It’s time to start over on Trenton’s Public Library

Sometimes suggesting new ideas is unpopular. I’m sure this will be one of those times.

Things change. Ben Franklin’s Free Library looked nothing like the ancient Greek library. Nor should today’s version look anything like the Carnegie funded book temples of the last century.

Libraries have a noble tradition dating to a time when books held a much more sacred place in society than they do today. During the golden age of libraries, in the 1700s, books were relatively expensive. Today, most people can afford to buy as many books as they want and do. Also, the Internet has replaced much of a library’s utility as a research institution.

Libraries in general, and certainly Trenton’s library, are hanging on to a past that has largely become meaningless. According to a Online Computer Library Center (OCLC) report, Perceptions of Libraries and Information Resources library users perception of the library “brand” is books and books only.

Yet modern libraries are a mish-mash of services including:

  • Homeless shelters
  • Babysitters
  • Free computer sites
  • Educators
  • Study halls
  • Book lenders

The library has become over-run with social causes as missions to educate have crept into the agenda.

Meanwhile alternatives to libraries have evolved

  • Big box bookstores are part reading room, part café and part bookstore
  • The Internet is first source for research and news
  • Vast 2nd hand book networks are available online

Trenton’s public library, like many libraries around the country, finds itself in serious budget troubles. The debate in the city is about whether to mothball branches or take some other drastic action.

Now that Trenton can no longer fund the status quo. It’s time to try something new.

If we had a “do over” how would libraries operate?

There are two useful options

1) Turn the whole thing over to the county if they’ll take it. This doesn’t fix the fundamental problem of an outdated organization, but at least it out of Trenton, OR

2) Turn the libraries over to a third party

The county option is easy and is the safest way to solve the problem for the city budget. However, Option 2 is the more interesting and useful option for Trenton’s citizens.

The library can be reinvented as a book concession

This is a simple notion compared to today’s heavily programmed public library. Combining the noble aspirations of civic enrichment with the sustainability of a functioning business could very well be the next evolution of the library.

This type of arrangement is similar to how most institutions offer food service. The city can develop a set of requirements and then contract with a commercial provider to:

  • Offer a lending program subsidized by the city
  • Provide study and reading space
  • Mandate computer access with portals to research databases

Eliminate the research department

It doesn’t take a stretch of the imagination to believe that the computer is a better research tool than card catalogs and stacks ever will be. The job of moving all research to the Internet is mostly done, Trenton can add to the effort by moving its one of a kind material online.

Trenton could use more bookstores

Trenton has only one book store for a population of 83,000 people. Retailers have decided that cities like Trenton are bad risks. By converting libraries to lending bookstores and thereby re-inventing the model, we can save the essence of the library and inject new retail commerce into the economy at the same time.

This reinvention idea might sound a little out there, but really, if we’re going to be gutting Trenton’s public library, isn’t this the right time to consider new options?

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4 Responses to “It’s time to start over on Trenton’s Public Library”

  • Sadly, I agree. The day of the library is most likely over. I would be curious to know the numbers regarding use of each of the branches. How books are borrowed, etc. PHS

  • I watched Trenton chew up and spit out two bookstores during the period 1986 through 1995 — a used bookstore and a mass-market chain — both of which had regular customers, but neither of which survived the never-ending economic contraction that Dan describes on this blog. And I remember the main library as a fairly pleasant place.

    I’m not sure I want to take a position on privatization, but I would observe that no New Jersey municipal library I’m aware of — not even Newark, which is the largest and best and has certain pretensions in this direction — has yet come close enough to what the New York Public Library has done in encouraging entrepreneurs, inventors, and independent business people to flock to its Science, Industry and Business Library. This is a truly amazing place, well worth a visit when you’re in NYC if you haven’t been there.

    At least judging by the website, not even the monumental new Princeton Public Library markets equivalent services. Some niche, no? Consistent with a city that wants to generate wealth, not destroy it.

    Speak of which, whatever happened to the business incubator my former state colleagues and I helped fund in the Parking Utility building across from Mill Hill Park? It has no website… is it still there? I ask because I now run an association of incubators n NYS.

  • I’ve been thinking about this post quite a bit since you posted it, and in many ways, I agree with your thoughts, at least in how Trenton could better utilize a library. As a former library employee, I like the idea of Trenton hooking into the county system, though I’m not sure what this might do to our taxes — any thoughts/information on that? I think ultimately, though, we’d get a properly functioning system, with more and better options. Libraries, in some instances, have become homeless shelters and babysitters, and I think instead of punishing the libraries and the true patrons, we, as a society, need to direct people to the proper resources, like the soup kitchens and real homeless shelters, and INSIST they use those places. It is important, though, to preserve the libraries, the building as well as the institutions, because as vast as the internet is, schools still require research to be done with books, books that not everyone can afford (or should have to buy for one project). Plus, the thing about libraries that is just so wonderful is the human interaction (as long as the library functions correctly!). There’s an exchange of ideas and a lot of inspiration to be had, and some libraries these days even have coffee nooks!

    I’m not knocking any employee of any bookstore, but you’re far more inclined to get that blank stare, the “I don’t get paid enough to deal with this,” from a kid in a store who gets paid minimum wage, than you ever would from a librarian. I am generalizing a tad, but librarians believe in information and the exchange of ideas and are far more likely to hook you up properly with the information that you need and more, than a kid at a bookstore. Not always, but usually.

  • 2012, so look what we’ve gotten. Instead of my “give it the county” or sell the concession idea, we’ve gone a different route.

    Zombie libraries.

    When I wrote this article the writing was on the wall that something bad was going to happen. But instead of going a different direction, we opted for the status quo which was untenable.

    Now Tony Mack has solved the problem with an abomination.

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