At getting mad at your local library

As I may have mentioned before, I am a library student. I’ll graduate next spring with my Masters in Library and Information Science, and I can’t wait to (officially) enter the world of librarianship (full-time), working with students, books, and texts. I fully intend to wear my cardigan proudly, and maybe even let my glasses slip to the end of my nose so I can scowl at people with late fees.

OK, I kid, I kid. I’m not all about the stereotypes (although I do like wearing cardigans – it’s cold in libraries! – and I do wear glasses). But I am happy to work in the library world, and am passionate about many of the issues facing both public and academic libraries – disappearing funding sources, censorship and book-banning, literacy, and changing the minds of the stupids out there who think Google and Amazon can replace their local library.

But just as one will be angry over their local tax bill, or get frustrated over the long line at the post office … sometimes, I get mad at my library. It’s mostly for selfish reasons, but every time I feel this way, I’m conflicted. I’m legitimately peeved, but I’m the best kind of library supporter out there! (The kind that wants libraries to survive so I can find a job.) Shouldn’t I deny my anger in favor of the greater good?

But who am I kidding – I do get mad at the library. I get mad when they don’t have the books I’m looking for. I get mad when they perpetuate old stereotypes. And I get mad when they can’t get their shit together to do something critical, like fight for their survival.

But let’s just talk about not having the books I want. The books I really want.

For the past year or so, ever since I left my full-time journalism job and started working part/full time at bookstores and now libraries, I’ve been trying to utilize my local library for a big part of my pleasure reading. This also corresponded with the time I’ve been in library school. For the longest time, even though I liked – nay, loved – libraries, I didn’t really “use” them for one of the biggest parts of my life – reading. I just bought books. Lots of books. There were reasons for this: I like to “collect” books. I like finding a great deal at second-hand stores. I wanted to keep every book I ever read in college as proof that I made it through them. And for awhile, I worked at the greatest used bookstore in the world (Half-Price Books), and I was able to take home dozens of awesome books for $1. So, buying books was easy (and cheap), and I didn’t need libraries.

That wasn’t going to fly without the big money coming in, so I made myself stop. There are no Half-Price Books in Michigan, so I was stuck with Barnes & Noble anyway. There are plenty of indies in the area, but prices are oftentimes higher there. I read A LOT, though, so buying a new book whenever I wanted to read something I didn’t already own just wasn’t going to fly. Even working at a chain bookstore wasn’t making it easier – I love books, but they’re just stupidly expensive.

And no, I wasn’t going the e-reader route. Don’t try to convince me they’re cost effective.

Luckily, my local library was AWESOME. They were ten times better than the small town library I grew up with, and I loved visiting the building (historic, in the center of town) as a reporter and patron. So I started using the library for my pleasure reading, and for the longest time, had no problems. The library always had what I wanted! It was easy to find things!  I didn’t have to pay a dime!

But then, I started having problems finding the books I wanted. At first, it was just one or two, and I was like, “Eh, it’s OK. I’ll just request it.” And BAM, three days later, it’s ready for pick-up. But then, I went looking for Pet Sematary by Stephen King. One of King’s most famous, and well-known, novels. A classic, I dare say. But to my shock and surprise, my library wasn’t out of Pet Sematary that day – they didn’t own it at all. They had everything else by King, but that book. Now, again, I try to give libraries – especially public libraries struggling for cash – a break. But this stupid, gaping hole in their collection just didn’t make any sense.

And it pissed me off. Here I was, a huge supporters of libraries, and I couldn’t even find a common title by one of the most popular American writers in the 20th century. The fact that I wasted my time searching was technically my fault – I should always check the catalog before I leave home. But the fact that it was missing in the first place just seemed…wrong.

Yes, this was a selfish kind of anger. But unfortunately, this is the kind of problem that just could (and probably has) driven away more casual library patrons. Why would anyone bother coming back? Resorting to an evil monopolizer like Amazon is a hell of a lot easier when you feel that you’ve been unfairly inconvenienced. And I know it’s just one book, but as someone who’s worked at bookstores, I can tell you that convenience means a lot. Book-consumers believe that in every bookstore has a copy of every book ever written, ever, and when they have to jump through 10,000 hoops just to get one book, they get annoyed. And they go away. Hell, I’ve even experienced it. I tried to find a copy of Le Petit Prince at one of the bookstores I worked at last year, and I was irked to find our store didn’t open with a copy on the shelves. Le Petit Prince? That’s like not having Hop on Pop or Great Expectations.

Since my Pet Sematary experience, there’s been more than one book I’ve had to put on the wait list at the library. I try not to get annoyed – come on, I didn’t really expect the third ‘Game of Thrones’ book to be on the shelves – but it’s hard. I just want to use the library as its supposed to be used, but I’m feeling a little thwarted.

Oh, and let me tell how you the Pet Sematary story ended. Pissed off, I furiously drove to work, and was almost late. Thankfully I work…at a library! I told myself I’d pick up Pet Sematary at our undergraduate library after my shift, and that would be that. Everything would be cool. I’d get to the law library, put it on reserve, and…wait a minute, it’s not at the undergraduate library? Hold the phone – my entire university library system didn’t own a copy either!? I don’t go to a tiny school either, but a major research institution. What was going on? I began to wonder what was wrong with Pet Sematary, but not before I utilized the Michigan eLibrary system (MeL) to request a copy from the Albion Public Library System. That was the closest library I could find…do you know where Albion, MI is? Between Jackson and Kalamazoo. What the heck?

Sometimes, I just don’t understand. And I still get frustrated. All I want to do, people, is read some Stephen King! I understand that public and academic libraries have cash issues, and the physical collection is going to suffer. I get that. But library boards also need to realize that their collection is important. And if people walk in, looking to use the library in the most fundamental way, you have to help those people too. Because if they think libraries aren’t able to fulfill this most basic function – checking out books – they’re not going to think very highly of libraries in general. And they’re not going to come back.

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