Monday, October 08, 2007

Specialized Libraries

Every Monday, I will be writing an essay on libraries (and will last as long as I can sustain it).

I've said it before and I'll say it again now: people work with different paradigms. For example, my experience with libraries has always been on the other side of the counter, as a consumer, and the way I relate to libraries is through its book collection although it's obvious to librarians and administration that there is more to libraries than just books. I bring this up because it is relevant to the future of libraries and how the public perceives the word library.

Now people being people, each and every word has a different meaning depending on who hears it. When one mentions love for example, a child might think filial love, a teenager romantic love, a priest agape. But what about libraries? I think for most people, libraries are storehouses of "free" books. A minority of course will have other ideas: it could be a museum, an archive, an audio-video (AV) collection, or perhaps even a private institution. That's not to say all of those are wrong, mind you, but most people don't bother to distinguish between "regular" libraries and these "specialized" libraries.

I'm no expert when it comes to libraries but I'd like to think I'm a seasoned veteran when it comes to bookstores. One thing I noticed is bookstores go out of their way is to distinguish themselves. Amazon for example has the reputation of this big, monolithic bookstore that seems to have nearly everything--except it's all online. That's the brand identity of Amazon as a bookstore. Barnes & Noble on the other hand has this big retail store chain that tries to cater to everyone. In the Philippines, we have National Bookstore which is a school supplies shop first and fiction store second (anyone care to disagree with me?). Fully Booked, on the other hand, seems to be the local equivalent of Barnes & Noble in the addition of being a graphic novel emporium. Booktopia and A Different Bookstore are both independent bookstores yet they have their own unique brands and market. In the US, one good example of a very specialized bookstore is Dark Delicacies which is an all-horror shop and M is for Mystery is an all-mystery bookstore. Maybe I'm just a bookstore geek which is why I make all these distinctions but I think those distinctions are important, especially for the more independent bookstores because that's how they've managed tot survive: by working their niches.

Now I'm not saying that all libraries should have niches. Amazon's niche for example is that they cater to everyone--not exactly what I'd classify a niche. But an important lesson we can learn from Amazon is that Amazon knows it caters to everyone and works with a model that revolves around that goal/fact. Dark Delicacies expounds on its horror theme, acquiring not just books that fit the horror genre but other items and memorabilia as well. However, it doesn't dilute its product line by acquiring something too way off from its niche. My problem with local libraries, or even the general perception of libraries, is that they haven't gone out of their way to make their specializations known--and libraries do specialize. When people speak of libraries, it's as if there was only one platonic ideal and all libraries should follow in that vein even when that's not the case. My previous essay on libraries addresses the book problems of libraries for example yet not all libraries have a goal of delivering the best fiction selection.

Last year, I frequented visited The Philippine Star library because I had to do 20 years worth of research about the news. Did I go to The Philippine Star library expecting fiction books? No. I went there expecting broadsheets and journals and that's what I got. Some people, those with a different perspective, would argue that The Philippine Star library isn't a "real" library but more of an archive. But that only emphasizes my point that we have this mentality that there is only one true library and that all libraries should be modeled that way when that's not the case.

My previous example was one extreme. How else could a library distinguish itself from other libraries? Well, the Ateneo Rizal Library has developed a reputation for its Japanese collection and so far, it lives up to its reputation (that is to say, I haven't visited any local libraries that has that extensive of a historical collection although mind you, their Japanese collection is far from "complete"). Unfortunately, what's wrong with this picture is that as a lay person, I don't know this fact. The only time I discovered this was when I was enrolled in the university and they were giving an introduction to the freshmen. Over the years, I've also come to realize that the Ateneo Rizal Library has other specialized features that distinguishes itself from other libraries. Apparently it has a wide selection of microfilm/microfiche materials and in fact The Philippine Star's own microfilm/microfiche collection wouldn't have been possible if it weren't for Ateneo. Browsing through their current website, I also notice that they have an American Historical Collection, an Ateneo Library of Women's Writings, and Pardo de Tavera Room. I'm sure other university libraries have their own strengths but the problem is most people aren't aware of them unless they're well-versed in the industry. Right now the only well-known library in the country is perhaps the National Library of the Philippines but at the time of this writing (2007/10/01), their website isn't accessible.

I tried browsing through the websites of three university libraries: Ateneo, DLSU, and UP. What's wrong with all of their websites (and that's not including other UP Library websites that weren't working when I tried accessing them) is that it's not clearly evident what their specialization is. In fact, they're touting a general purpose look (just compare Ateneo and DLSU's sidebar) even when that's not necessarily their strength (but of course those university libraries are competent when it comes to general purpose usage). The problem here I think is marketing. People are not made aware of the services these libraries can provide unless they're personally associated with those universities (teachers, students, faculty, etc.) or are industry people (historians, librarians, PAASCU accreditors, etc.). For the most part, I do think those libraries have a niche--it's just that we're not aware of the niche. And the university libraries aren't the only ones. As I said, The Philippine Star has a library of its periodicals yet I didn't know that fact until I actually visited their offices. While there's such a thing as the personal inquiry, there should also be at least the minimum amount of public notice.

There are some people who fear that the libraries are going away in light of modernization and the Internet. I think the solution to that is to establish what your niche is and promote it. Currently, perhaps not in the Philippines but in other countries, the museum-library is starting to crop up. I don't think that's necessarily bad but it's definitely a different experience or in this case, a different specialization. Most libraries are archives anyway so why not take it to another level by archiving art and historical pieces? It certainly doesn't fit my paradigm of a library but who says it has to? Actually, my perception of a library is that it should have a good collection of fiction books but so far, I haven't visited a local library that meets that criteria. The closest perhaps is my grade school/high school library in Xavier which is where I discovered fantasy authors like Tolkien and Goodkind but honestly, I wish it were more extensive (students were using the library for the air-con, the Internet, and the newspapers). The New Worlds Alliance is affiliated with the Fandom Cafe and it has launched The New Worlds Library which has a collection of fantasy, horror and science-fiction novels but I have yet to visit the place and view their selection (and perhaps more importantly, analyze their library system). Of course the problem with The New Worlds Library is that for the most part, it's a private organization--that is, borrowing books is not as easy as signing up and obtaining a library card but rather enlisting in the organization itself or be sponsored by a member. For the most part, that kind of library is an inclusive endeavor, which is to say it benefits the existing membership more rather than actually attracting other non-readers to try out different and new books.

The Filipino Librarian asks, in relation to the recent PLAI-BRLC workshop, why do users instead opt for bookstores rather than libraries despite the minimal costs involved in the latter? There are honestly several answers to that question and to identify all of them is a long essay in itself. However, I'd like to point out that it's been my experience, if I want to look for reference materials, I go to a library. If I want fiction or non-fiction books, I go to a bookstore. It's not just a selection problem though but the image that libraries have established itself over the years. As in my previous paragraph, I wish libraries have good fiction selections but that hasn't been my experience, nor is it their goal to be so (whether they're justified or not depends on what they're aiming to specialize in). Ultimately though, I think the existing library model (in the Philippines) isn't conducive to being frequently patronized by non-researchers, non-students. Bookstores work I think because they have best-sellers. The services a library provides is by no means not valuable, but it is a focused niche that's quite different from that of the country's bookstores. Gwen Galvez of Anvil Publishing has stated that the nation's best-sellers are easily self-help and cook books. Has anyone thought of establishing a library of local self-help and cook books? Or even dare tread into the cheap, romance novel paperbacks? Certainly it'll attract a new demographic to the library market but the question I think is where anyone is willing to do so? (Or is it their goal to do so?) More importantly, are there public institutions willing to risk to disrupt the image of the stereotypical library, complete with quiet signs and respectable, literary content? Private libraries might be willing to steer in that direction but what about public libraries? Overall, this boils down to a problem of marketing and I think libraries are expecting returns that are different from its marketing scheme: specialized libraries are expecting returns of "mainstream" libraries. If you want to acquire (and sustain) a mainstream audience, act like a mainstream library and carry mainstream products. But as I pointed out, our preconceptions of what a library should be is quite different from the mainstream market's tastes to say the least.

Libraries are quite specialized yet most people aren't aware of this or make distinctions. It's all too easy to generalize about libraries yet the fact is, they're anything but general.

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