Just call me Tenzing Norbook, I guess.

Omniscient marketing guru Seth Godin turned his eye toward the eternal question of how libraries should remain relevant in the digital age:

They can’t survive as community-funded repositories for books that individuals don’t want to own (or for reference books we can’t afford to own.) More librarians are telling me (unhappily) that the number one thing they deliver to their patrons is free DVD rentals. That’s not a long-term strategy, nor is it particularly an uplifting use of our tax dollars.

Here’s my proposal: train people to take intellectual initiative.

Once again, the net turns things upside down. The information is free now. No need to pool tax money to buy reference books. What we need to spend the money on are leaders, sherpas and teachers who will push everyone from kids to seniors to get very aggressive in finding and using information and in connecting with and leading others.

I thnk @itsjustkate sums my reaction to this rather eloquently:

so, wait… we *should* be helping ppl learn to find and contextualize info? Oh! *smacks forehead*

Gee thanks, Seth. All this time we’ve been pottering about in our workspaces, dusting and shushing the entire time, with our hair in buns and cats in our pockets. All we need to do to reinvent ourselves is to espouse the core belief behind our profession.

But rather than get too worked up about this, it may be better to consider the big picture. If Godin is seeing our industry this way, then we definitely have a problem. And while the biblioblogosphere/twitterverse/Friendfeed spaces help maintain an active flow of ideas, it’s still an inside-baseball echo chamber. Granted, that’s a feature rather than a bug, but it’s a reminder of how rarely our efforts are recognized on the larger scale.

So I’m hoping Mr. Godin will read this and give someone from the library world the opportunity to demonstrate just how well and how often we help people (in Godin’s parlance) scale otherwise insurmountable intellectual heights.

There are dozens of librarians out there who could do this. Jessamyn West. Buffy Hamilton. Brian Herzog. Bobbi Newman. Jason Griffey. The Darien coterie. Richard Kong*. And that’s just a small sampling – any attempt to list everyone would be a futile effort. I’m inspired by my colleagues every day, and it gives me such hope to see so many people being awesome in public.

To librarians who don’t see this as their raison d’etre, please don’t let the door to the profession hit you on the ass on your way out.

And to Seth, how about it? Why not use your considerable megaphone to let us demonstrate what we’ve accomplished, and how much more we’re capable of?

*full disclosure: I work with Richard, along with a host of other awesome people.

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  • sethgodin

    Not sure what I did to ignite snark, but yes, of course I'm aware of what great librarians are doing and I think many of my readers are as well.

    The question is, are the taxpayers, boards and others that need to think about this issue thinking about it the way enlightened librarians like you guys are? I'm guessing that if they shut down the dvd section at my library, people would go screaming! And if I look at the physical arrangement of the dozen libraries I've visited in the last month or two, I'm not seeing an architecture that matches this mission.

    So, yes, keep plugging. And here's hoping that the paying public decide it's important too.

  • theanalogdivide

    Thank you, Seth, for taking the time to respond. I apologize for coming off as flippant, but the frustration comes from a very real place.

    Librarians – even those of us who are absolutely killing it every day – are terrific at building strong working relationships with individual members of the public. We all have those “favorite patrons” that we know well, and who love the stellar service we provide.

    But when it comes time to demonstrate that skill on a much larger scale, our efforts often go unnoticed. Be it local governments, the voting public, or the media, we seem to be stuck in this frame of “cozy little book repositories/DVD centers.”

    Having this quandary reduced to such a seemingly simple solution – a solution that's been a part of our mission from the beginning – just brings that frustration to a head.

    Now, I'm incredibly lucky. I work for one of the best libraries in the country. We don't have major budget or funding issues. We have a public that loves us, and lots of support from our local government and other community organizations. But we still struggle to create new converts and get greater recognition for our efforts.

    So I'd like to put the question back to you, because I seek out and respect your views this big-picture stuff. How do we get recognized at the macro level for all our efforts at the micro level?

  • http://twitter.com/lorireed Lori Reed

    Yes taxpayers will continue to support the library–even for free access to DVDs, Internet, computers, wireless, books, games, and most of all for assistance finding and evaluating information.

    Seth you may have forgotten what it is like to be the average middle class or person working 2 jobs and still falling below the poverty line. Many of our library customers are those who cannot afford access to these resources. These are the people who need libraries the most so that they can have free access to resource, materials, and yes even DVDs for entertainment so that they can improve their situation.

    The most common person we see in the library these days was a blue collar worker who was laid off and needs to use the Internet to get a job. And have an email address. And have a resume. Many of these people do not even know where to begin. That's where our library staff come in. Our library staff are already the people who are: “leaders, sherpas and teachers who will push everyone from kids to seniors to get very aggressive in finding and using information and in connecting with and leading others.”

    The librarians you speak of who are “telling me (unhappily) that the number one thing they deliver to their patrons is free DVD rentals” I have two questions…1. Did you not ever research what a librarian does before applying to graduate school and 2. Maybe you should consider another line of work.

    Since I was a kid I knew that librarians served the homeless and helped people find the latest pulp fiction yet those facts still did not turn me away from the career I love…connecting people to technology and information.

  • http://twitter.com/himissjulie Julie Jurgens

    I think supplying DVDs to library users/tax payers is a great use of tax money. Have you seen how expensive DVDs are? Librarians that bitch and moan about how popular DVDs are at their library are obviously in the wrong profession at the wrong time.

    And no, the information is not free, sorry. It wants to be free–oh, how it longs to be free–but it is not free yet. It needs librarians to find the information equivalent of Up, Up, Down, Down, Left, Right, Left, Right, B, A, Start.

    Trust me, we're working on it. Want to see my thumb blisters?

  • itsjustkate

    Seth, like Toby, I think a lot of the snark (uh, including mine) comes out of a flash of frustration (which Twitter so helpfully lets us vent instantly). I've only been a librarian for five years, so I've never worked in the era of lots of reference materials and I've always worked with the Internet.

    Librarians don't buy a lot of reference materials, we buy online databases that give our patrons access to a huge amount of content that's not freely available online. And we're still happy when people realize that they can borrow DVDs from us because a. our PR needs work and b. it gets folks in the door.

    I'm a fan of Daniel Gilbert's work on happiness and one of the studies he cites in his book Stumbling on Happiness really gets at the heart of library's problems in this area. If you ask people which movie they want to watch next week, a fluffy comedy or serious, critically acclaimed drama, they'll choose the drama. If you ask people what they want to watch *right now,* they'll pick the comedy.

    Libraries are a cultural institution and there's a lot of baggage that goes along with that. Additionally, the newer services we do offer (like teaching people how to find, assess, and contextualize information) are incredible, but they don't get people in the door. They're the critically-acclaimed, serious film. “Hey, free DVDs!” is the fluffy comedy.

    We're all well aware that the DVDs aren't viable for the future and we're all doing our best to find that balance of getting people to use the library for anything and getting them to see the possibilities that their library has to offer.

    Add into the mix that there are more public libraries in this country than McDonalds and each library is unique, but the dialog tends to be about “Library” the cultural institution. There are plenty of libraries doing exactly what you describe, but we're all at a loss as to how to change the archetype.

    So, I apologize if I seemed snarky. It's a wonderful time to be a librarian and libraries have so much to offer their communities and yet I worry that I'm going to have to come up with a second career because my first one doesn't exist anymore.

  • http://twitter.com/JustinLibrarian Justin The Librarian

    Just a few quick comments to add into the mix:

    “They can’t survive as community-funded repositories for books that individuals don’t want to own (or for reference books we can’t afford to own.)”

    Agreed…sort of. People will always keep coming to us for books. I think we have adapted well to changes and know that we can't just be community-funded repositories for books. We've branched out to include all sorts of materials and programming. We've become the community center of the 21st Century.

    “More librarians are telling me (unhappily) that the number one thing they deliver to their patrons is free DVD rentals.”

    I think the explosion in DVD borrowing at the library is a great thing. I see so many new faces coming into public libraries, ones that I would most likely have never seen in the past. I see it the same way with video games being rented out at libraries…so many new faces….and it is great to finally serve them!

    “What we need to spend the money on are leaders, sherpas and teachers who will push everyone from kids to seniors to get very aggressive in finding and using information and in connecting with and leading others.”

    I agree here very much. I think all librarians should be given a certain amount of…what do I want to say…push by their administration/board members/community to become these 21st Century Sherpas. Many times, we're stuck pushing outdated policies and ideas. We need to be pushed to think outside the box more.

    “And if I look at the physical arrangement of the dozen libraries I've visited in the last month or two, I'm not seeing an architecture that matches this mission.”

    I agree here as well. We need to rethink our buildings. We're no longer warehouses for books. As I said above, we're the 21st Century Community Center.

    Thank you to Seth, Toby, and Lori for all this amazing discussion!

  • http://librarianbyday.net Bobbi Newman

    Seth, I can't speak for the other but I can explain my negative reaction to your post and my positive one to Toby's response. I'm not saying I'm right or wrong just where I'm coming from.

    First – Information is not free. As an author and a blogger you should know better. Even the often sited Wikipedia has had a plea up for funding recently. We all know Google isn’t scanning books out of the goodness of their heart. Even the simplest things on the internet cost time. With the plethora of information out there the skill to determine if it’s accurate (or crap detection as Howard Rheingold puts it) is even more important that ever. At the very least information takes time, something so many seem to be short of these days. Several others have already covered this in length so I wont go further.

    Secondly – I know there a lot of librarians who read your blog and your books and thinking highly of you. They are the same ones who are loudly (and not so loudly) advocating for a change in libraries and our profession. We spend untold amounts of our own time worrying, thinking, reading, writing, blogging, presenting and discussing the future of libraries and our profession. We do it because we love what we do and we see the need, up close and personal, everyday. We know that the people who need us the most are the ones with the least tax dollars to support us. We believe in equal access to information and we know how important libraries are in that cause. We know that the public who can afford to buy their books at Barnes & Noble and an unlimited Netflix subscription are starting to see us as competition for Blockbuster. Your post only told us (librarians) what we already know. My first reaction was – well, duh and my second was to feel a little insulted, surely you don’t think we are that dumb.

    We are doing so many things right, please focus on those, you have a huge reader base, who’s support we could use. We are helping patrons develop the skills they need to be active, involved members of society and democracy (see the latest report from the Knight Commission http://www.report.knightcomm.org/). Show case the amazing things we are doing and we are doing some amazing things. At the very least please offer some real advice or substantial criticism that we can take back and put to use.

    We know there is a real risk our boat is sinking, we don’t know another person standing on the shore telling us it is. Get in, pick up a pail or a hammer and help use keep it afloat.

  • janholmquist

    What a great and very important discussion. I am contributing even though there is a difference between US and Denmark, Europe (Where I am lucky to be a librarian). Let me start by saying that all contributers here are a great inspiration to me. There is no doubt that there are a lot of librarians making a huge difference for a lot of people everyday (and I am lucky to work with some fantastic librarians who do) – but it is a fact as well that there is a big challenge for libraries and that not all librarians is aware of how serious it is. I think that is the core. Mr. Godins puts a spotlight to that issue and I think that is important. I am loving the fact that so many in the library field is reacting and showing that there is a future for libraries because many is aware (and yes almost all librarians have been training people to take intellectual initiative for a very long time). So let´s continue to make it known what great difference libraries and librarians do everyday… Let´s communicate it, and let´s keep inventing new ways to inspire and help people navigate information, (un)learning and also give them good reading experiences. *** Enlight, entertain, enrich, empower, educate *** – Like Justin I will like to thank you all for this great discussion.

  • jessamyn

    Oh hi! I just quit my library job today, sort of. For those of you who don't know what I was doing, for the last year I've been slowly automating a library, getting them from a card catalog to Koha. Yesterday I stopped. We've got all the books barcoded and all the records in the catalog and someone has to step in and flip the switch but I guess it's not going to be me. The glacier pace of the public library [which serves 900 people and for whom I work 4 hours a week] wasn't working for me. It feels like a personal failure to stop the project before it's done, but I was literally getting a six day lag on emails, not because people weren't responsive but because they literally checked their email weekly.

    Meanwhile I got a raise and health insurance from Ask MetaFilter, my main day job, and I'm asking the same beginning of the year questions that I always ask: what about libraries?

    I got the opportunity to talk to Jaron Lanier for a Library Journal article two days ago and asked him what he thought about libraries. He doesn't use them much, has a lot of books at home, reads most stuf fonline, but what's useful for a tech nerd like him is the quiet space, the space to think the non-multitasked environment where we can know ourselves. I know that's not much of the mission statement of today's libraries, but it definitely resonated with me.

    Public libraries in small town America area always going to be okay, limping along, because they have no real competition. Urban libraries true, in a different way [and for a different population] but for suburban libraries where a lot of the people who live there have better options … what do we have for people?

    *I* know we have a lot for them, but the decentralized nearly anarchic nature of our org structures means that we get left with crappy PR like the “I geek…” stuff from OCLC that doesn't really… talk about the library, just the vague idea of information. We, as individuals, can do better, and should.

  • kathryngreenhill

    If the sole audience for Seth's blog was librarians who are working hard to reposition ourselves to serve our communities better and maintaining our funding, then I'd be really pissed off at his singing an incomplete and simplistic song to the choir.

    Because Seth's audience is people who will never, ever read a librarian's blog, but are more likely to be either our funders or to be those influence our funders, I'm delighted.

    This repositioning is definitely not a new idea to us, but it is -sadly – probably new to many of Seth's readers. And I'm glad he has highlighted it to them.

    I don't think his post said anywhere that we don't already help people, that we don't have these skills, that we don't advocate for funding to do this. He wasn't talking only to us.

  • http://thecorkboard.org/ kyle jones

    I could, but I won't, repeat a lot of the fine comments above from my great professional colleagues because they were so well articulated. I want to highlight something else, something that resonated strongly with me. You, Seth, stated that we need to “train people to take intellectual initiative,” to get them to find and use information.

    A fine statement no doubt. One that I think we librarians should deeply reflect on.

    Library friends, how much of our interactions are learning opportunities for our users? Are they one stop question-answer reference interviews? Are they instruction sessions? How much teaching are we really doing? I know we've ripped Seth here a bit – with reason – but the guy's got a point: some of the services we provide don't prove our worth in ways that Seth talks about.

    Our collections can be replaced with commercial services – there's not really an argument about this. Proving the value of “freeness” of these collections is hard for most, except for our less well off users who rely on them. If we can teach to and about our physical and online collections we empower our users to take Seth's “intellectual initiative” in using information.

    Seth, you were a bit edgy in your post, hence our snarky responses. But you've got a point: we've got to be teaching libraries, focused on learning about information access and retrieval to really highlight our value as librarians. Gatekeepers or shepherds to the collection simply won't do it.

    I know this is a contradictory librarian response to the previously posted and I hope to hear if I'm that far off base. I really do agree with a lot of what has been said by my colleagues, but read with a different lens Seth has a valid point.

    I hope you're reading this thread, Seth. If you are, that's probably because you can't read comments on your own blog because you don't offer that option. Rethink that, will you? Imagine the conversation us librarians could be having with your expanded readership about the value of librarians, the services they offer, the amount of knowledge and skill they have.

  • theanalogdivide

    Kyle –

    I think we're all – Seth included – taking different approaches to the same ultimate end. Stepping back to my past life as a media studies scholar, this post called to mind one of the basic rules of marketing: in order to present a solution, you have to define what's wrong with the current situation. This can be done overtly or covertly.

    Because the solution – librarians training people to take the intellectual initiative – was presented as a “new idea,” the observation that so many of us are doing that was conspicuous in its absence.

    As I said earlier: we're great at the micro-level parts of our job, but lousy at the macro parts. I'm hoping we – and Mr. Godin – can revisit this in order to help push the conversation into the macrosphere.

    And Jessamyn – congratulations on the raise at MeFi! I hope we'll continue to receive your insights on our crazy mixed-up profession.

  • http://twitter.com/gcaserotti gretchen caserotti

    In defense of entertainment:
    I'm not going to repeat what has been well articulated by my peers already, but I would like to contribute my thoughts on a piece of Seth’s post not yet really discussed – Entertainment.
    Let’s think about the mission and vision statements of public libraries; to inform, educate, entertain and enrich our communities.

    What would life be like without entertainment?

    As Lori sums up, we are not here to judge why you want something, but are here to help you find it. Whether that happens online or in person, the search is a teaching opportunity for librarians, “You want a comedy? Let me show you how to search using our catalog.” It is not revolutionary, it is quiet, but those teachable moments are there every day. Why can’t those teaching/learning moments be for fun?

    The majority of Americans don’t have the luxury of considerable leisure time. Americans work longer hours at our jobs and yet have increased productivity, which means we also do more! Stress levels are high and people don’t do as many things for pleasure. This drains our emotional and psychological “wells.” We need time to refill our wells and if we fill them with many different experiences, stories, images, sounds and sensations, we return to our lives refreshed and ready to move ahead, hopefully happier people. We deserve the right to feel that refilling our wells with entertainment is okay. Some may go to a museum; some may borrow a movie from their library.

    Entertainment is a form of relaxation and sometimes, even inspiration. Entertainment is also an opportunity (similar to reading books for pleasure) for people of all ages to experience emotions we don’t feel in our everyday lives (fear, sadness, humor to name a few) and understand through the characters, what another person’s experience is like. Without the opportunity to explore empathy, I fear what our culture would be like.

    So instead of whining about it, librarians need to go out there and talk to the DVD borrowers! Find out why they’re here and show them something they’ve never seen before! We can even help those members take “intellectual initiative” and make important connections within our communities. We need to stop discriminating against formats and stay focused on function. Then as formats change, we will be changing right alongside them.

    I know these thoughts don’t comment on the issue of our reputation as a profession, how the world sees us, but I felt like throwing them into the conversation. We have many innovative, proactive, thoughtful voices in the field, but those voices aren’t always working the front lines and when someone like Seth walks into your library, is your circulation clerk going to recognize him? Is he going to get the standout service we talk about on our blogs or on twitter? I think his call for training can’t stop with the Librarians, but needs to be coursing through the veins of our entire institution as we re-think our services and collections.

  • http://www.futura.edublogs.org/ Carolyn Foote

    Loved this! I had the same reaction to his post–lol..though I think you put it more bluntly!

    Wrote about it on my blog as well– guess we need to communicate our stories better to the general public–are we telling our stories outside the echo chamber?

  • http://www.loosecannonlibrarian.net/ kate

    Kyle, absolutely. I agree entirely with Gretchen's defense of entertainment, but I think we all get a little thrill when we have one of those amazing moments where we've actually taught a patron something new.

    That's part of why I posted my “yes, and” post today. Each time someone asks for a DVD recommendation we have an opportunity to plant a seed in their mind about other questions we can help them with. It can be a small consolation when we feel like we're not living up to our potential each day, but it's something.

    None of this pays the bills though – free DVDs don't inspire and positioning ourselves as cultural brussel sprouts doesn't get the checkbooks out, either. People give when they hear a compelling story or have a personal connection (Made to Stick reads like a primer on fundraising for nonprofits). It's the micro-level writ macro.

    Seth does have a point – the rest of the world doesn't think we're doing something we've been doing for ages. As Kathryn pointed out, Seth's blog has an audience far wider than any of ours, but that's what makes this feel like a missed opportunity. I don't know what's more frustrating: people romanticizing an outdated idea of The Library and getting annoyed when we don't live up to those impossible standards or people writing us off for those sepia-toned images that we shed years ago.

    Ultimately, I do hope we have Seth's ear. We've been talking to ourselves about this for far too long. Libraries have been begging to “train people to take the intellectual initiative” for quite some time now. Sometimes, we do just that. Sometimes, we're a free DVD place, often for the same people.

    As Jessamyn says, our decentralized nature works against us, not just in generating PR, but in moving past the archetype of Library that seems to mean “free book warehouse” for so many people. There's an expectation of consistency (which doesn't exclude being hyper-local, a very positive trend in libraries) we're unable to deliver on, which reinforces a wider cultural confusion about what libraries can do for their communities.

  • http://www.futura.edublogs.org/ Carolyn Foote

    Ironically, the number of tweets in relation to this post is a witness to the vital and lively leadership of librarians online.

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  • johnberryiii

    What libraries offer that nothing digital, analog, etc. does is live people interacting with each other. Surprised that Seth missed this. My local library in rural NH, that one my wife works in in Darien with Gretchen, the one I just wrote about in Glen Carbon Illinois, the thing that sets them apart is that they bring together the kids, the seniors, the parents, and in many the job hunters, giggers, traders, et.al. Few places in this cyberland offer a gathering place to either interact and discuss or just hang out and seek, but libraries do…along with staffs of professionals to help you find the stuff and separate the information and entertainment from the misinformation and junk. Incidently, you can even get in depth stuff the media never provide on issues like health care, campaign finance, the wars, and issues we vote on. Thanks, Seth for pusing us to react…..

  • http://kenleyneufeld.com Kenley Neufeld

    Too bad the technology can't bring together the librarian conversation happening here on theanalogdivide and the one with non-librarians over on Seth's thread.

    Ironically, both threads highlight the importance of libraries though here we seem to be more focused on the librarian. What does that say about our perception of importance versus the public's perception of importance? Probably why we see libraries continue in communities but operated by non-librarians.

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  • Jenny Reiswig

    Libraries are – or believe they are – intellectual places, and (at least for public libraries as they are currently funded) they're also essentially socialist. Both are things that are viewed with deep distrust in our culture right now, even though millions of individuals think highly of their local libraries. The big picture isn't really in our favor right now.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=24405629 facebook-24405629

    Seth's parting comment, about the need for the redesign of physical spaces, is trenchant.

    Who has recently gone through a redesign of physical space that has effectively transformed public perception of the library's role as intellectual guide?

    If a library is about to embark on such a redesign, who should they be talking to to learn about common traps before they walk into them?

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  • KathyDempsey

    I am no Seth Godin, but I can offer one solid answer to your question of “How do we get recognized at the macro level…”

    MARKETING.

    By putting serious effort into true marketing. Not by making colorful fliers about fun little programs. Not by getting a picture in the local paper. (these are simple promotion & publicity) The way to reach and educate the funders, governments, and nay-sayers about the intellectual feast that libraries offer (which is NOT available free on the internet) is by practicing true marketing.

    I imagine that Mr Godin would agree.

    I have strived for more than a decade to get this message out, and am endlessly frustrated when people keep asking the question “how can we get appreciated?” but then ignoring the answer b/c they don't understand it or believe it. ARGH.

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  • http://theantiquarianlibrarian.blogspot.com/ Dan Nieman

    Bravo! Libraries are more relevant than ever. I love my job and am busier than ever.

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  • Deanna Long

    Ithnk you beat me to this. I'd have responded sooner but I was showing a lady how to access wifi on her laptop here at the library then helping another patron figure out how to apply for unemployment, and another navigate the torturous online apps some companies have dreamed up; before that I was helping an illiterate (his words) patron find some neighborhood resources as well as the Literacy program the Library started. Then I had to update our Facebook page to advertise the Resume/Job Search program starting soon. All while prepping for our new Reserve a Librarian program.

    Plus there are patrons who are ill-equipped either due to lack of computer education, lack of time to use and learn (a different problem) or are so frazzled that they need a disinterested person to help them organize their thoughts.

    Every Librarian has a story about someone asking them for X and after the interview finding out they really need T, L and C.

    Our quirky brains, their love of minutiae both deep and wide and our passionate desire to share them with others are unreproducable online. Unless you're looking at our Ask A Librarian resource online. ;)

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  • lee4713

    But – but – businesspeople ALWAYS know more about government and nonprofits – ALWAYS!!! Aren't we supposed to be more like them?

  • lee4713

    But – but – business people are supposed to know MORE than government and nonprofits – ALWAYS! Aren't libraries supposed to start running themselves like businesses??

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  • http://www.dustcollectorremote.net Dust Collector Remote

    I'll back again for sure, thanks for great article :D

  • Wmsayo

    The information is free? Hardly. It takes a chunk of change from the ever-shrinking tax funding to build new or maintain existing buildings to house technology let alone maintain and upgrade the same. Don't forget hardware and software, train personnel (paid a living wage) to monitor the same and to educate the library user (most people using the library are not tech-heads in even the most basic sense) about the tools available to them. Our library board, and the taxpayers, would love it if it were free!

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