Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Library

I spend a lot of time at the library. Always have. Time was when the library was used for reading, studying, researching. There were card catalogs with actual cards, and the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature. Technology has really changed the way the library works today, as all of that information is now at our fingertips through computerized card catalogs and the internet.

But shouldn't the library still be a place for reading, studying, and researching? It no longer seems to be, and that both amazes and saddens me.

Our public library, for example, has two long tables filled with computers, with internet access. This makes sense to me -- the internet contains a wealth of information, and for people who don't have access at home or at work, the library provides a wonderful opportunity for people to take advantage of the internet to obtain desired information.

What disturbs me is that this doesn't seem to be what those computers are used for at all.

I literally spend several hours at a time, several days a week at the library. I use the library for what I perceive its purpose to be: researching. Interlibrary loan is my friend. I've always got a box of microfilm of some sort being held for me at the desk, and every librarian there runs to get it the moment I walk in.

(What this tells me is... I'm the only one. I'm instantly recognizable because this is different from how other people use the library.)

To my surprise, they've never asked just what I'm doing, though I'm sure it must puzzle them. Since I'm simultaneously working on two completely different projects, the dates, locations, and types of information would seemingly have no correlation with each other. But if they're curious, they've never asked.

The microfilm machine sits right next to all of these computers, so I see exactly what goes on. These computers are not being used to research topics of interest... to locate journal articles... to access online encylopedias. There are three primary uses that I have observed: 1) to play games; 2) to listen to music and watch videos (thank goodness for headphones, though the sound is still audible); and 3) social networking, such as Myspace and Facebook.

Game-playing is by far the most popular use.

What I really find astounding is the number of adults that bring infants and small children to the library and make them sit there for hours while they -- the adults -- play computer games. They scold these children, who have absolutely nothing to do (good grief, could the adult not at least go down to the children's room and get them a book to look at? This IS a library...), because they're talking or wanting to get up and run around. If you HAD to bring your small child to the library because you had work you needed to do and nobody to watch them, okay -- but to play games? For hours? Leaving your child bored to tears with nothing to do? And then you want to blame the child for "misbehaving"? I don't understand these people, and if you are reading this and are one of those people, then perhaps you could explain your end of things, because I am really trying to understand this mindset but it's just out of my realm of comprehension.

It also surprises me that the library doesn't discourage this at all. Folks ask the reference librarian for assistance all the time with these non-learning computer tasks, and he/she never says a word to indicate that perhaps library computers should be used for learning. Maybe they found it was a losing battle. Maybe they've discovered that nobody uses the computers for research anyway, so there's no need to try to keep them freed up for those nonexistent people.

One day as I was leaving, the librarian who had been supervising the computer area told me that I won the prize for the only person who came to the library that day to do serious work. I responded that I think I win that prize every day. He sadly agreed.

One day a few weeks back I went to a talk given at the library -- on a topic that should have been of great interest to local people. However, I had a feeling that there would not be a good turnout. I was surprised to discover there were actually four other people who showed up for it (all elderly, I might add), and I wasn't the only one surprised. The presentation was made possible through a humanities grant, and the speaker began by saying that she has been doing these presentations all over the state and frequently has had only one person show up, so she was actually thrilled with the turnout. How sad is that!?

How can we turn libraries back into a center for learning? Do adults who are no longer in any type of school setting stop learning new things nowadays? I think about all the clubs that Laura Ingalls Wilder was in during her adult life -- before she ever penned a single novel. Those small-town women sat around at their regular club meetings and discussed current events, they learned about the geography and cultures of areas around the globe, they were always interested in learning and self-educating. Just imagine what they could have done with all the information we have available today.

Has this become a thing of the past for most people? I know there are others out there like me who keep learning long past their school days, but are we becoming the minority? How do we teach today's children that learning is something that should be pursued throughout one's lifetime?

Edited to add: Based on an emailed comment that I received regarding the post, I wanted to clarify something. I was not in any way implying that everyone should be using microfilm readers and spending hours doing research. I was simply explaining that this is the reason I have spent so much time at the library to observe what other people are doing on the computers. To explain that this was not a one-time pass-by but a consistent phenomenon that I have observed. Libraries are most certainly for getting books. Reading books is a good way to learn new things. It is a perfectly good use of a library. My rant was not in any way belittling people who only use the library to get books, because that is indeed its purpose. My rant was about people who use the library to, essentially, waste time. There are so many good useful productive ways to use the library's computers: job searches, researching or making travel plans, getting maps and directions, locating local businesses or finding products that you can't find at local businesses, reading or learning more about topics of personal interest. I am simply saying that these are things that I assumed the library computers were intended for, and my surprise was that the primary use seems instead to be playing games. Not even puzzle games, logic games, something that at least exercises your brain, but those role-playing games, adventure games, etc. seems to be the order of the day. 'Nuff said.


Maria said...

It seems to me that a lot of people use the library as a free internet cafe. Why pay money to use the internet, when you can just go to the library and do it for free? :-/

I'm appalled that people would bring their kids and have them sit do nothing though! What a great way to make them hate the library. I could spend ages there when I was a kid, but only because I was allowed to run free in the childrens department - reading all the books I wanted.

Kate said...

Last year our County Executive had to fight tooth and nail to prevent the local libraries from allowing patrons to view p*rnography on the library computers. People said it violated basic rights or something and you can't dictate what people can or cannot view on the internet. Well. That's all very well and good IN THE PRIVACY OF YOUR OWN HOME, but sheesh!! Right out there in PUBLIC in a place as innocuous as the LIBRARY which is HEAVILY FREQUENTED by CHILDREN?? I can't believe what a fight it was. And can you imagine using the library computer to job search, or research, or yes, even to play games, and to look over and realize you are sitting next to a s*x addict? Yikes! There was talk of providing a special room for such viewings!!! Seriously!! Um, don't those places already exist on street corners in seedy areas of town??

Believe it or not you're lucky they're just playing games and forcing their poor children to be bored to death.

Heidi said...

Do you know if the library has children's programs and if they do how well they are attended? Our local library has baby, toddler and preschool level programs that are so full I can't find parking when I want to attend. I haven't attended any book club groups that are offered because I simply don't have time, so I don't know how busy those are. But when I go to our library I'm impressed with how many people actually seem to do work there with their own laptops (free wifi) and I haven't seen a lot of gaming, but I'm sure it happens there too. Of course, I also tend to go during the day when most of the patrons are either moms with small children or older people. I also live in a more affluent area, so I don't know if that makes a difference.

I know I used to LOVE to go to the library and check out tons of books and just sit and read in the window seats. When they remodeled our library they removed the window seats! I was SO disappointed! Of course, that was my childhood library and not the one I go to now, which is fairly small, but still very community oriented.

Prairie Rose said...

Heidi, I do think the affluence probably makes a difference... and it was something I hadn't previously thought of, but I do bet it contributes, because this is the main library, which means it's downtown, which isn't the greatest area... I'd never noticed that kind of thing at our neighborhood library, but unfortunately it doesn't have a microfilm reader. As for kids' programs, I don't know what the turnout is, not having a kid... but they do have one on a weekday morning and I'm always working at that time of day so never at the library then.