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The Paper Conundrum

by on November 15, 2016

‘Books are obsolete.’  We’ve all heard this a million times. Yet in my library, electronic materials represent only three percent of the total circulation. Of that, e-books are only one percent. It reminds me of a time, not long ago, when people said paper would be obsolete. I admit various industries are pushing hard to make this a reality, but I do not see it happening. Every day I see people in the library printing out electronic communications so they can review and have the information on paper:  bank statements, emails, receipts, coupons, directions. People like paper, which brings me to the conundrum at my library.

As long as I can remember, we have printed out flyers to advertise programs, booklists, calendars, and reminders of closings. These items are posted on bulletin boards and placed around the library in strategic spots. They also reside, in colorful stacks, at the circulation desk for people to take on their way out and they do take them. The conundrum is that many library users complain about the flyers. Some complain the paper stacks are messy. Some say that we are wasting paper and killing trees. Others  opine that the flyer is too large or too small. Many say they would like us to stop printing the flyers, but just as many would like us to keep providing them.

Newly renovated, we have instituted a new communication mode. We’ve purchased three electronic frames. Two are hung in strategic places on the wall, one is on a shelf near a book display. Each one rotates through a variety of the informational flyers. Library users have noticed and so far all of the comments have been favorable. Then they ask us for a paper copy. We have resolved this by printing a limited number of flyers, and keeping them behind the circulation desk. Anyone requesting a flyer can receive one, but the stack of paper is kept hidden.

The public seems to be viewing this as a perfect solution. The staff sees this as a compromise. But for me, as the library director, I still have the conundrum. While I agree, the lack of multiple piles of paper stacked everywhere is an improvement visually, I wonder about functionality. The electronic frames are yet one more draw on the grid; one more piece of equipment to keep track of, turn on/off, trouble shoot, etc. Time is still spent creating well-designed flyers, but now those flyers also need to be formatted, uploaded, and deleted. Paper is still being printed, unused copies still becoming scrap paper. I see little gain, but lots of costs.

Despite my reticence, the electronic frames are here to stay.  They are providing important illusions and sometimes what people believe is more important that what is real. Some are asking questions, saying they know librarians’ time is now more available because of the frames. This is not true, but we are happy people are now asking questions. Despite all the other equipment in our building we use, loan, teach, it is the frames that people comment on as showing “our cutting edge” technology.  For me, all I can say is at least the desk is neater.

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