Why Are Librarians Picking So Many Fights?

At the end of last week, I asked on Twitter if people thought Amazon was a threat. This was on the heels of their announcement that the company was getting the Harry Potter books for the Kindle Lending Library. There was a ripple through the librarian social media and I wanted to get a barometer reading from my Twitter followers which seemed split between saying yes and no.

Over the weekend, I’ve started to think that it’s the wrong question. Hell, it’s the wrong line of thought. This feels like the picking of a fight; worse, it is the instigation of an unnecessary conflict. Why? Because some company deigned to add a service that mimics a function that the library serves. To add insult to injury, they made a reference to the long waits for library eBooks in their announcement. If my peers are going to get up in arms about one line in a product announcement, this just demonstrates how thin our skin is at the moment.

Perhaps it is more of a reaction to the unfairness felt by public librarians at the hands of publishers over the issue of eBooks, but Amazon isn’t the culprit for the eBook lending woes. Whether Amazon will allow library lending from their own publishing arm is something yet to be seen; I would not rule it out nor would I hold my breath waiting for it. But that move will not make or break public libraries either.

Another company that raises some librarian blood pressures is Google. Aside from killing ready reference (in the nicest possible way), there are intermittent rows over privacy policies, that book scanning project that been stalled, the scholar search they created, and possibly that library partnership they abandoned a few year ago. While these differences are bound to occur between a global company and a vast and varied network of library entities, it does not rise to the declaration of war or threat level that some of my peers have proclaimed. Yes, there is overlap in some of the services that Google and the library provide, but there are still a vast number of differences in goals, direction, principles, and execution that do not put the two on a collision course.

As of this moment, I have yet to see Amazon or Google (or any other company for that matter) as being the reason cited that any library has been cut or closed. It’s always been a matter of political will, whether it is local, state, or national. The threat is not from these companies or ones like them; it is from our own communities. In fact, our communities are a bigger actual threat than the imagined threats from these outside entities. Our communities are the investors, the stakeholders, and the immediate purse string holders. It doesn’t get any more “power over life” than that.

I should say for the record that there are some fights that are worth picking. (*cough*the academic publishing model*cough*inadequate public funding models*cough*recognition of the school librarian as a fellow teacher and educator*cough*) But looking for a fight with anyone who glances over at our setups is a bit, well, psychotic. There are real threats out there that need to be confronted, but this inclination to fight any threat (real or perceived) sounds very Dick Cheney-ish. Such continued behavior is a waste of valuable resources (most notably time and energy), it leads to issue and threat fatigue, and distracts from the attitudes, perceptions, and people who can ultimately shut a library down.

So, before you go and shout to the world about something that is a ‘library killer’, please take some time to get some perspective on how and why it would. The world is full of enough fears, it doesn’t need someone to conjure up new ones.

21 thoughts on “Why Are Librarians Picking So Many Fights?

  1. It is somewhat annoying to have an ebook vendor promoting how great it is that they can lend unlimited copies of the same book – because it’s digital – while the library community is hampered by being limited to lending only one copy of an e-book at a time – because it’s digital. That aside, it looks like the past has shown that cooptition is a better path than battle mode. We need to continue to look for the opportunities in our communities that arise when there’s a need that no one else is satisfying – where our talents can provide a solution – and where the corporations are too big or uninterested (no profit motivation) to get involved.

    • Exactly, Steven. Well spoken. I think that libraries can do much more within their mission that is unique to their communities and not something that is going to be duplicated by other interests or businesses.

  2. At least every week, a patron rather defiantly announces to me that s/he uses Google or Wikipedia or Amazon or ebooks, and waits eagerly for me to lose it in the face of such disloyalty.

    I use them, too, I say. The tool is often acceptable, but if they come to me, I will teach them how to use it properly. I will also tell them the truth behind library ebook lending models, the extent of Google’s reach, and how big online retailers affect local indie bookstores, not to mention ways to use Wikipedia instead of it using you.

    People forget, it seems, that librarians are people to talk to about the truth.

    • I’ve always been amused and amazed by the defiant statements where people proclaim that this one internet site or tool or technology makes the rest of the library obsolete. Yeah, they are tools and they make the lives of librarians much much easier.

  3. Will Manley had a post last week(?-I think) about combating the negativity in our profession, which I think speaks to what you are talking about here. My reply there was, essentially, “change feels scary to people so they get negative” and I think that is a crucial part of what our profession is dealing with here: information access, outlets and models are changing so fast and having such a profound impact on society at large that InfoSci professionals are kind of left breathless as we run fast to keep up. The old models are changing in radical ways or disappearing altogether–as you point out, ready reference is an endangered species–and so people react with alarm to every new change hurled our way.

    But that’s reactionary; personally, I feel that change IS the good news. It’s scary and uncertain but the other option is stagnation and irrelevancy. Our profession is more important than ever before, living at the heart of information access the way we do.

    I really like your call-out here for us to look carefully at our collective alarmist tendencies. There IS good news out there, it just isn’t always where it used to be.

    • Without reading the column (although I often like what Will has to say), I agree that change is the good news. When things change in our library, patrons are often much more disconcerted than we are, and we can help them understand things. I’m thinking specifically about changes to Overdrive earlier this year (and regular changes to Google and Facebook) that we spend a lot of time interpreting for others. If things always stayed the same, wouldn’t it be boring as heck?

    • Thank you. I am just concerned that in raising the alarm so many times that it will muddy the water when it comes to raising a legitimate alarm over an actual threat. Perhaps it is a symptom of a broader culture that likes to declare “the end of X” or “the death of Y”, but for all the calls out at the demise of libraries, they still remain.

  4. I don’t know… I was definitely irritated by Amazon’s move- particularly because I feel like we have no equal voice in this conversation. My response on twitter that day, and the way I still feel now, is that I’d like to see real PR for libraries- commercials, ads, etc- that highlight the value of libraries in a way that isn’t preaching to the choir. Of course it’s flattering that Amazon even mentioned libraries in their message… but we have no means to respond other than to just quietly continue to do what we’re doing. What we do is so important, and so vital to communities, and yet only our users know that, and our non-users read messages from Amazon and nod their heads, thinking yes- libraries are not worth the hassle.

    • Visibility and education have been an issue for a long while. Do you have something in mind to reach our non-users, even to just say, “Hey, this is what we do and why it is important to the people who use the library”?

  5. I will preface this by saying I’m not one of those “futurists” who try to make a name for themselves by saying the library is dead. I am someone who believes firmly in the need for libraries for the foreseeable future, although I doubt some days that communities will continue to fund that need.

    That said, my basic feeling is if these technologies do indeed ever supplant the library in a way that the library is truly no longer needed, libraries should die off. Period. We exist because we fill a need. If that need goes away, libraries should not continue to exist. I do not see that day coming any time soon where we are not needed, but if it does, then we need to find something else productive to contribute, either as a profession or as individuals.

    The March of Dimes did not continue to fight polio after widespread vaccination eradicated polio in this country. If we are so successful that we provide needed information and reading to everyone without actually needing the library, we should congratulate ourselves and move on.

    • I hear you! I wrote a blog post a loooong time ago about libraries in Star Trek (there really aren’t any). Information access is truly ubiquitous, although I would surmise that someone still teaches people how to access the computer. However, there is no call for libraries because that need is fulfilled. And so long as there is a need, then libraries should exist. But if it comes to pass that the need no longer exists, yes, libraries either need to close down or move on to the next set of major community needs.

  6. We librarians earn this thin skin honestly. We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock here; Amazon singled us out, so I understand some of the consternation, though I think it’s just as likely that this is an opportunity for us – we’ve got those books, and others. At issue is our response, which should be measured and coordinated. To that end, Jamie’s comment above is a good start.

  7. While there will always be those who see the sky as falling over every change or perceived threat or imminent danger, it is also true that it can be an accumulation of things, so that sometimes it is that thin mint that tips the scale. But I am seeing it as more of a looking to external concerns, which while valid, aren’t necessarily the biggest change agent or I should say lack of change that is going on. So many of us and the places we work are so behind the curve – not just in terms of technology and access but also in the way we teach or provide services. We are often still clinging to those old models. So will it be fire or ice, explode or implode or are there new models waiting to emerge. Here’s hoping we can learn to fly . . .

    • Nancy, a widely paraphrased strategic maxim is “the enemy is almost always within the castle walls”. Not sure if this is what you were saying, though I believe it’s true of libraries.

      Over the past few years of deep engagement with what I refer to as “the library dilemma”, I’ve observed activity within the library community mostly at two extremes. One is a “heads down” posture that does not engage the issues. This takes the form of insularity for sure, tho I’d also put efforts like HaithiTrust and DPLA in this category. The latter are devoting precious resources to building better mousetraps — and even if they succeed, it won’t (IMO) change the trajectory of libraries. We need to critically examine the structural foundations of our library systems, not merely the devices within them. The other is an “arguing with the world” posture that criticizes, and demonizes publishers, google, the public, municipal or university officials — basically “anyone but us”.

      What I have yet to see is a dispassionate, comprehensive analysis of the dilemma that posits multi-dimensional, practical ideas to address them. I’ve become convinced this will not come from within the library community; folks there have too much “skin in the game”. I’m also confident that analysis & proposals to strengthen the Institution and communities will easily gain support, save for two constituencies. One is political forces that do not want members of the 99% empowered. The other is from the library community itself, which contains many members who are resistant to change and/or who will do anything to preserve their status as “big fish in small ponds”.

      As you and Andy have suggested, the library community would do well to examine its extreme postures. It would also do well, I think, to reach far outside itself for assistance. Stressors no doubt seem overwhelming from the inside. To this outsider, the stressors pale in comparison to the Institution’s many assets including a historic mission, a significant contemporary need for its transcendental services and countless practitioners with integrity … like those commenting here.

  8. Pingback: Choose Your Battles Wisely, Librarians | We Are Librarians

  9. There is a difference between voicing an annoyance and going to battle. There is nothing wrong with professionals expressing their views.

    I think they are flaunting what they are doing with their ability to share, which is calling us out on the fact they can do something we can’t, that doesn’t sound too friendly.

    As for Amazon being a threat, competition perhaps for a certain profile of library patron but not a threat at this point

  10. I have to admit I’m frustrated by the perennial lament that libraries are misunderstood. Seriously, folks, we’ve been wringing our hands over this for years. We often get free press and lots of publicity through word of mouth. If our story is still not getting out there, it’s OUR fault. Places like Amazon pick us for comparison because we’re a soft target. WE know we offer more than ebooks. WE know we offer more than print books. Why doesn’t everyone else know it by now? Hint: It’s not because of a couple of ads by Amazon and the availability of Wikipedia.

  11. Like it or not, Google and Amazon are disruptive technologies to the traditional library business model. Treat them as an opportunity to discover and reinvent. The library is not dead as long as you’ve a toasty fireplace and a comfy couch :)

  12. Great post. I agree 100% with everything you’ve said. We need to save time and energy for those fights worth picking.

  13. Pingback: Year End, 2012 « Agnostic, Maybe

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