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Director's Column

PLSJC Director Alan Hall writes a weekly column discussing library and community news, history, and other interesting subjects.

The Purpose of the Public Library

By Alan Hall, Director, PLSJ
Publish Date - Sunday, May 29, 2011

The purpose of a public library has not changed over the years.  It is to provide informational services to the public.


What has changed is the method and tools that we have to provide those services.


That being said, I was recounting the changes that I have seen over the 40 years that I have worked in public libraries.


The method for choosing and purchasing books comes to my mind as something that has significantly changed.


When our library opened in 1902, new books were purchased directly from New York by mailing an order form to a company that represented all of the large publishers in that city.


The order would be shipped in wooden barrels by train to the Pennsylvania Railroad Station in Steubenville, and a delivery truck would bring the barrels to the library.


That process had changed by the 1970s to truck shipping, but a “jobber” handled the order and obtained the books from various publishers.


Some publishers and jobbers had salespeople who called on libraries with special deals, or used the visit to show their products.


Today, the library still uses a jobber, but now it is an online service that provides instant status reports of whether the book is available, or yet-to-be-published, or backordered.


Reviews of the book are online with the ordering system, and the order is transmitted immediately with same-day shipping.


The friendly book salespeople are nearly gone, with only two companies still using real people in our area.


The publishing world has changed and expanded to include print-on-demand and e-books.


Print-on-demand allows nearly anyone with some available funds to publish their book.  The problem becomes the marketing of their product, which is almost nonexistent with many of these new publishers.


The result is that my e-mail is literally choked with authors and publishers marketing their products in a less-than-effective way to libraries.


The e-mails that amuse me are people pretending to be users of our library, who e-mail saying they are sorry that we don’t own this book or that book, but provide a way to acquire it for “their” library.


I always respond asking for their library card number, and the exchange ends.


The end result is that book selection, including e-books, is more complex than it used to be, trying to find titles that meet the needs and requests of the library users.


Combine the online services that are available, DVDs and CDs, and available government web sites, and it is a whole new process for libraries.


I am still amazed by the promotional materials given to public libraries for books and materials that are not likely to be purchased by a public library.


I even receive phone calls from authors and publishers for some esoteric document that has now been published, and will likely only find a home in an academic or university library for student research.


The other factor in this whole process is the fact that some people don’t realize that libraries have to buy books, just like anyone else.


Although we do enjoy discounts, publishers don’t “give” libraries books for free.


The only free books come from all of the kind people who make personal donations to their local library.