Enjoy the Silence

Photo by SuvikoThere’s an opinion piece on the Christian Science Monitor website that’s been making the rounds on Twitter and various RSS feeds. A librarian in Texas by the name of William H. Wisner wrote an opinion piece called “Restore the noble purpose of libraries”. And if I read it correctly, the library needs to (1) restore the silence of the library by removing any technology that makes any noise, including ones carried by patrons; (2) remove any form of visual, audio, or interactive technology from the children’s section; (3) librarians need to learn books to the point of oral recitation, regardless of specialty; (4) comes to grips with the fact that libraries are popular because they are free despite our professional ethics which tout that we provide access to all regardless of their ability to provide supporting payment; and (5) that we stop being “information scientists” and start being scholars again through rote memorization of printed materials so we can once again love and defend our societal purpose.

Or, the funnier way of summarizing his article:

I need to stop prostituting myself, learn Middle English, write humorous non-existent interviews with celebrities who used to date while handing out beverages to make the library “personalized” again and restore the public trust.

Either way you look at it, it’s a strange theory.

To his credit, I will now grin like an idiot while I’m refilling the paper to the printer. While I whore myself to the paper beast, I will relish in the idea that the reason the printer is empty is that people decided to print out timely  and relevant information and take it with them. Quite frankly, that’s all the more reason to construct library based mobile applications so that people can reach the same information on their noisy cell phone or noisy laptop. Or more reason for me to teach classes so that people learn how to use all of the library sources from home so they can print on their own paper. Or just embrace a combined format approach that yields the best resource or information regardless of the medium. Or, heck, for that matter, I’ll give them whatever literature work they want in whatever format they want: print, large print, even audio!

By my own admission, I’m not much of a reader. So I will confess that all of these new audio, video, and interactive technologies for children make me pretty jealous. I really had to struggle with reading, not because I was bad at it or suffered a disability, but because it wasn’t as interesting compared to watching or hearing the work. Oh sure, we can dismiss decades worth of studies on the different learning habits of children and just stick with reading. My brain and character certainly aren’t much worse for it after all these years. But I’m not going to work at a library with that kind of children’s section. I’ll be over at the fun library with the games, the videos, and the noisy interaction and enjoy the more progressive learning models.

I’m sad to say that my library doesn’t offer free coffee. Sure, I could lament the fact that people love us because we are free and then proceed to give away something for free, but I’d rather not sully the incredible dividends that taxpayers get from their investment. Nor would I care to disparage all of the free adult and children programming offered that enriches the lives of the patrons who use it. Far be it from me to possibly heap any more disgrace on the dedicated professionals in the field who work longer hours with more responsibilities for stagnant or shrinking wages and benefits because of the love they hold for their patrons and profession. To be fair, I’m sure some of them also offer free coffee.

Mr. Wisner is certainly welcome to his opinion and the enjoyment that he gets from handing out coffee while building relationships by chatting about Proust or Picasso with students and faculty. As for me, you can find me in the future where information architecture and communication networks interact so as to provide seamless content delivery and global sharing of user derived content  while providing the highest level of patron interaction and satisfaction. Oh, there will be books there too. Print is not dead, just it’s business model.

(And if you too enjoyed his opinion piece, you can check out the preview of his book “Wither the postmodern library?” on Google Books. If irony was chocolate, this would be Godiva.

4 thoughts on “Enjoy the Silence

  1. I don’t know, while I respect your enthusiasm for the future of information technology, I’m not sure I would be so quick to dismiss some of his points. What I took away from it is that in our rush to adopt emerging technologies many libraries are too quick to abandon their roots and the balance tips from library to a sort of hollowed out public computer lab. It’s not bad to have interactive media for children but letting kids plop down in front of a video screen is not the same as engaging those kids and using technology to get them involved with learning from all sorts of sources including books. I see him really cautioning librarians to not forget that they’re not just there to feed more paper into the printer, you’re there to interact with your patrons and introduce this whole world of knowledge and information that you act as guardians of.

    • My takeaway is a failure to evolve. While there is certainly great value and merit with books, the world is not indexed in the same way. As a librarian, I cannot be limited to all of the finer point in literature; I need to be able to function and recall on multiple formats. There is no recognition that other forms of media have their own importance. There is also no consideration given that there are additional forms of scholarship; that being an expert at the inner workings of the internet is the new Chaucer recitation.

      While he might have this feeling as an academic librarian, his experience does not reflect mine as a public librarian or other librarians that I know. I may be refilling the paper in the printer, but that is one duty out of a hundred that I do in one day. I’m helping people solving the problems in their life, providing materials (especially books) to feed their curiosity, and working towards better (not necessarily bigger) collections in the future.

  2. And I don’t think he has a problem with that, I think you’re taking too literally his references to the whole being able to recite the classics thing. My reading of it is that his worry lies more with the fact that there are libraries out there that are throwing themselves full force into the latest trendy technology without thought to why or how to integrate and leverage those services to enhance the traditional role of a library/librarian. As a result there is a loss of the appreciation of the services and valued role that both a librarian and a library provide to their community. In other words his criticism isn’t necessarily focused on the use of technology but more a caution that that technology in and of itself isn’t an answer. So throwing a computer lab and some videos in the library without balancing it with some forethought and planning of how those services will actually add value don’t actually do much to enhance your position in the community.

    I mean he may later expand on this short article and go crazy and say that technology and other media are ruining libraries and we should toss out computers and use the card catalog. In which case we can pat him on the head and back away slowly. In the meanwhile I think it’s worthwhile to take away some of his more useful points instead of making it a oldschool vs. newschool showdown. I absolutely understand what you mean about the importance of other media, higher education faces many of the same challenges when providing services and instruction. There’s a whole lot of people out there that see the latest trends and get caught up in all the hype and throw a lot of technology services at their users without much thought about why and ignore existing problems in favor of the next big thing. I’ve seen it happen so many times I sort of sympathize with his lament about the children’s area that “got it all wrong”.

    This really isn’t the sort of conversation we should type :D

    • Check out the stuff in the preview of his book. That’s what I’m also responding to as well. Then get ready to pat him on the head.

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