Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Not all libraries are perfect

This is blasphemy, I know, but I have to get this off my chest.

I have long supported libraries. I know that libraries face increasing budget cuts and that they're trying to do the best they can. I know that librarians are generally good people with noble intentions. But if there's one thing I've learned the hard way is that some libraries are, frankly, better than others.

My love affair with the Boston Public Library (BPL) began to fade a few months ago. I remembered the beautiful building as housing an extensive collection, but once I began to browse more extensively, I was disappointed by the limited scope. It was nice, I'll admit, to have all the genres mixed together, but there was something a bit sloppy about the whole thing as well. The organization seemed incomplete and messy. It was bearable, but I found myself struggling just to find a book.

Okay. Fine.

Then I started looking for places to sit with my laptop and study. None. Not one. There's an entire room with desktops for use (which was completely packed), but even as I searched, I could hardly find any desks to work at. And once I did find a suitable table, I was surprised to discover that there were no chairs. Okay, I told myself. It's a larger, far more central library than any I've ever frequented beforehand. It's natural. So I decided to browse a few other sections, including the teen room. I was surprised to see a sign on the door denying entrance to anyone over 18 years of age. I suppose the desire to read young adult books is cut off abruptly the moment one is allowed to vote. Though I doubt anyone would have enforced the rule, the sign itself was enough of a turnoff. I left the library thoroughly disappointed. But these were minor issues, hardly worth mentioning or getting caught up on. But then there's the bigger issue: The BPL is the worst organized library I have ever encountered.

I mean it. The sloppy bookshelves were just the tip of the iceberg. The Audio/Visual section is a complete mess - no organization whatsoever, five carts out with "recently returned items" (some of which seem to have been there for months), terrible broken cases, title and genre inconsistencies... must I go on? But here's what worse - nobody seems to care. I was searching for an item that was supposed to be on the shelves for a solid hour before I decided to turn to a librarian. She very courteously stayed in her seat and looked the item up on her computer (as I myself had done mere minutes earlier), telling me, "It's on the shelf. Just look for it." And that was all. I spent another hour looking over literally every item on the recently returned carts, eventually giving up.

I learned my lesson. The next time I needed something, I placed a hold on it. I saw that the items I requested were listed as on the shelf; I smiled, thinking that at worst it would take three days for them to make the transfer to the hold shelf. How wrong I was. I placed holds on April 22 for five items found in the library. Two books appeared on the hold shelf five days after I placed the hold on them. One book (of which four copies are allegedly in-library) did not appear by three weeks after I placed the hold, by which point it was irrelevant and I cancelled the hold. The hold I placed on one disc was cancelled three weeks in (no reason given), and the hold I placed more than a month ago on another CD that was supposedly in-library became in-transit only the other day.

Here's what drives me nuts. In today's modern world, libraries are supposed to have it easy. Tracking becomes much simpler the moment it's digitized. All that's left for libraries is to maintain some kind of shelf order. To mix up one or two items makes sense. But to lack any coherent order is unacceptable. When browsing discs, even something as simple as genre distinctions is missing, let alone any alphabetical markers. One soundtrack might be found under "pop", another under "soundtrack", a third under "classical". And don't get me started on the loose CDs found floating around as well, cases long abandoned, discs scratched and useless.

But what is most disturbing is the disdain BPL librarians seem to hold for their neighboring library system. The Minutemen Library system (which I am far more likely to patron) is comprised of many significantly smaller libraries, but has a wonderful online catalog, excellent organization, and convenient transfers of books from library to library means that just about every item is available somewhere - hence it is available everywhere. The most I've had to wait for items to move from one library to another was four days - a reasonable time frame when considering the fact that I requested the item on a Friday afternoon. When I mentioned the Minutemen system, a BPL librarian snorted and said, "Bet you've been waiting forever." That's right, but it's not the Minutemen who keep me waiting. It's the BPL. Clean up your act fast, or else you'll find yourself losing a lot more patrons...


  1. Unfortunately, I can only agree with you; not all libraries are brilliant. In the city where I live we are in the process of having a brand spanking new central library built. It is full of wonderful public spaces where there will be concerts and where people can gather for meetings. However, this is at the expense of space for books, which are being sold off at a rate of knots. In that same city, the University to which I am affiliated is also building a new library. They asked the students what they would like to see there. Against all perception of students they asked for more study space (specifically with power point access) and more books. The plans have just come out. Less study space and fewer books. Fortunately the student body is pretty vocal so I'm hoping there may be ructions over this and changes made. The city library is too far on for anything to be done.

  2. I have problems with classification too. I just think the modern computer tagging and labelling is better than vague classification. My borough library never stock adequately and all they have are crime fictions and very few international literature. So that the local denizens are inundated with Patricia Cromwell, Karin Slaughter and Jodi Piccoult. I looked at the pile of new books that draw no interest to me with both disdain and with regret they wasted tax payer's money on junk fiction!

  3. Sounds like just poor management to some degree. Makes me appreciate my little county library system more.
    Hey..is someone calling Slaughter junk? Cornwall, sure, but don't pick on my Slaughter! ;-)

  4. Dude, I sympathize with this post so much. I had the highest of high hopes for the New York Public Library when I first moved to New York, and by this time I've discontinued my use of it almost completely. A lot of the complaints are the same as yours with the Boston one -- badly organized, nothing where it's meant to be, and the slowest damn hold system I've ever beheld.

  5. I would love to have a poorly organized library in my town (or province, or country). I do sympathize, though. Some libraries are better than others.

  6. I've always been fond of BPL, but I went there for events and the rare book collections. I took out books at my school's library, which was no doubt faster and better organized. I imagine the problem is some combination of the fact that regular book lending is NOT actually BPL's emphasis (as it is for the Minutemen system) and that the library is old and thus probably not digitized as well as newer libraries.

  7. Oh BPL, that's pretty much how I remember it. I only used it a few times my frosh year of college, thinking it would be a better resource than the University library. After a couple trips I gave up on it.

  8. Wow, this makes me appreciate my library and the library system it is a part of.

  9. Thank you for this post. I thought I was the only one with these problems with the BPL. And I used to be part of the Board of the Directors of one of the branches! I gave up because nothing was ever done and the City never listened to us. It truly is sad because it could be such a fantastic source of information and resources. What a waste!


Anonymous comments have been disabled due to an increase in spam. Sorry!