Boston: Academy Editions.


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