Our public library was the subject of some unwelcome news last week. Another $10 million has been added to the cost of completing the Central Library expansion - this puts the cost of the expansion about $40 million over budget, which, in a city dealing with cuts to a variety of other civil services, doesn't look good. What's more, the library is due for a $1.5 million property tax increase. That increase needs to be approved by the City-County Council in September, a prospect that has some council members gnashing their teeth. They'd rather see the library cut its budget.
The argument here seems obvious: Technology has made librarian research skills obsolete. Yet, on their own, people often turn the Internet into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Meanwhile, work on the Central Library continues at a pace that, to put it mildly, appears painstaking. Completion of the new addition to Central has been slated for summer 2007. Until that time, the city's main library will continue to operate out of temporary quarters in the old State Museum building.
Substantial as these problems are, they are not insurmountable. Indianapolis has an outstanding library system that, over the years, has earned and enjoys tremendous public support. For the past several years, IMCPL has been ranked among the top urban library systems in the country. In the scramble to find things about Indianapolis to brag about, our public libraries deserve to be at the top of the list. So the new expansion is $40 million over budget? If that were the only problem facing the library, my guess is that Indianapolis would find the money somewhere.
But there's more eating our library system right now than construction troubles. Our library leadership seems to be suffering a crisis of confidence. The proliferation of new technologies and the so-called Information Revolution have called the role and mission of the public library into question.
Public libraries today are being afflicted with the same sorts of self-doubt currently bedeviling other traditional cultural institutions, most notably our museums. In this country, libraries and museums were created to be bulwarks of culture as well as democratic springboards to a better life. From their collections on display to their larger-than-life architecture, they were meant not just to inform, but to inspire. These institutions stood proudly apart from the hurly burly of the marketplace, representing values considered to be timeless and incalculable.
All that seems quaint now. A generation of administrators and politicos has managed to convince themselves - and us - that there really are no values besides market values. They define our institutions not as standing apart from the commercial, but as in direct competition with it. So museums model themselves on Disneyland and public libraries on Barnes & Noble. To do otherwise is to be called elitist, or simply out of it.
At the IMCPL, this means that librarians will order 400 copies of the new Harry Potter to serve a market-defined demand. They do this knowing that a large percentage of these books will find their way to the library book sale a year from now. Where being a professional librarian once meant being widely read and having an almost oceanic grasp of what was good in books and other forms of media, it increasingly means being able to read a best-seller list - and order from the chart. You certainly don't need a master's degree to do that.
And you don't need a master's to use Google, either. That seems to be the conclusion that our new library director (now called the CEO) Linda Mielke has reached. Although Mielke is paid $115,000 a year plus a "company" car, and the library's Executive Council of managers all make $95,000 or more, as a cost-cutting measure Mielke is trying to cull the ranks of professional librarians at IMCPL, freezing pay grades and offering incentives to retire early. In place of reference librarians, there will be "paraprofessionals," people with 20 hours of on-the-job training, who can help you do your own Internet search. The argument here seems obvious: Technology has made librarian research skills obsolete. Yet, on their own, people often turn the Internet into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Sometimes we need a librarian to help us grasp the extent of what we don't already know about something.
A library job brought me to Indiana for the first time in 1980. It was my privilege to serve as assistant director of a medium-size library in Michigan City until 1988. During that time, I was honored to receive the Indiana Library Association's Librarian of the Year Award. So you might say I have an ax to grind - or that I have experience in the field. I understand the constant, inclusive balancing act that goes into running a library. I've also seen the real difference that a culturally dynamic library can make in its community.
Best-sellers and factoid retrieval are just parts of what makes the library tick. IMCPL - all 17 branches of it - is a cultural institution. Its future will depend on the extent to which it can offer people an experience they won't find anywhere else. That means the current library leadership had better think hard about what they're doing to IMCPL's collections and professional staff. Otherwise, when they finally get that new building, there won't be any reason to go there.