I’m disappointed in my local library. I worked there as a part-time assistant pretty much my entire college life, and I remember loving the place. My co-workers and I got along famously — so much so that at times it resembled Friends (the TV show), where some members of the group would date other members of the group, sometimes temporarily destroying the fragile bonds — the pay was quite generous, and the schedules couldn’t be beat. Most of us were college students, so there was a high-energy vibe throughout the department, and even those who were a few years past the university years fed off our enthusiasm and drive and were quite youthful themselves.
What I don’t remember, I guess, is how mediocre the collection itself actually was.
I lived in Columbia, SC, for four years in the late 1990’s and frequented the Richland County Public Library. It won the American Library Association’s library of the year award in 2001, shortly before I moved back to Dallas, much to my dismay. The architecture doesn’t impress me very much — too modern, too white, too much glass — but the collection! The library owned nearly all the books I searched for in its vast catalog, even some of the more obscure ones, but most impressive was its vast, vast periodicals selection. I think RCPL had subscriptions to at least a thousand magazines and newsletters, if not more. They occupied one entire wall on the 2nd floor and were so crammed with the latest issues that sometimes you had to lift one up in order to see what gem hid behind. The video collection was housed in its own separate, glassed-in room, and they even had a little cafe and gift shop near the front entrance.
And yep, even I had to admit that the service offered by the assistants at the front desk as well as by the librarians handily beat the lackluster service at my current library. It may even have been better than the service we offered when I worked at my local library.
Mesa County Public Library in Grand Junction was even better. Service could be inconsistent, with some staffers poorly trained and/or just plain indifferent, but it was hard to complain about the collection, certain patrons’ frequent whining notwithstanding. They actually had to expand the new books section by several bookcases — and even had to build another entire section on a different wall — just to accommodate the constant influx of new material. They make sure to order a good number of new release films in their DVD collection, and they offer lots of classes and workshops to the public.
Even better, they participate in a consortium of libraries throughout the Western Slope so that if, say, Aspen had a book that you wanted but which MCPLD didn’t own, y0u could place a hold on it via the computer or through a librarian and voila! It would arrive within a day or two at your chosen library location for check out. The service — introduced just a year or two ago — greatly expanded the collection at a patron’s disposal, especially since some of the participating libraries were based at colleges, allowing you access to many academic materials you might not otherwise find at general public libraries.
Don’t get me wrong. I love love love the whole idea of public libraries. They’re the most underappreciated and arguably most valuable public institution in the United States. As someone who has lived in countries where free libraries were a luxury, if not non-existent, I consider it one of the greatest privileges of living in this country. (I once visited the public library in Moshi, Tanzania, and was dismayed to find that the entire collection consisted mostly of donations from passing tourists on their way to and from safaris and Kilimanjaro climbing trips. Outdated National Geographics, faded Lonely Planets, and decades-old books filled the shelves. The librarian frequently went literally door to door throughout the city begging for monetary donations from businesses and tourists to sustain his one-room endeavor. We met him on the day we were scheduled to leave for India and gave him what Tanzanian shillings we had left — I think it was about 10,000, or approximately USD10.)
Still, when I think of how much wealth goes through this very corporate suburb, I wonder just how much better the library could be. The collection is so-so, and the new books area is pathetic, with probably no more than about 50-60 at any given time. Most of the books I want aren’t in the system, so if I really wanted it I would have to order it via Interlibrary Loan — not a difficult process, but it can take a while to get your book and you’re not allowed renewals. I wish that the city would enter into a similar collection-sharing agreement as MCPLD did with the Western Slope consortium, but the chances of that happening ever are pretty much at zero, considering the fierce provincialism that prevails in each Dallas suburb. Heck, a few years ago one of the suburbs near Irving actually voted to close their last remaining library due to budget restrictions. A concerted effort by a group of local citizens — not to mention the largesse of an anonymous donor — brought it back to life, but it was a clear demonstration of just how poorly many in the area think of their public library.
I sometimes wonder if perhaps Irving would be better served if they a) began collecting late fines, and b) charged non-residents for the privilege of using the facilities. Most public libraries do one or both, and doing so might provide the much needed funding for more acquisitions. The library has never charged fines, nor has it ever restricted membership to Irving residents (as far as I can remember, and I’ve been going there for nearly thirty years), but perhaps it’s time they did so in order to shore up their budget. I’d hate to see it neglected. It’s too much a critical part of the local community to become irrelevant, if not forgotten. Not to mention that, despite its age, it still has tremendous potential, particularly in this age of information and knowledge.