A small town starts to expand its library but stops to ask what is a library all about anyway?

May 13, 2009

Should expanded Keller library serve to enlighten or entertain?
By Patrick McGee
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Wednesday, November 14, 2007

City officials are divided over whether the new space should be devoted solely to research and reading.

KELLER — Just when it seemed the debate over the city’s library was over, a centuries-old argument about a library’s purpose has emerged.

After nixing proposals for a new library twice in the past eight years, Keller voters approved a $4 million proposal last week to expand the existing library by 60 percent.

But officials are divided over whether to devote the added space solely to research and reading or to entertainment options, such as DVDs and video games, as well.

Keller City Councilman Jim Carson wants the added space for research and reading rather than entertainment options. He said no more money should go toward things such as Spider-Man movies but instead toward the development of services, such as genealogy research and English instruction.

“There are those of us, like me, that feel that libraries are for learning and learning only,” he said. “Anyone who seeks entertainment should do so on their own dime. … I’d like the entire library to be focused on education and less focused, if at all, on entertainment.”

Carson said he will push Keller’s next city manager to keep the library focused on the basics. The council is scheduled to interview city manager finalists this weekend.

But Gene Stockton, a former councilman who serves on the Library Board, said he disagrees.

“It’s just absolutely crazy to limit the way people should be served,” said Stockton, saying he was expressing his views as a resident and not as a Library Board member.

Stockton said libraries have always housed entertaining materials alongside more serious tomes. And, he said, the fun stuff draws people who otherwise would never enter.

A good movie

Pete Hardy agreed with Stockton’s point as he left the library Friday afternoon with his 8-year-old granddaughter and a stack of Garfield DVDs.

He said he gets movies like that for his granddaughter every week and often gets others for himself.

“I do like a good movie,” he said. “They have a lot of Western movies here that I like.”

Hardy said the movies are a draw that eventually led his granddaughter to educational material, such as documentaries for kids about dinosaurs and bugs.

An age-old debate

Experts say the tension between learning and entertainment is as old as public libraries themselves.

Matthew Battles, author of Library: An Unquiet History, said debates about what to put on the shelves raged in England and the U.S. when some of the first public libraries were built. He said that many did not want newspapers or even novels in libraries because they distracted from serious study of the classics.

American Library Association President Loriene Roy said the Boston Public Library’s collection was a huge source of debate when it was founded in the mid-1800s, with some of the city’s greatest intellectuals weighing in.

The side that advocates broader holdings has been winning the debate for more than a century, Battles and Roy said. Roy said that more than half of American public libraries now have video games.

But Battles said the debate’s continuation is healthy.

“It’s a sign that people are thinking about libraries,” he said. “It’s really neat to hear that there’s such a vigorous debate about what libraries mean to people in their community.”