The actual future of the library

This past Saturday, Buffy Hamilton sent me the link to Seth Godin’s new post, “The future of the library” as well as some reaction blog posts. (I’ve put the links at the bottom of this post.) It’s the opening line that really started the ball rolling on this post and has lead me to take issue with Mr. Godin’s post (hereafter quoted in blue).

What should libraries do to become relevant in the digital age?

And this is my answer: Nothing. Why? Because we are already relevant in the digital age. The general population as a whole (more or less) believes that a public depository of knowledge is a necessary component for the common good. There’s no fact based rebuttal to this belief; I have yet to hear an argument with merit opposing the continued operation of the library. They prophesized the end of libraries with the rise of computers and, once again, they roll the bones and see the end of libraries in e-readers, Wikipedia and mobile technology. With all of the hoopla for the portable wonders, they are poor replacements with licensing agreements, DRM, and proprietary software. Wikipedia, while the netizen’s encyclopedia with proven accuracy, still has overhead to pay for despite legions of volunteers. Mobile technology has wonderful merits to it, but it is a very long way to go from its touted potential of putting a whole library into one’s hand without the required telecommunication infrastructure, increased display and computer power of the mobile handheld, and price structuring that allows anyone (read: the working poor) to have a data plan. This is not suggest that the library should not change or evolve, but the pronouncements of our imminent demise have been greatly exaggerated.

To say that libraries are irrelevant is a statement about the individual perception but not the greater societal whole. What is more important in such a statement is that raises the issue of how general apathy and indifference for the financial fate of the library really harms cogent funding arguments. The “everything on the internet” perception is easy to handle and is relatively innocent; the real dangerous perception is “I don’t use the library so I don’t see how losing it would affect me”. There is no recognition that this person receives a second hand benefit from the library from the people in the community who do use it; there is a disconnect from the notion that the improvement of the individual is an improvement of the greater whole.

That’s where our advocacy efforts need to be applied. We already have people who believe in us, whether they use the public library or not. It is those on the outside who do not see the benefit on the community as a whole that we need to reach.

They can’t survive as community-funded repositories for books that individuals don’t want to own (or for reference books we can’t afford to own.) More librarians are telling me (unhappily) that the number one thing they deliver to their patrons is free DVD rentals. That’s not a long-term strategy, nor is it particularly an uplifting use of our tax dollars.

Ah, but we can survive as a community-funded repository for books that individuals can’t afford to own (or for reference books that have no internet counterpart). While the latter is becoming a scarce creature (and rightfully so), the former harkens back to the concept that the library is a public institution for the common good. And, on the whole, I’d say that that a majority of my customers at the public library could afford the materials that they check out, but opt to borrow instead for whatever reason. But my library is in a mostly middle class area; any shift in demographics on the education or pay scale would dramatically change the underlying reasons.

What I really take issue with is this notion that there are different tiers of entertainment. Reading for pleasure? Good. Watching a movie for pleasure? Bad. But why? One is a story written on paper and the other is a visual presentation of a story. While purists may sniff at a film production of their favorite author, are they not both acts of telling the same story? Where does listening to the audio recording of a story fall? It’s a slippery slope of information judgment. (Or, to use the words from Lori Reed’s reply on the theanalogdivide post, “It is also one of the core tenets of librarianship that we do not judge the information people seek. It is our job to connect people with information whether we personally agree with it or not.”)

To the librarians lamenting the borrowing of DVDs, I can think of three things. First, place your DVDs are deep into the library as you can while still preserving their security and reasonable access. This makes your patrons have to walk through the library and pass by other things you have to offer. Second, place advertising for services, programs, and other offerings in and around this DVD area. Third, get over it. I’m sure there are patrons who just use you for your large print collection or newspapers or magazines or even just databases when they have a paper due. In that way, the library is acting in its intended capacity: to connect people with information.

Here’s my proposal: train people to take intellectual initiative.

Initiative is really not the problem. The internet search engines have made it easy to look for something on a whim. Librarians already encourage people to delve deeper into the topics that interest them. From my observations, the real issue is one of online information source vetting.

Here is where the library rubber meets the road. The information on the visible web presents an mixed bag of accuracy; this is not to say that it is wrong, but it means that some resources lay on the cusp of academic dubiousness. The challenge for librarians and other information professionals lays in getting people to examine the source of the information as well as looking beyond what is immediately within reach (translation: the first page of a Google search). This can lead to information exploration in the invisible web in areas beyond search engines (e.g. databases, subscription content). This is one area where our librarian expertise lays; not simply in search assistance, but also in providing guidance and coaching for people in their investigations. It is the training and teaching of people to use critical thinking in information source examination that is part of the bigger package of developing research tools as a life skill.

Once again, the net turns things upside down. The information is free now. No need to pool tax money to buy reference books. What we need to spend the money on are leaders, sherpas and teachers who will push everyone from kids to seniors to get very aggressive in finding and using information and in connecting with and leading others.

Alas, information is not truly free. The communication revolution has increased access to information to the point that it gives the illusion of being free. That would be akin to find an apple tree along side a country lane and declaring that it sprung up from the aether. Someone or something planted the seeds along the road; the conditions were conducive to its growth and survival; and on a long enough timeline, it grew into the fully formed tree that appears before the observer. The fruits of the tree are the end products of time, energy, and effort. Information on the internet is no different; someone had to take the time to write and create the content. Bobbi Newman’s answer to Seth Godin reply on the theanalogdivide post is more succinct to this last point:

Information is not free. As an author and a blogger you should know better. Even the often [cited] Wikipedia has had a plea up for funding recently. We all know Google isn’t scanning books out of the goodness of their heart. Even the simplest things on the internet cost time. With the plethora of information out there the skill to determine if it’s accurate (or crap detection as Howard Rheingold puts it) is even more important that ever. At the very least information takes time, something so many seem to be short of these days.”

(Emphasis mine.)

As to the last sentence in Mr. Godin’s post (the one mentioning sherpas), I think there is something there that is much bigger than libraries. While I mention that the library is a public institution that has arisen out of the idea of a common good, there is a silent caveat tacked onto the end of it which states “so long as it is not too expensive”. To me, libraries exist in broader scheme of public education, another community expense that falls victim to this same silent conditional.

For me, this nation and society is not serious about education. Our spending priorities give us away on this issue, from the federal budget down to the family budget. Our country’s well documented altruism towards humanitarian causes is strangely tempered by the bottom line when it comes to our own next generation. We as a society provide the ideals, dreams, and testimonies of academic success, yet we do not provide the required money, tools, or educational infrastructure to make those lofty objectives more accessible. We want the best results but are hesitant about the material cost, ignorant or indifferent to the fact that the success of each generation benefits the greater whole.

When it comes to the library, it is no different. An intellectually based public institution, created under the ideals of a common good for all who seek it, a home for honest and free inquiry, is tethered by layered bureaucracy and constant budgetary inadequacies. I’m not asking for a blank check or a complete free hand here, but some financial certainty and community pledge of support would go a long way.

While I admire the aspiration that Mr. Godin creates in this final sentence, what I think needs to happen is a broadening of the education commitment. This is not a simple of matter of money and materials, but a paradigm movement by the community to commit to the better education of the next generation through all the means available. Knowledge has always been a valuable commodity. There is no time like the present during this information revolution to raise our voices and make it a greater priority in the lives of our fellow citizens. I believe that the lifting up of an individual lifts up the community; to this end, I believe that the library fulfills this exalted ideal.

Other blog reactions to Mr. Godin’s post (by no means a complete listing):

theanalogdivide (complete with Seth Godin comment), SarahGlassmeyer(dot)com, Digitization 101, Lucacept, Neverending Search, Blue Skunk Blog, Schooling.us, Justin the Librarian, A Curious View of the World, The MLXperience, Cathy Nelson’s Professional Thoughts, Library Idol.

15 thoughts on “The actual future of the library

  1. Pingback: The Future of Libraries? « Georgia Library Media Association

  2. This is a wonderful post; a concise collection of responses to the various misguided objections that are often leveled at libraries. I’m an academic reference librarian who also works as an adjunct instructor, teaching a one-credit class on research skills. As such, “It is the training and teaching of people to use critical thinking in information source examination that is part of the bigger package of developing research tools as a life skill” struck me as one of the most important things that should be said (and said again) about the direction our profession should take. We have to directly address that illusion of ease and total access that companies on the commercial web depend on to profit and teach our patrons the difference between instant gratification and a meaningful search for information.

    Thank you for taking the time to share this with us. I’ll be adding your blog to my reader.

  3. Agreed, but with one teeny, tiny reservation about terminology in this phrase: “And, on the whole, I’d say that that a majority of my customers at the public library could afford the materials that they check out, but opt to borrow instead for whatever reason.”

    In some quarters, the term “customer” has become interchangeable with “patron” in libraryspeak, but it’s somewhat inaccurate as ownership is not being transferred. Most importantly, it’s a bit of corporatespeak that ties librarianship to a commercial model that’s arguably at odds with the concept of the library as a public institution for the common good.

    Perhaps a minor detail since your intent in this piece is clear, but it’s one to consider, nonetheless.

    • When I’m emailing my colleagues, I use the term interchangeably as well. I think I first wrote ‘patron’ for that passage and then changed it to ‘customer’. Word choice and how stuff read and sounds is one of my peeves; if it doesn’t sound right in the context, I try to find better wording that is more appealing me. For whatever reason, ‘customer’ sounded better to me than ‘patron’.

      • Dave, I used to be very uneasy about the term customer, but now I think of it is a neccessary evil. It does indeed tie the library to a commercial model, but that’s kind of neccessary now as libraries need to be run along business lines even while they remain public institutions, for me. I don’t mean charging for books, but agressive marketing and all of that stuff.

        Andy this is a brilliant post – the whole movement to respond to Seth’s original piece has been inspiring. But what I worry about is that, due to the inability to comment on Seth’s actual blog itself, we’re only responding to oursleves, ie other Information Professionals. All the library-skeptics who absorbed Seth’s original words sadly won’t be aware of the eloquent and passionate responses that refute them here and in the other posts you mention…

  4. The problem with using “customer” is all definitions of the word connote an exchange of capital (I’m using the OED), which is expressly not happening in a patron-librarian interaction. And, as Dave notes above, using customer slides our discourse in the direction of corporatist ways of thinking, i.e. – thinking in terms of “customer service” rather than a reference interview or describing the library quantitatively rather than qualitatively when asserting our value to the communities of which we are a part. Because of these reasons, I use patron, user, citizen, researcher, reader, person, community member, student, etc. rather than customer.

  5. I second your comments that there is some media format judgement going on here (i.e. books are good, DVDs are somehow less virtuous).

    On the point of information not being free, I agree with what you say but I would add this perspective. In a world of ever increasing information volume, the filtering provided by libraries and librarians becomes even more valuable. Librarians provide this in several different ways (e.g. information literacy training, cataloguing etc).

    As a Canadian much interested in America, I have long been puzzled by the seeming great interest in education as a private activity (e.g. many of America’s greatest universities are private – Harvard, Yale, etc) but public investment seems so weak. The documentary Two Million Minutes has me thinking more and more about this.

  6. Pingback: The Future of the Library, yet again | Bright ideas

  7. Pingback: thewikiman » Blog Archive » #echolib – the Seth Godin Uber-Echo Disaster

  8. Pingback: Thinking Outloud About The Echo Chamber | Librarian by Day

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