Saturday, April 11, 2009

Libraries I Would Like to Create

Libraries I Would Like to Create
By Ken St. Andre

Somebody send this on to Bill Gates for me, please. I need about ten million dollars a year, and none of it is for me, really. It’s for America.

Special libraries are those dedicated to a single topic. The topic may be broad like World Business, or narrow like Siamese Cats in Arizona, but what makes the library special is that it concentrates on a single topic.

There are some great special libraries in the world. I don’t know what they are, but I’m sure there must be some. If I had the money, I’d like to create several more.

So dream with me. Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a comprehensive . . .

1. Gaming Library? Imagine, a library that had copies or facsimiles, or reconstructions of every game they could get. All the board games, card games, role-playing games, computer games. Some games exist as an idea—like poker. There are plenty of books about poker, but all you need to play it is a deck of cards and knowledge of the rules. A library that covered every game in the world would be huge. Heck, I’d be satisfied with a library that just covered all the games in English. I’d be satisfied with one that just covered all the role-playing games of the last forty years. I’d be happy with one that just covered computer space war games or mmorpgs. Such a library would be awesome, and very useful for all the game-ologists and game geeks in this country. It could explore related topics like gaming as training, gaming as therapy, gaming as strategic planning, simulation gaming to understand history—there are lots of topics related to gaming.

2. Comics Library? Imagine, all of D.C. and Marvel, and Image and Top Cow and Archie and Dell and Gold Key and Fantagraphics and . . .I’d want all the issues of the magazines as well as all the collections and graphic novels. I’d want a section devoted to comic strips and animated movies. And foreign comics. And comics magazines like Heavy Metal or Mad Magazine. What an incredibly happy library that would be!

3. Catalog Library? Imagine a library consisting of every product catalog ever issued. It sounds dull, but what a record of our civilization it would be. And what a resource for researchers. Some catalogs are just lists. Some have pictures. Some contain entertainment in the form of stories and poems. Some have reviews. Some are flimsy, but others are beautiful books. Catalogs exist for every manufactured item in the world. Some reference books are little better than catalogs, Jane’s All The World’s Aircraft, for example. And we don’t want just the latest catalogs, but all of them. The Landsend catalog of 1980 is just as useful as the one for 2009, maybe more so. How did people dress back then, and what did clothing really cost? A catalog library could turn out to be the most useful reference library in the world.

4. Software Library? Wouldn’t it be nice to save all the millions of programs ever created? Or even a fraction of them—just those that were really good, for example . . .
And then there’s the documentation necessary to explain them. What a resource such a library would be for the programmers of the world!

There’s an important caveat to be established here. We do not select the contents of these special libraries for “quality”. One man’s sow’s ear is another man’s silk purse. Let us select instead for completeness. If we mention quality, we’re talking about physical quality. Of course we want the best-looking items we can get for our libraries.

Ok, that’s four different special libraries. None of them exist, as far as I know. And it would take considerable resources to create any of them. The complete libraries that I evoke above are not feasible—there is just too much stuff out there. But, even incomplete ones could be of immeasurable worth to the scholars that would use them.
But . . . it’s just a dream, just a dream.


Change or Die, Change and Die

The American Public Library in Today’s World—an inside take
By Ken St. Andre

The modern public library is a Strange Beast. And it is getting stranger as time goes on. Is it evolving? Or devolving? Let me tell you some things and then you decide.

Let’s get some vocabulary established. From here on, when I say libraries or library, I mean the modern public library in America. I don’t mean school libraries, university libraries, law libraries, corporate special libraries, or an individual’s personal library—I mean public libraries organized by city and county governments for the use of all citizens who will take the trouble to get a library card.

If libraries ever aspired to be Guardians of Culture, and Preservers of the Past, and Holders of All Knowledge, they have given those roles away. The sheer volume of cultural material produced today makes it impossible to save it all. Hell! It’s impossible to save a 1% fraction of it. As for preserving the past, any stroll through the so-called history sections of the library now show less and less emphasis on what happened when, but more and more about journalist Joan’s impressions of some narrow event. If you want a history of England these days, your best bet is the encyclopedia. Heaven help you if you want a history of Peru. As for the Holder of Knowledge role, don’t make me laugh. Today’s library has an order of magnitude less knowledge on the shelves than it had 5 years ago. My branch has one almanac instead of three, one encyclopedia (and that one is the lowest common denominator) instead of three, no career section, no geography section (travel guides are all that remain), and no depth in any field of knowledge you’d care to name.

And how do we justify this ever decreasing collection of knowledge in the library. We claim to make up for it by getting it from different sources. Today, the whole internet is available to our public (actually those parts of it that we haven’t censored because we don’t like the content). Surely the internet contains a thousand times the knowledge that we threw away to make room for all those computers.

Does it really? Something is gained, but so much is lost by going to the internet. Let’s take newspapers, for example. A decade ago I had the entire collection of the New York Times available on microfilm. That collection went back to 1860. I had an index that allowed me to find things in it. The amount of American historical knowledge contained in those hundreds of reels of microfilm was incalculable. Do I have that knowledge at my fingertips any more? No. The Central library may still have it, but it’s gone from the branches. Can I get it on the internet? No. To get anything from the New York Times, one must subscribe and pay a fee. Am I going to do that? No. Likewise, I used to have the entire run of the Arizona Republic on microfilm. It’s gone. Central library has it—nobody else. And you know what? Nobody really misses it.

How about another example? Ten years ago every branch had bound copies of important periodicals such as Time Magazine or National Geographic. In the “good old days” those bound volumes might cover twenty or thirty years of stuff. What do we have now? Ebsco—a computerized service that allows us to find articles online. Does it contain a complete run of Time Magazine? Oh, no, you’re lucky if you can find anything earlier than 1995.

The truth is that vast quantities of knowledge that used to be available at every branch are simply gone. Who needs it? The internet will provide. Yeah, right. The internet is a wonderful thing and does provide lots and lots of information for those with the determination to seek it out, but it does not adequately replace the tools and resources that we used to have when the world was simpler. I could give dozens of examples of services that the library used to provide routinely that we can’t provide at all now.

And what happens if the internet goes away? We dare not think about that. It could be the end of civilization, if not the world.

Today’s library has become a social club. We’re here so pampered mothers can have a story time for their kids. We’re here so teenagers can chat with each other in chatrooms, and flaunt their perversities on FaceBoook. We’re here so the homeless can have a place to hang out and watch videos all day on our public computers. We’re here for people to get their best sellers for free instead of buying them in a book store. We’re here for groups to use our meeting rooms. We’re here so that the easily entertained can check out movies and music.

We are here to be the city’s social club. Part bookstore, part kindergarten, part cyber-cafĂ©, part video-store, part teen center, part this, part that. Something for everyone, depth for no one. Librarians used to be Information Providers. Now we are Computer Shepherds.

But the library looks the same. It still has the same divisions—Children’s, Fiction, Non-fiction, Teen, Magazines and Newspapers, a Catalogue (though it is computerized), a Circulation Desk, a Reference Desk, Displays, etc. And people expect the same services we provided in the past—tax forms, car repair manuals, classic literature, information. If some of those things aren’t available any more, oh well, there is always a computer terminal to divert that user.

In some ways it is easier for me. I worked much harder for the public twenty years ago when the library was more primitive and actually stronger in its sense of providing knowledge and answering questions. It isn’t too hard to help someone print an airline ticket, or get an email account. And if I can’t find a biography of Woodrow Wilson, oh well, we can get one in a week or so, and he’s in Wikipedia.

I just want to change the name from Public Library to Social Center. Hmm, instead of being a Librarian, would that turn me into a Socialist instead?


Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Towards a Theory of Fiction Replacement in Public Libraries

Towards a Theory of Fiction Replacement in Public Libraries
By Ken St. Andre, Librarian I, Phoenix Public Library

I have a dilemma. I need to keep the library’s fiction collection strong, but I don’t have much money for buying replacements for all the books being lost. I need to prioritize and only buy those items that are most needed.

I don’t need to worry about new books. Those decisions are being made for me (and the rest of the system) by Collection Development. We automatically get copies of new releases from all the best American authors and the best American publishers.

We don’t worry about small press items—no matter how good they may be. They don’t have the distribution to really affect the country.

In a public library, I am not really worried about the intellectual quality of the books I hand out—especially not in fiction. What counts is whether people want to read them or not. I leave considerations of quality to academic librarians working in university libraries. In the event that I ever have a patron who wishes to read something not found in my public library, I have the interlibrary loan system to fall back on—books may be obtained for them from the academic libraries that do order for quality instead of popularity.

My problem for replacement then is to determine which of the fiction titles are likely to be most popular, that is, most in demand. Fortunately, the library has statistical methods of determining where the true demand lies. There are two methods of measuring demand. One is the percentage of copies currently circulating. The other is the number of holds on the title.

By combining these two items, I should be able to determine the urgency of re-ordering any particular title once it goes missing.

One thing that must be considered is that I want titles for my own branch of any item that is even moderately popular within the city. Even though the branch is part of the system, and copies can be sent to where they are needed, it is qualitatively better to have copies here at my branch than to always be getting them from elsewhere. Thus if something is generally in demand, then I want at least one copy here.

I want a simple mathematical formula where a higher value is better than a lower value. I want factors for local demand, system demand, and future demand. Local demand would be how many copies does the branch have (C1) and how many are circulating (CC) with local demand being the percentage CC/C1. The maximum value would be 100%; the minimum would be 0.
The same formula should work for system demand. System copies would be S1; System circulation would be SC. Total demand would be SC/S1. Future demand could follow the same pattern where the number of system holds (H) would be divided by the number of available copies (S1). Adding the three factors should give a total demand factor.

A problem arises when the number of copies in the branch equals zero. Division by zero is impossible and produces infinity. I need a fudge factor to do away with the denominator ever being zero. For simplicity’s sake, let’s set that fudge factor to 1. Make it a given—a public library branch should always have at least one copy of any book that is in demand.

Having established my three factors, let’s make some rules for using them.

If branch demand is 100% then we need more copies of the book.
If System demand is less than branch demand, then we’re ok, because we can fill branch demand with books from other branches.
If future demand is greater than system demand, then the whole system needs more copies.

If the combined demand number is less than 100%, then no replacement copies need purchasing.
If combined demand is between 100% and 200%, then any branch at the 100% mark should buy at least one extra copy.
If combined demand is greater than 200% then more copies should be bought everywhere, and a larger branch should buy at least two copies.

Well, it looks good on paper. I wonder if such a theory could be tested.

Note that this model takes no account of such library realities as limited budgets. It also assumes a snapshot in time. Let's say demand is tested once every three months. A quarter seems like a reasonable period--it allows time for items purchased because of the previous analysis to be received and entered into the system, changing the branch and the system numbers. It allows time for holds to be filled and new holds to be placed. If demand still remains greater than 100 or 200 percent after a three month period, then additional copies should, in my humble opinion, be purchased again.

With the complexity of today's automated circulation systems, it should be possible to derive my various numbers from the computer without having a human being actually take the time to tally these up by hand. C1 and S1, CC and SC, and Holds are known quantities in modern computerized circulaton systems. All it really takes is some kind of reporting mechanism to extract these numbers, do the simple calculations, and prepare a report for the ordering librarian to authorize the purchase of replacement copies.

Nothing this mathematically determined will ever happen, of course. There will never be that much science in library science.