The Reports of Our Professional Deaths Have Been Greatly Exaggerated: Outside Observer Edition

This article entitled “Digital Underclass: What Happens When the Libraries Die?” by Jason Perlow at ZDNet caught my attention last week. The gist of the article is that libraries are in danger of extinction due to the change in format of one of our cornerstone collection pieces, the book. In moving from physical print to an ebook, Mr. Perlow makes the case that libraries will slowly face away into the past as the demand for physical print diminishes.

While this notion is not a new one that has been fired over the bow of the library ship (and is rebutted by issues of internet access and the increasing importance of bibliographic instruction in an information tsunami world), Mr. Perlow does make an excellent point in regards to the creation of a “Digital Underclass”: that is, those people who will be unable to access ebooks due to poverty. Specifically, when it comes to the rights of those who cannot afford such device:

It means that we need to guarantee that citizens have access, even if they are poor. It means each citizen needs access to free bandwidth to get books and they need devices to read the material on. We can assume that everyone in 10 years will be able to afford a smartphone or a super-inexpensive tablet device with inexpensive Internet connectivity, but that’s an awful big assumption.

And assuming that we aren’t going to cede the distribution of all electronic books to the Amazons of the world, then we need to start thinking about how we build that Digital Public Library infrastructure. Does it make sense to build datacenters at the state or county level with huge e-book/e-media repositories?

The other point Mr. Perlow makes is one that is currently at issue within the library world: the lending of ebooks. Or rather, the lack of such opportunities right now. I found it very refreshing to find someone outside of the library community who has concerns about this situation. It reinforces the importance of education the non-librarian public about what is going on with DRM, copyright, proprietary software, and what it will mean for them in the future if changes are not made now.

Another writer on ZDnet answered Mr. Perlow’s article with one of his own, challenging the idea that the public library would die and that what is needed is a reboot. In “Digital Underclass? Only if we allow it”, Chris Dawson articulates the point that libraries are the great equalizer for information access. Because it is an institution that provides materials and services to a community, the library continues to play an important part in our new information future. What is integral to the future of the library is that it “reboots” itself and morphs into a new institution that can handle the access and availability issues of the 21st century. For me, it is encouraging to hear some of the same arguments that librarians have been trying to make coming from outside observers.

I wrote a response to Mr. Perlow that evening, the first of which I will reprint below.

In reading your article, “Digital Underclass: What Happens When the Libraries Die?”, I wish to disagree with your assessment of the future of libraries. The short answer is that funding cuts will kill libraries, not technology. As a fellow New Jersey resident, you might have noticed that state funding to libraries was initially cut by 74% in the Governor’s first budget proposal. The final draft was a slightly less 43%, enough to keep federal matching funds for programs and some vital state wide library programs. A good number of libraries cut staff, hours, and even closed. None of this was technology related; it was all due to funding cuts not because the library was unnecessary, but was seen as a community luxury. In the depths of the recession, library visits were up, library usage was up, and NJ libraries saw increases in computer use generally across the board.

My longer answer is that libraries will not close so long as there is a digital divide (the proverbial technology ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’). So long as there is a digital divide, the need for print will continue. I will concede to a reduced demand and different printing schemes, but an all digital content world risks creating too large a gap that will stifle further development. I’m not simply talking about within the United States, but around the world. While cellular technology adaptation is rapidly gaining footholds in the developing worlds, they still lack an incredible amount of infrastructure to support that kind of reading. Furthermore, even with a suitable network system in place, ebooks cannot not replicate certain interactivity aspects of children’s books, the flip-flop of reading and checking the index of college textbooks, and remain under proprietary software and DRM issues.

And now I’m going to give you the third degree for your description of the library. Have you BEEN in a library lately? The card catalog is quite dead, my fellow New Jerseyian. It has been ever since the first OPAC (Online Public Access Catalog) graced the entrance of the library. And while we do have shelves of books (a staple), we also have shelves full of music, movies, audio books, and video games along with rows of public computers. The quiet is not what it used to be with collaborative spaces and tapping of laptop keyboards. In a fully digital society, there will be public libraries and people will need them. They will need them for bibliographic assistance, technology classes, and other things that cannot be gleaned from downloading or opening the box.

Will the library be the place that it was twenty years ago? No, absolutely not. The advances in communication and computing have turned the data landscape from (to borrow the phrase from another librarian blogger) an information desert to an information jungle. Librarians are no longer the gatekeepers to knowledge, we are reinventing ourselves as guides. The amount of data created this year will equal the amount of data ever created in the history of man. This mountain of data expressed in petabytes, a one with a scary amount of zeros behind it, and they are looking for names for the next set up the chart. It’s an information future and there will always be a need for someone who can find their way through to the information that people are seeking.

If you’d like to know more about ebooks and libraries, here’s a reading list for you:

Ebook Sanity (and the 3 articles that are immediately linked to it)
Ebook Summit: Our Ebook Challenge
The New Librarianship in the Age of the Ebooks
The World Without Public Libraries (from this blog)

There are other sources out there as well. To be fair, I can see the reason that people come to libraries changing, but right now, I don’t foresee public libraries in danger from media changes. Libraries have been cut out of the ebook scene for a long time, but we as a profession are working to make our own inroads.

He was gracious enough to offer me the chance to write a proper letter to the editor. I drafted another letter that is more on point to the issues raised in his article. You can read my Letter to the Editor here at ZDNet.

In reflecting on this experience, it shows that the profession does have some distance to go in educating people about funding, information access, the role of libraries and ebooks, and the overarching concerns about DRM and copyright. However, it is posts like this that grant us the chance to create a teachable moment. These are opportunities to reach out and advocate on behalf of the library on platforms that reach non-librarians. These are the chances that matter and we should endeavor to seek them out.

If we are going to taut that the library of the future is about connections, then we need to start making some ourselves to the non-librarian world.