7 Insidious Myths About Libraries and Reading (the first two kill me)

Ask around among librarians and there is one thing that every one of them will agree about: The general public believes all sorts of strange things about libraries and reading. It’s a fact that even library lovers, many of whom are voracious readers, will occasionally make pronouncements that make me go hmm. Often times, these seemingly logical, common-sense, assumptions are based on ill-informed editorials or narrowly-focused news articles, rather than actual evidence. To answer these misstatements of fact, I’ve collected a few library and reading myths to dispel. Hopefully, after reading this, you won’t go around repeating them anymore!

Nobody uses libraries anymore

Typically, when I hear this, it is a based on a person’s own experience; they have not been to a library in a while. That’s fine, but one person’s experience carries a little less weight than the MILLIONS of Americans who made 1,394,447,000 visits to their libraries in FY 2015. Yes, that is nearly 1.4 BILLION visits! Hardly nobody.

It’s all about books

Most people associate libraries with books, and historically, they are correct. When the Boston Public Library, one of the world’s first tax-supported public libraries opened its doors on May 2nd, 1854, it was intended to provide means for cultural uplift and continuing education for the masses. Literally, the only resource available to do that in the 19th century was books — there were no audiobooks, movies, databases, or web tutorials.

Over 150 years later, humanity’s means have changed and so have libraries. Access to information now means a lot more than books. Lifelong learning is still front-and-center, but the elitist idea of cultural uplift is passé. Public libraries develop their collections based an many factors including what each individual community needs and wants. Books still make up a large part of most libraries’ physical collections, but to say that it is solely the books that make a library mistakes the medium of the information for the much larger mission of libraries.

Volunteers can run a library

Make no mistake, as a former volunteer coordinator at a library (and a library volunteer in my teens), I have the utmost respect for folks that give their time to assist my favorite institution. It is also due to my experience that I find it hard to imagine a completely volunteer-run library being open more than a dozen hours a week and providing the same services that a full-staffed library does.

When I read about politicians proclaiming half-cocked fancies about volunteer-run libraries, I wish they’d think about it a little more. I’d challenge the Honorable City Council Member to find enough competent, punctual, and consistent people simply to run the basic services: Checking items in-and-out, shelving them correctly, providing reference and book recommendation services (and not just for the genre one reads), materials purchasing and processing, running events for children, teens, and adults, book-keeping and budgeting, scheduling workers and supervising, building maintenance. Oh, did anyone think that libraries only had librarians? Tell that to the shelvers, circulation clerks, custodians, maintenance workers, human resource professionals, accountants, and more.

That’s a lot of organization! And the difficulty of getting it all done quadruples when your first challenge is to simply get volunteers to show up.

You can only ask librarians book or library-related questions

A good friend of mine shocked me with this misconception years ago and I still remember it because I had no idea people had this notion. No! I told him, you can ask the librarians anything, within reason. Ask them about the state fish of Hawaii, for example (the humuhumunukunukuāpuaʻa, of course), or for resources to write a business plan. Ask them for your great-aunt’s obituary, or how to identify a credible news source. Ask the anything. Well, almost…Please don’t ask them out on a date. That’s rude.

Libraries care a lot about overdue fines

I wrote about this in a recent article, and I’ll repeat it here: “…I think I speak for most library workers when I say that we don’t take any pleasure in collecting fines. Most library workers pass no moral judgement on someone who keeps a book a few days overdue, or has a fine on their account. It happens to all of us.”

Partially, this is because overdue fines make up a very small percentage of a library’s budget, if the fines even go back to the library. In many places, library fines go to the town’s general fund to be disbursed as politicians see fit. In those cases there is absolutely no relationship between overdue fees and the library budget.

The other point is that there is no evidence that overdue fees encourage people to bring items back on time or at all, which is the main reason they exist. That being the case, the punitive dimension of fine collection serves no purpose other than to antagonize otherwise well-meaning library users. This is why many libraries across the country are abolishing overdue fees, a trend I hope will continue.

Librarians are behind the times technologically

Do most libraries have the most up-to-date computers with the latest operating systems? Absolutely not! Do they hop on every techno-fad that briefly takes over the tech news sites? They don’t. Nor should they. Libraries are stewards of public funds and don’t simply blow their already-tight budgets on the newest, untested, gadgets which may or may not gain wide adoption. Does that put them behind-the-times? Not at all. According to the State of America’s Libraries 2015 report, “…nearly all (97.5%) public libraries offer free wireless internet access [and] technology training is offered in nearly all (98.0%) public libraries…”

Indeed, librarians as a group, are more tech-saavy than most professions. Think about it, we spend a good amount of every day helping people figure out their email, connect their laptops to our wireless network, screenshot a website that doesn’t print properly, apply for jobs online, and a whole bunch of other tasks that would be extremely difficult to do without a firm grasp of technology. Library school curriculums of (at least) the last fifteen years have required students to create databases, complete at least one course specifically on information technology, and build a simple website. In fact, when I went to the UCLA School of Library and Information Science, I had to take a programming class as a prerequisite to even starting the program. For the record, I took two classes in C++.

Young people don’t read

This brings us back to the same issue as with people who think nobody uses libraries anymore — their view is based largely on their own personal experience; they see their own grandkids playing on their phone, or their sons or daughters disinterested in reading and generalize their experience to a whole generation. I’m firmly convinced that 100 years ago, the oldsters of the day complained that young people didn’t read for exactly the same reason.

The fact is, young people do read. Toddlers, school-age kids, and especially teens are wild in their reading. I suspect that publishing for young people is one area that has grown over the last twenty years, in part because teens love to read so much. Hit movies like Twilight, Harry Potter, Allegiant, the Chronicles of Narnia, Bridge to Terabithia, the BFG, Matilda, James and the Giant Peach, How to Train Your Dragon, Shrek, Mary Poppins, and Jumanji (just to name a few) were all hit books before they were movies, and the kids read them and loved them!

Just because kids play videogames, cause malarky outside, or lounge around gossipping doesn’t mean that they don’t also do plenty of reading. Young people are no less curious now than they were when you or I were growing up and that is something to celebrate!

Those were just seven myths about libraries and reading, I’m sure there are more out there. If you happen to think of any, feel free to respond below.


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