Does the Free Library even know what century it’s in?

Posted: May 16, 2012

To say that the Free Library of Philadelphia is doing a subpar job at adapting their service platform for the 21st-century patron would be an understatement. There are more free books you can download from Amazon.com than from the Free Library’s website.

The library bureaucracy has parallels with the VHS tapes that are most likely collecting dust at your local neighborhood branch: They take up precious space and have over-extended their stay in the system. The current library administrators have proven time and again to present a short-sighted yet costly vision to the Philadelphia community.

In 2008, neighborhood libraries started accumulating an extensive collection of music CD’s that patrons were permitted to check out, but at that point in time mainstream music listeners had long moved away from purchasing CD’s and were mainly downloading digital music.

If the library mission statement is to serve patrons from all different generations, how can upper management ignore building a viable service platform heading into the future? Ask someone 35 or younger when was the last time they purchased a CD. They most likely could not pinpoint the specific month, or perhaps even the year.

The unions that represent library workers would prefer to inject fear and hysteria into the community about privatizing the system, but the reality is that the community should be getting a much higher return on their tax dollars. For instance, visit your local library and request to speak to the branch manager, who might be earning an annual salary up to $70,000, while accruing a lucrative pension package, and ask how a specific Photoshop function works? You know what they are most likely going to do: walk you over to the outdated computer-reference section to find an operating guide on Photoshop. Is this what taxpayers perceive as getting a good value on their tax dollars? You can pay someone $12 per hour to do that.

In 2012, citizens want answers to their basic technology questions, not to be walked over to a book shelf to thumb through a 400-page book that is not even relevant because it was published in 2002; meanwhile, the patron’s 40 minutes of computer time ticks away at the library computer terminal.

The Free Library offers Wi-Fi services but still does not offer Internet cafe environments at the branch level, and good luck hunting down a spare outlet for your laptop when your computer batteries need to be recharged.

In the community, if an unemployed 50-year-old doesn’t know how to attach a resume in a word document to an email, he or she just wants an answer to that basic question, to send out that resume to a propsective employer. If a senior citizen seeks help creating a Facebook account, to keep in touch with grandchildren away at college, it should not be such an ordeal to receive hands-on assistance from a librarian.

The Free Library has the designation of a non-profit organization, yet it is cheaper for taxpayers to head over to their local Staples or 7-Eleven to make a photocopy. Patrons at the library have the sole option of making a black-and-white photocopy,which costs twenty-five cents. Citizens can head over to Staples, which also offers the option to make color copies, and black-and-white copies can be made for as little as 10 cents. Also, still to this day, the Free Library does not provide fax privileges to the public, and how many more years are library patrons going to have to wait to be provided with the option to pay library fines or make purchases on the library website using a credit card or PayPal account?

Instead of the library system hauling the majority of its materials across town from one branch to another, as is currently done (with gas at $4 per gallon), digitizing the library collection is eco-friendly, the wave of the future. As global demand of fuel increases, the price of gas is just going to skyrocket, and even more tax dollars will be wasted on an obsolete system.

Libraries should be thought of as technology centers that promote literacy and embrace the city’s rich history, not inefficient, time capsules, stuck in the past. n

Jason Kaye is a Philadelphia writer and community activist.

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