Public Libraries

The Public Library Perspective

In the public library environment, sharing preservation education with the public is often done on a person-by-person basis through talks to community groups, orientation sessions, and interaction at the reference and circulation desks. Formal instruction, as seen in school and academic settings, is far less likely to happen, although the advent of technology and automation may allow public libraries to incorporate preservation information into their own versions of bibliographic instruction. Public libraries can take advantage of all these opportunities, both formal and informal to sell preservation by following seven commandments for the public library preservation education initiative:

Be a believer. You can’t sell it if you don’t believe in it. For many, believing that preservation has any role in public libraries is the greatest hurdle. Public librarians perceive preservation as a problem for research libraries with brittle books or for historical and genealogical societies with materials that are safeguarded in a treasure room. Many items may ultimately be discarded, but all public librarians should maximize the investment that their communities have made in their library collections and buildings.

Be an advocate for your collection, both for its content and its physical condition. Even if 40 percent of all books are discarded after 10 years, the use that they receive during those 10 years is substantial. Public librarians expect bindings to withstand at least 20 circulations and children’s books to withstand 90. No academic library subjects its collections (except perhaps for reserve materials) to the use and abuse that public library materials receive. Library collections are part of the public trust–the tools and the cultural icons of their communities. Capitalize on the respect that people have for books and recorded knowledge to support funding requests and to seek donations and gifts.

Speak in terms that your listeners understand. Collections maintenance will bring home the theme of ongoing care of all materials, including videotapes and nonprint media. For library colleagues, providing access to scarce resources in a time of fiscal restraint might make the point best. For business people, try maintenance of capital assets. Underlying all these terms is a constant principle: Library collections represent a significant investment of community resources and should be accessible to the public in a usable condition.

Make certain that believers exist at all levels of your library, your community, and your state. Bring the decision makers on board. Point out that overhead costs of maintaining well-repaired and well-weeded collections are lower because of space savings and higher circulation. Community support is essential because citizens are the ones who use or abuse the collections and through taxes, provide the funds to purchase and maintain the collections. Involve colleagues in the preservation issues that impact networks, for example, proper shipping during transport, last copy policies, and shared collection development for at-risk titles.

Share expertise and encourage all staff to do so as well. Use enlightened self-interest to tell the preservation tale. Include books on conservation among new acquisitions. These books will enable the public services staff to answer reference questions about preservation while increasing public awareness about the field of conservation. Conservation can be a popular topic for public programs. Enlist the services of a local bookbinder for a talk on binding or a local book dealer for a talk on appraising collections. The book arts can be the topic of workshops for both children and adults. Library display cases can be used to mount exhibits with examples such as, “When bad things happen to good books.” As the library staff become more knowledgeable about preservation, they are able to assist local groups with the preservation of their collections. By meeting the preservation needs of the local community, the library staff can build support for the library collections.

Educate, educate, educate. Instructions in care and handling should be part of basic orientation for all new staff members, whatever their level. Use every opportunity to educate the public about preservation by incorporating preservation into library programs. Involve your local government. Disaster preparedness is an excellent opportunity for the public library to join with local government agencies and neighboring libraries. Bring in experts to make your point. Expert opinion can be effective for gaining the support of government and the community.

Persevere. By taking many small steps, you can achieve a great deal. An effective public library preservation program cannot be imposed from above. It is the cumulative effort of personal contact, example, and hard work. Since support and funding ultimately come from the public and since the public are the ones who use library materials, it is the public whose attitudes, opinions, and behavior must be changed.

Public library staff face many challenges in educating their diverse clientele in preservation awareness. For children, many of the techniques used by school libraries can be adapted for the public library. Teenagers have more interest in bookmaking, library events, and in summer reading programs, all of which can incorporate preservation activities. The adult library user can be involved in library-supported volunteer book repair programs and genealogy and scrapbook workshops. All these library users can be reached with effective educational graphics including posters and bookmarks and visually appealing exhibits. For educational ideas contributed by public library staff see the book Promoting Preservation Awareness in Libraries.