Once a city approaches 100,000 or so residents, its public library may sprout branches. This offers convenience to the citizens of larger cities – which in America usually also mean sprawlier cities – but it changes the nature of the library’s organizational culture.
Staff in the branches may feel like stepchildren, since management and budget control usually stay downtown at the main library. At best, managers will foster good communication with staff in branches; at worst, they will ignore branches, paying attention only when, for example, they need to relocate a problem employee to the system’s equivalent of Siberia.
There is, however, a small, happy secret in branch work: You will have a piece of the library system’s budget, but you won’t have a piece of the library director's close attention. It is easier in a branch to ride out management fads, whose toxicity is reduced by distance, and to gently subvert the schemes that serve only to obstruct the service you are attempting to provide your patrons.
“Out of sight, out of mind” has real advantages in public library land, especially so if you and your branch colleagues find yourselves referring to the big building downtown as the Heart of Darkness, the Death Star, the Vatican, the Kremlin, the Forbidden City or any other such term redolent of fondness and appreciation.
But there is one aspect of the main/branch relationship that has never ceased to annoy the heck out of me, and it is a semantic one. Less kind readers may substitute “nitpicky” for “semantic,” but such criticism will gain little traction with me, for whom language and symbols are laden with meaning and are, always, important stuff. I still cringe when I see “comprised of”; I take pains to differentiate between singular datum and plural data.
What makes me nuts is, of course, the term “main branch,” meaning the place from which your Big Kahuna oversees the library system, and which usually is also easily the largest of your facilities, in both square feet and collection size. You see “main branch” all over library land, even in the pages of Library Journal and American Libraries, but, like the “like” with which your youngish colleagues pepper their conversations, widespread use neither endears nor takes the edge off what is verbal poison ivy.
A tree has a trunk, from which issue branches. It does not have a main branch from which issue branches. “Main branch” is oxymoronic and moronic. I beg you, let us have, from now on, a main library and its branches.
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