Thursday, January 05, 2006

Making Things Last at Home and at the Library

Bonnie and I were looking at my winter coat. Neither of us remembers when I got it. Three years ago I had the zipper replaced by a tailor. Did I have this coat when we moved into our house nearly eleven years ago? I have tried looking through our family photos to find a picture of me in the coat, but we do not take outdoor family photos on cold, snowy days often. There is one photo of me shoveling snow in 1999 in the coat. It has only the slightest sign of wear at the cuffs and it does not look old to me. (Bonnie and Laura may disagree.) I bought it at Eddie Bauer in its former location in Oak Brook. How long ago did they move into the bigger store? My daughter Laura does not remember any other winter coat, though I know I had the previous coat when she was born.
I remember that I bought the previous coat at a wilderness outfitter's store the first winter that I was in Columbia, Missouri, working at the Daniel Boone Regional Library. It was after New Year's Day, so it was 1979. It had a synthetic down filled vest and a thin outer shell. The two layer system kept my body toasty warm, but my arms got cold. I was very happy to replace that coat after I had gotten my money's worth out of it. When was that?

If you are mathematical, you can calculate that I have had two heavy winter coats in twenty-seven years. This is not because I earn so little at the library that I can not buy a new coat. I was raised to conserve and preserve and think long and hard before I buy something new. Does this influences the way I work at the library?

Making Things Last at the Library

Making things last at the library is a more complicated topic than stretching the use of my personal belongings. Conserving public tax dollars has to be weighed against providing the best service for the public. It would be easier if everything we bought at the library lasted forever, but nothing does. Books, computers, furniture, and buildings wear out.


We are constantly adding and deleting books from our library collection. The public understands the adding part much better than the deleting. I remember one regular told me he liked our library because we kept all the old books. I tried to explain to him gently that we did remove some of them regularly. He looked puzzled and a bit disappointed. Being a pleasant person, he did not complain.

As I am weeding, I often come across books that have bookplates indicating that they were given to the library in honor or in memory of a person or a couple or a group. The benefactors intended these books as lasting tributes to keep the memory of the person or persons fresh. I doubt that many of these contributors ever thought about the books wearing out and becoming out of date, as they have. I feel a pang of regret when I remove them from the collection, and I do sometimes give a few of these books a second chance if there is the slightest merit to doing so. Most I delete. A worn book that is out of date or out of fashion that is not being borrowed by readers is no longer a worthy tribute. Books do not last as memorials. When chosen well, they make very good memorials for twenty or thirty years, maybe longer.

Tight budgets and readily available information on the Internet have made us rethink our reference books, what we buy and what we keep. The cost of buying reference books grows much faster than the funding of the library, and we see more satisfying use of our circulating books than our reference titles these days, so we are no longer willing to spend a third or more of our small book budget on reference books. We try to buy reference books that will last ten or twenty years, such as The Oxford Companion to Food or Grzimek's Animal Life Encyclopedia. We do still buy annual volumes of the Physician's Desk Reference and the World Almanac and a handful of antiques price guides, which all get good use, but we now only buy every third edition of Encyclopedia of Associations and have dropped most other directories.


We had a lean budget in 2005 and it looks like much the same in 2006. We had been replacing all of our PCs every fourth year in rotation, but we are now a little behind in the replacement schedule. We've been lucky so far and are down only one lesser used computer at the moment. When we needed a PC for a Powerpoint presentation at a program last month, we pulled one off a part time staff member's desk. I want new public use PCs with USB and headphone jacks in the front and CD burners. I also want a reliable laptop for our programs (our previous laptop was a lemon.) The new year has started, so we can start buying again, but we have to pace ourselves. We are doing better than some poorer libraries.


I dislike the model for paying for databases very much. Libraries spend a whole lot of money one year and have nothing when the year is up. Then we spend a whole lot of money again the next year and again we have nothing at the end of twelve months. On the brighter side (ALOTBSOL - "always look on the bright side of life"), we do not have anything to weed. We are definitely not making things last with databases.

I did see a presentation by a Gale salesman a couple of years ago offering permanent purchases for databases and e-books, but the databases were pricey and the yearly maintenance fees were steep. It was of no help to us.

We did once have a database that wore out - Sorkins Chicago. The first year we had it library users gave it good marks. The vendor did not update the data very often, if ever, and no one would even use it after the third year. Three years after telling the editorial staff that the entry for our library was wrong and repeating the message several times, it still was not corrected. We weeded Sorkins.


Our library got all new task chairs ten years ago when the building was expanded and remodeled. The chairs were warrantied to last forever (exageration). The company from which we bought the chairs has made repairs and replaced pads on some of them a couple of times. In a way, it seems like we can really make these chairs last. The service, however, seems to be getting harder to get and the refurbishing does not bring the chairs back to original conditions. The staff and the library users are finding it harder to sit comfortably. Anne, our director, is pricing new chairs. Sometimes it is best not to make something last.

The carpeting around the circulation desk wore faster than around the rest of the building. Anne is looking at slate to replace the carpeting in that area. We got our bookshelf end panels just before the advent of end panel displays. We are now looking at ways of modifying them so we can promote more books. It is expensive making a library last and keep up with trends.


Our library building is attractive and comfortable in many ways. It was built in the 1930s and expanded in the 1960s and in the 1990s. During the last expansion it was wired for networking computers and we have added wireless services since then. In many ways, we have made the building last, but it has some shortcomings. In professional journals and at library conferences much is said about making the library a "third place," a place where people linger. We do well in that we have a very nice reading room with a fireplace. In winter, there are often many people there in the comfy chairs. What we are short on is study rooms and our meeting rooms are poorly shaped for increasing technology demands. What will help?

Getting a new building is totally out of the question any time soon, but we should subtly plant seeds in the minds of the public to let future generations move to a new location, away from our beloved building. The community of the future could be better served near the center of town, where there would be more parking and proximity to mass transit. A new building could have meeting spaces designed to accommodate technology and larger groups. It will not happen very soon, but we should not squash the dream. Like memorial books, buildings do not last forever.

In the meantime, we adapt. Just yesterday, Aaron suggested we get all the computers out of the computer room and into the public area to turn it into a study/meeting room. It might help. Our big meeting room (which is not really very big) has two load-bearing pillars centrally located, wrecking site lines for presentations. Could we set up multiple monitors around the room? It might be an expensive and unsatisfactory fix. We need some new ideas to make this building work better, to stretch its service.

Back Home

I am looking at my shoes. When did I buy these? I remember it was a summer day and we were going to see friends near Woodstock, and there was an SAS store in the discount mall. I had gotten my previous pair a couple of years before on a trip to Texas. The SAS shoes really last a long time, but maybe, just maybe, it is time to buy a new pair. Bonnie and Laura would agree.


laura said...

I've had my winter coat since 1992, I think. . . . TFML is one of my third places, so I'd say you all are doing a pretty good job.

ricklibrarian said...

Thanks, Laura. We try to make it inviting. We're glad you come.