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System vs Stand-alone

November 7, 2012

I’ve been a librarian for two years and a library-goer for at least thirty (low estimate).  I have Opinions.  These opinions actually haven’t changed much now that I’m inside the system.  I’ve always been a fan of systems–of ordering books from other libraries and having them delivered wherever I need them to be.  Of being nowhere near home and bopping into a branch, not my own, where I have the same level of access.  Of having the experience of many different sizes and types of libraries without having to live in other places.  (Although I’ve had that too.)

Now that I am a professional librarian, I see the strengths and weaknesses inherent in being a system librarian.  There’s a lot more support, but the drawback is that you have much less say in how things are done.  I actually don’t feel like I’m limited in many ways, but I can see the freedom in being, say, one of one or two or three, rather than one of dozens.

I love our youth services meetings, where librarians from each branch come together to talk kids’ stuff.  I love that I’ve never once worried that I would have enough money for a book or a program.  I’ve never even had a question that I couldn’t get answered within two, maybe three phone calls (depending on whether it’s a popular dinner hour when I call).

Many systems have branches and then something called members.  Members are more like standalones with limited or full access to the system.  I think it differs, how much autonomy they have, but I’m going to go with “a lot.”  And then there are the standalones themselves, the ones that opt out.  It’s funny because, within the system, all we hear are complaints from the patrons of the standalones.  Why can’t they too be part of the system?  And yet when it comes time to vote, everyone wants their own library, because it’s cheaper.

But is it?  I mean, you’ve got your director, who gets at least $50K (which is a ridiculously low estimate I’ve heard lately), and then if you’re working with volunteers for the rest of your staff, boy, do I pity you.  Not because I think volunteers can’t be awesome, competent workers, but because a library needs librarians, professionals who’ve been taught a wide range of different skills specific to library success.  Even if you’re working with a crew of support staff only (those without degrees), you really need to pay them, because working in a library is not a blissfully peaceful job where you get to sit and read all day.  It is, as I’ve said before, retail with a living wage.  If you’re a librarian.  But then you still have to pay down those grad school loans.  So there’s a huge chunk of your tax dollars right there; the money you’re supposedly “saving.”  Only now that we’ve gotten that out of the way that we can talk about the cost of books, of computers, of tech support, and of those lovely e-book companies who’ve decided that an easily-copied computer file should cost the same as a printed work, except that you can’t keep it.  It adds up, for sure.

I have a co-worker who ran a library that was a system member, not even a standalone, and I’m imagining the piles of money you’d have to offer her to do it again–even WITH all that system support behind her.  Now imagine she didn’t have that system support.  She’d be living like Scrooge MacDuck, if she were paid what she deserved.  And what township has that kind of cash?

Maybe this post is, in my community, a day late and a dollar short, but I’m frustrated about the lack of discussion between libraries and the average person.  I’m ALWAYS schooling my patrons on the behind-the-scenes stuff.  To figure things out for myself, I’m often looking in professional journals–something that not only wouldn’t occur to the average patron, but I also don’t know if we give access to them.  (Maybe?  I bet I could figure out in one phone call.)

I’m looking forward to National Library Week, because I’m determined this year to have a behind-the-scenes program for the library where we not only discuss where everything is, but HOW everything is, and I’ll answer all their questions too.  All of them.  Maybe I can’t turn back the clock on votes that have already happened, but I know I can reduce ignorance from this position.

It’s pretty much my job.

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