Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Dilemma - paid tutors at the library

At first glance, it's a heartwarming scene - books and homework spread out over library tables as kids and adults study together.

But when you look again, you see that these are not kids and parents but rather kids studying under the guidance of private, paid tutors. And they are taking up every single table in the children's area, and in much of the rest of the library as well. And some of them whisper quietly, but others make no attempt to keep their voices down.

Paid tutors have been a problem in overcrowded branches for a long time, and it seems to be getting worse. It's a dilemma. On the one hand, they are using the library as we love to have it used, as a place to study and do homework, and the students are getting much-needed help. On the other hand, most of these tutors are using the public library's limited space and resources to run a private business.

Last spring, the Huntsville-Madison County Public Library in Alabama made it an official policy to ban paid tutors from its branches. Or rather, the tutoring must be offered free of charge, which luckily seems to exempt tutors who might be paid through a grant to offer free tutoring to needy children. Here's an August article from the library's local news station about the policy.

The Los Angeles Public Library, like most library systems, is trying to handle the problem with a variety of methods, including signage on tables (limiting certain tables to particular uses at particular times), making sure tutor groups don't get too noisy, and so on. This has had some success in some branches, but the problem continues in others.

I can certainly understand why the Huntsville-Madison County Public Library instituted their policy, and I hope it has improved conditions in their branches. But of course there are probably still plenty of wifi laptop users with their hazardous cords ready to trip patrons and staff, retirees who spend much of their day reading the paper or chatting incessantly with staff, and homeless folks falling asleep and drooling on the tables. All these patrons take up tables and chairs, often for long periods.

It's all a matter of balance. I wouldn't blame tutors and their clients for feeling singled out for punishment - but then, I've also seen tutors taking over every table in the library as they conduct their business.

I do have to give the HMCPL credit for having the cajones to make a tough and controversial policy decision.

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