Stacked In His Favor

Matthew Amster-Burton contends with the messy reality of books in an elementary-school library


Every Monday morning, I get lost in books.

Not, sadly, in the figurative sense. I’m not swept away on waves of imagination. Instead, I’m drowning in a river of paper.

I’m a volunteer in my daughter’s elementary school library. It’s an excellent library, with a dedicated librarian and a strong collection of fiction and nonfiction titles. I enjoy reading children’s and young adult books, and I especially love helping a kid find a great read. But most of my time in the library is spent checking in and shelving books. This week, while shelving, I thought a lot about Glenn Fleishman’s essay “Today, I Live in the Book.”

Fleishman writes about the Bexar County BiblioTech, a county library’s single branch, which has no physical books. The BiblioTech offers plenty of desktop computers and iPads, and a collection of ebooks, audiobooks, and lendable e-readers. When a BiblioTech librarian complains about the disadvantages of paper, Fleishman responds, “It’s terrible to think that the entire utility of a physical library is undermined by its actual physical nature and those pesky patrons.”

But I wonder whether Fleishman has spent time working in a school library. Administrators and principals rarely understand what goes on in the library, so school libraries are among the easiest targets for budget cuts. My daughter’s school library has a half-time librarian, no paid support staff, and no money from the school district for buying books. (The PTA donates a small amount each year for books.)

Here’s some of what I deal with every week in the library:

  • Overdue books
  • Lost books
  • Spine labels that fall off or fade
  • Misfiled books
  • Books shelved with the spine facing the shelf (why?)
  • Damaged books
  • Books that are hard to find because they’ve been poorly cataloged
  • Popular book series (Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Garfield, Pokemon) that are always checked out or lost.

These problems are more than “pesky.” They’re a fantastic waste of time. Because book wrangling has vexed library staff for so long, we assume that it’s as much a part of library life as spectacles and shushing. We come to believe that the core mission of the library is the management of its book collection, because that’s what we see librarians doing.

That has never been the library’s mission, especially not in the school library, which exists to support teachers and to teach students how to read, how to do research, how to tell truth from lies, how to fall in love with books. A librarian, staff member, or volunteer who is cataloging, shelving books, or applying library tape isn’t doing any of those things. They’re brain surgeons filling out paperwork.

Is it any wonder that libraries, starved of funds and hands, are excited about the potential of ebooks? Ebooks don’t degrade, and they don’t get lost or overdue. Above all, they’re easier to find than paper books: you can search the full text, and you can “shelve” the same book in multiple sections without ever accidentally filing it under the wrong Dewey number.

Hold it right there, cyber-Dad

Of course, like any new technology, ebooks bring their own baggage:

  • Ebooks require new infrastructure and staff trained to support it. In their current form, they might be more high-maintenance than paper books.
  • The acquisition, distribution, and use of ebooks is hobbled by copyright issues and digital rights management (DRM).
  • Ebook reading devices can be lost, overdue, or damaged, and they generally cost more than paper books.
  • Ebook readers have poor support for fixed-layout books and high-quality images. In other words, they offer a lousy experience for picture books, a mainstay of the elementary school library. (And they’re really terrible for pop-up books.)
  • Students already get easily distracted just by having computers in the library. If books were delivered via tablet computers, would they actually read books?

Fleishman is right, of course, that it would be foolhardy and impossible to force a wholesale ebook conversion on any library. Most of the books in my daughter’s school library aren’t available as ebooks; we don’t have the money to buy all the books that are available; and if we did, those books would be encumbered by crappy DRM.

But librarians are right to be so fired up about this technology that they push the transition forward even when it’s premature. Ebooks can make libraries more productive. “Productivity” may be a lousy business school word, but what it means in this situation is more library staff working directly with patrons instead of doing back-room busywork, and patrons spending more time reading and learning instead of searching and waiting.

Librarians and library folks are dreamers. We tend, for obvious reasons, to be passionate defenders of free speech. We believe in radical access to information. The more time I spend working in the library, the more I see paper as an obstacle to what the library stands for—even as I curl up every night in bed with a paper book.

The Library of Babel

One of the most important jobs of the school librarian is teaching online research skills. Can I trust Wikipedia? What’s a primary source? Am I allowed to copy this image and paste it into my research paper? I searched for “dogs” and got 192 million hits. How do I narrow it down?

The library didn’t create Google or Wikipedia and doesn’t host those sites. But librarians are vital for teaching students how to use these tools effectively. I’d like to see books transition into the same category: something hosted outside the library that comes in over the internet. (How will authors get paid under this system? Speaking as an author: beats the hell out of me.)

I want to spend my library time recommending books to kids, not shelving and taping and scanning books. If I think of a book outside the library’s collection, I don’t want to have to tell the child, “Put a hold on it at the public library.” I want to put it into their hands—onto their device—right this second.

Yeah, I know, this is the purest, most embarrassing techno-utopianism. It’s as utopian as the idea of a free encyclopedia of human knowledge . As unattainable as an app that will play any song. As crazy as filling a building with great books and letting every citizen read them for free.

Matthew Amster-Burton is a Seattle freelance writer covering food and personal finance. He has written for Gourmet, the Seattle Times, and the Wall Street Journal, and writes a weekly column for Mint.com. His latest book is Pretty Good Number One: An American Family Eats Tokyo. You can read two short excerpts from that book at Medium: “I’ll Fry Anything Once” and “Tokyo Trash.”

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