Write Stuff – Libraries and Lunches

At first glance, the headline in The Wall Street Journal is a little alarming: ?New Library Technologies Dispense With Librarians.? Your immediate reaction might be to envision a future in which the community library will disappear, and reading will be reduced to the lonely glow of a million e-readers, an experience barren of human interaction.

In fact, the WSJ article is about an interesting new service called Library Express. A service that, for all its good points, will never replace the real thing.

Make no mistake, Library Express is a very cool idea. It’s essentially a vending machine for library books. Some locations let you pre-order online and pick up your book or DVD from a lockbox a few days later. Others are more like traditional vending machines, where you choose from items on display behind glass, then swipe your card and out pops your borrowed copy of something by, say, Bill Bryson or Emma Donoghue.

There’s plenty to like about this system. For starters, some libraries have turned to it when local budget cuts have forced them to reduce their hours. Busy commuters can also support the public library system even if work schedules or transit routes don’t permit. And if You’re a kid whose parents can’t (or won’t) take you to the library, a book kiosk nearby can sustain a love of reading.

For those who are worried that a service like Library Express signals the demise of public libraries, I have one word for you: automat. Back in the early 1900s, the automat was the wave of the future. Instead of going to a restaurant, diners would choose a meal from a wall of glass-fronted cubicles, insert their money, and enjoy fresh food (in the early days, machines were filled from a kitchen on site).

The automat has evolved into the modern vending machine (although the ?fresh? aspect doesn’t play such a large part anymore), and It’s just as popular as ever. The one thing it hasn’t done, though, is replace restaurants. Or fast-food joints, or jobs for chefs and wait staff.

The mistake in thinking (or even suggesting) that automated book machines will replace librarians is in assuming they perform the same role. They don’t. Libraries, and librarians, offer much richer value than simply dispensing books. The Toronto Public Library is a good example. Services vary by location, but branches offer everything from appearances by popular authors to computer training to special tours for ESL groups. Your preschooler can make friends at a reading program, while older kids can enjoy everything from puppet shows to Halloween events.

Librarians themselves offer a wealth of knowledge that a book kiosk can’t even begin to compete with. As professionals who must earn a diploma or degree in Library Technology and/or Information Management, librarians can find that obscure title You’re hunting for, offer advice, encourage reluctant readers, and answer the thousand-and-one questions patrons might have. And That’s barely scratching the surface.

It’s easy to see library vending services as a threat to the living, breathing spaces of our public libraries. In reality, It’s just the opposite. Not only do book kiosks add to the abundant options for readers, they also promote the library ?brand.? If you enjoy the books and DVDs in a machine, you’ll be more likely to see what other services the library has on offer.

Tomorrow, I’ll wander down to my local branch and return a book. While I’m at it, the librarian will probably suggest a couple of interesting titles I hadn’t thought of. She might even give me a heads-up about a reading tour. At the very least, she’ll spend a minute chatting, asking about my day while she scans my new titles. Show me a book-vending machine that can do that, and you may just get my attention.