“Bring Me the Head of Seth Godin!”

Or so it would seem the mood would be in some parts of libraryland upon reading his latest blog post, The future of the library. (Not be confused with the other Seth Godin post by the same name written back in 2010.) In reading some of the other reactions and comments, it seems like another trip on the professional self-esteem merry-go-round. We want non-librarians to talk and write about the library (in any sense of the word) yet completely despair when it is not a full throated praise of the institution. If it invokes any stereotype, it’s considered a step backwards for the entire continuing conversation. (Cue the wail of lamentations and the gnashing of the teeth.) If it challenges current practices or principles, we give the author a dismissive pat on the back while marginalizing their words by telling them essentially “thanks, but you don’t know what you are talking about”. We’d rather accept bland praise over anything of substance that pushes our comfort levels written by people who are friends of the library institution, then quietly mutter to ourselves why more people don’t talk or write about the library.

Another spin on the merry-go-round we go.

This isn’t a pass on what Seth wrote, either, but I’m going to work to avoid stepping into the some pitfalls as listed above. A civil and well reasoned challenge deserves response in kind.

If I had a choice, I wouldn’t be trying to brainstorm clever ebook lending models. I would prefer to dump a wheelbarrow full of cash on the desks of the six major publishers and say,”My associate Mr. Franklin thinks you should lend to public libraries. Does this cover your intellectual property worries?” It would be convenient to buy our way out of their insecurities, but alas, the current state of budget affairs does not allow for such things. Libraries don’t have that kind of cash so instead we have to be clever. Personally, I think it is the silver lining of this funding catastrophe for it makes people focused, creative, and innovative. But it’s a bit hard pill to swallow since it is coming at a huge cost of libraries, jobs, and the communities once served.

I agree that the prices on eBooks and eReaders will keep coming down; they’ll become like disposable razor and blades as Seth wrote. But that is not the present situation and is predicted to happen further down the timeline (five years is mentioned). While I can plan, work, and hope for that day, I still have to work with what I have right now. Right now I have patrons asking for eBooks. It might be thought a poor excuse, a fool’s errand, and a waste of taxpayer money to collect these eBooks now, but I need to reasonably act on today’s reality more than tomorrow’s speculation. I mean, what’s the alternative? Tell my patrons, “Come back in five years when the publishers and eBook market have their shit together”? That’s not exactly the best customer service practice out there, even if the predictions come to past. I’m looking to the future, but I still need to act on the present.

On top of that, even if they become that cheap, there will still be a digital divide. Those are the people the library seek to serve: the information have-nots. I know these eReader-less people will exist because I know there are care packages and boxes sitting in shelters, churches, and other aid group offices that have a disposable razors and blades sitting in them. They may be cheap, but there will still be people who can’t afford them. Since libraries are in the knowledge business, we’ll be working to serve this small section of the population as well. To that extent, a portion of our collection will always be linked to their fate.

I agree with Seth about the birth of the modern library and how it was created for a different time. In looking at that period of time in the 19th century, there are the values of the Age of Enlightenment (egalitarianism, for one) combined with the emergence of the Second Industrial Revolution (machines replacing manpower). On the heels of the recent establishment of public education was the further societal need and desire for self-improvement and self-education (along with some entertainment for the new middle class literate). As Andrew Carnegie steps into the picture, the library as a public institution takes off across the United State (and the world as well). To that end, yes, it was a public institution built for another time in the history of the country.

And now we are in the digital age.

So far, this digital age has been an uneven balance between proprietary and open source paradigms. While the President talked in this year’s State of the Union address about winning the future through innovation, Congress has introduced a heavy handed bill in favor of copyright holders. Apple has taken steps to keep you from poking around the devices you own with special screws to secure their hardware. The Kindle and iTunes outline clearly how limited your rights are to the content that you own lease. Pharmaceutical companies work to reformulate the same drugs so that they can re-patent them and extend exclusive protections along with the higher asking prices. DRM puts a giant lock on literature and prose, the worries of the piracy outweighing the greater conversations and influences that could await them. For all the mentions about the overabundance of data out there, there is a mad scramble to lock up as much as possible and as fast as possible. The visible web is the proverbial tip of the iceberg compared to the deep web, where bits of information are locked away under passwords, firewalls, and IP authentications. Seth mentions The Mesh, but according to some of the most popular content companies, the future of business is sharing only when they will let us share. And that does not move any conversation forward.

Librarians are working to change that.

We are in tune with an emerging sharing culture. We strive for information access for our constituent communities. Despite moments of inanity with our funny little rules at times, the profession works to give information away as much as humanly possible. We work to put books in hand, answers at fingertips, and ideas in minds. And we’ll dance with The Devil to make it possible. It’s not a noble profession, intellectual and aloof; it’s a wholly maddening, sometimes frustrating, fraught with uncertainty, second guessing working-on-your-own-time profession to which the practitioners love deeply. Anyone who tells you otherwise is either drunk or nuts.

In coming up with the blog post title, I thought it might grab’s people attention (nothing quite like a little cheap ‘Gotcha!’ advertising ploy, right?) but also serve two functions. First, librarians can’t keep trying to kill the messenger when it comes from outside libraryland. Putting Seth’s head on a proverbial pike does nothing but tell people that librarians (oddly enough being the strangely open minded intellectual freedomniks that we are in defending divergent viewpoints) are not interested in outside opinions. That does not serve us well going into the future for those looking to lend a hand and offer an outside viewpoint.

Second, to paraphrase a line from Braveheart, the trouble with libraries is that they are full of librarians. There were libraries before I was born and there will be libraries long after I turn to dust. It is static in purpose and principle and mutable in practice and presentation. Don’t let the former blind you to the latter; let the library loose to evolve into the digital age. We are still honoring the past while ensuring its continuation and future librarians will thank us for it acting responsibly at the birth of the new information age.

And if we are really going to headhunt, Seth Godin should be waaaaaay down on the list of scalps to attempt to claim right now. Think about it.

39 thoughts on ““Bring Me the Head of Seth Godin!”

  1. Great post Andy. I am totally with you, Seth Godin is hardly our enemy. And he is pretty much completely right. It is librarians that are important, not so much the physical library. What librarians need to be focused on is organizing information and delivering it to our patrons whenever they want it, wherever they are, and on their device of choice. As Godin said, too many of us are “defending library as warehouse as opposed to fighting for the future, which is librarian as producer, concierge, connector, teacher and impresario.” Unfortunately, the librarians that still see the library as a warehouse (there are plenty of them out there, even if they don’t blog or tweet) and are failing to weave the physical and digital worlds together probably won’t ever read Godin’s thoughts on the future of libraries or a blog like yours. Hopefully I am completely wrong about this and we can engage “old school” librarians (for lack of a better term) in this discussion.

    • Thanks for your comment, Ryan. I don’t think the warehouse thing is completely out of bounds; it is a matter of what we store in that warehouse and how we use it. It’s a matter of transforming the warehouse into something different. A warehouse for dead trees is one thing; a warehouse that enables creativity and imagination is another.

  2. I also like this post. You are the only other librarian I’ve met who says (without prompting) that we can’t survive on platitudes — we need action. I also believe that we need to convince those who influence funding decisions that we are all that and a bag of chips.

    Very true that, no matter what the cost, there will always be people who can’t afford it. I teach computer skills in a public library, and there is at least one person at every class who doesn’t own a computer, but will work like crazy to practice during his 90 allotted minutes each day. And compared to what I paid for my first computer in 1986 — which had less computing power than my telephone now — they’re practically giving the things away.

    Godin gives us our props while pointing out that collections of books aren’t going to carry us through. As forward-thinking as my library is, we still think first of books, even when we’re thinking of ebooks, audiobooks, and other formats. When we can come up with good resources instead of just good books, I’ll know we’re getting there.

  3. Pingback: Articles: Seth Godin, The future of the library « Librarian of tomorrow

  4. I think your point about librarians being open to outside options, positive or negative, is a vital one for the transition of libraries in this age.

    The library as institution is generally (not always) slow to change, and defiant to challenge. We truly need to embrace both sides of the aisle in regards to the direction libraries will take in the future. In fact, I would go further and say that we need to welcome more opinions from people OUTSIDE of libraries.

    It is easy to try and sit in our castle on the hill, protecting our status quo from the nay-sayers wielding their pitchforks, but are we not here to serve them as well? I believe inspiration and innovation can be found even in harshest criticism (which Seth’s was not even close to), if we are truly willing to keep an open mind and not jump on the defensive. They can provide insight into where our service(s) may need to adapt or be better implemented going forward.

  5. We had better be open to listening to and heeding (some of) the opinions and advice of those outside of libraries because those are the people who we need to convince that we are relevant and vital and worth funding. They are not going to take us seriously unless we take them seriously.

  6. Great post. I read this on the same day as I read this article in the Financial Times: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/38c0f674-7ff3-11e0-b018-00144feabdc0.html#axzz1Mciyw4J4

    The gist of the article states that women over 35 constitute a significant segment of those responsible for the rise in eBook piracy. Not traditional ‘law-breakers’ you would agree. Which I think goes to show that if publishers don’t wise-up to their pricing and delivery models, they will find themselves in the same predicament as the music industry.

    Wouldn’t it be interesting to know how many of those who are illegally downloading, actually have a library card? And would be prepared to use that library card to check out an eBook, rather than illegally download? After all, most of ‘us’ and let’s be clear we are talking about ‘us’, have some sense of decency about these things.

    Maybe publishers aren’t over the moon at the prospect of the smaller revenues they can expect to receive from establishing ebook business models through libraries, but contemplating the alternatives is really so much worse.

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      • Yes, because most librarians in the profession are the one’s who can’t deal with anything but praise. Librarians are the ones keeping libraries from changing and evolving into what they need to be- places that serve those information “have nots”. Librarians are the ones clinging to the dusty past. It is MOST librarians that are clinging, because once it is MOST librarians who are those seeking innovation and change, the point will be moot.

        • Whether or not someone wants praise — and I sure like my fair share — has zip to do with whether they are innovative or not. Speaking for librarians I know all over the country, we do the best we can with what budgets we’ve got. Even in my area, I’d love to do more, but we recently had to really look over an expenditure of $1,395 because it meant taking money away from other initiatives.

          • To be innovative you must be open to change and dissent- not to mention outside criticism. Most of the librarians I know are more interested in justifying and defending their profession against any criticism than they are about addressing the criticisms and making change. This is the problem. When one says I would do more, but I can’t- that’s fine and true. However, when masses say “he doesn’t know, he’s not a librarian.” or “oh yeah, well we ARE innovative and the future” but go on with business as usual instead of affecting change, that’s the problem. That’s what I feel most librarians do. If they didn’t, then this wouldn’t even be a conversation.

        • Sorry, but this is absolute poppycock. Librarians are some of the most forward thinking individuals that I know – not all of course, but *most*. What holds them back from being more innovative is budget restraints, lack of training, lack of time, no support from an IT dept and no understanding from people higher up in the organisation.

          • Phil,

            That cannot be true at all. If MOST librarians were forward thinking individuals then their workplace would not be the way it is now. If they were forward thinking individuals, librarians wouldn’t have to argue with people who criticize them as relics from the past because they wouldn’t be relics from the past. It’s not like there is a massive backwards administration in the whole profession that squashes innovation and professional advancement. It’s that the masses on the front lines are mostly like this as well.

            As for the IT department- forward thinking librarians should learn how to affect change. If it’s tech knowhow that’s keeping them down an they don’t learn, then I would say that it’s nothing but their own satisfaction with the status quo that’s keeping them down.

  8. I saw three posts on Twitter today defending the “library as warehouse of books” and calling Seth Godin less than intelligent. We should be applauding him for the wake up call, not chastising him. We need people like him to point us past the end of our noses because we sure as hell can’t get there ourselves.

  9. One of the major problems of his post for me is that his ‘vision’ of what the librarian should be doing in the future is not actually a vision. There are plenty of librarians who are already doing all of the things that he says they should be doing.

    I would have been more interested and impressed if he’d come up with some new ideas that librarians hadn’t been thinking about and discussing already in blogs, at conferences and on Twitter.

    Unfortunately he said nothing that was exciting, interesting or innovative – certainly not visionary.

    • I’d say the issue with his post is that it is a vision but it was his and not yours. And when it’s someone commenting from outside the profession, it can touch on a bigger nerve. I think he was pushing the creativity and exploration aspect with the soldering iron comment. I would hope it would encourage further ideas and development.

  10. Bring me the head of Seth Godin and Release the Kraken! Risking the appearance of sucking up, Brilliant and badass post!
    Let’s not label anyone with a suggestion a “hater” and maybe oh I dunno…step up our game first before we start to get defensive! I’m with you on the wheelbarrow of Benjamins… let’s go to a publisher and “make it rain” and convince them that’s the SMART way to go!
    ~Gwyneth Jones

  11. Ha ha ha, WordPress interpreted my “stands up and claps” enclosed in the greater/less than symbols as bad HTML and deleted it.

    OK fine, I’m still standing and clapping.

    • Thanks Jenny. I have the comment right here, all empty. A tribute to WordPress and its love/hate relationship with HTML.

  12. A non-librarian colleague of mine sent me the Seth Godin piece yesterday, and I really thought he had some good points. Perhaps it’s because my career is tending toward the “special library” path, but I don’t see anything wrong with prompting us to think outside the stacks, so to speak. Don’t get me wrong – I love books, and I neither expect nor wish to see libraries get out of the book business anytime soon, but it seems to me that we need to spend more time playing up the rest of our many and varied strengths. I think it’s awesome that Seth reminds us that “librarian isn’t a clerk who happens to work at a library,” especially in light of the recent inquisition of LA school librarians we’re all probably familiar with by now. Isn’t that something we’re often trying to do ourselves, in an attempt to either save our jobs or get the compensation we deserve? Don’t we want people outside the library world to see us as capable of more than checking out books? Don’t we want them to understand that there’s more to librarianship than meets the eye? Don’t we want them to see a value in our services even as the information landscape continues to change? I certainly do, and I think we’re going to need non-librarian champions to continue to challenge us. Thoughtful conversations like these can only make us better.

    • I agree. I also think that for the librarians that are already doing it that they are too busy for this nonsense. (I’m not sure what that says about me but I digress.) There is a lot to be said through the power of demonstration versus taking the time to educate people. But it’s these kinds of pings that let us stick our heads up from our work and let us shine a bit; nothing like taking the chance to speak out.

  13. I was happy to see Seth affirming the library as a place. No matter what the medium of the day is, a library is a public gathering place – for reading, viewing, listening – for talking, creating, playing.

    What’s going on inside a library is an essential human activity. Just as we might say a gym is for the life of the body, or a church is for the life of the spirit, so a library is for the life of the mind. Libraries are a necessity for a vibrant community life.

    I used to say “a library is a clicks and bricks theme park whose theme is the life of the mind.” Probably in the years to come the average public library will look less like a warehouse and more like a clubhouse.

    Some people are saying we shouldn’t go on circulating products made by others, but concentrate on publishing things made by people in our own community. We need to hear more new ideas like that. In this time of turmoil, our future is wide open. Carpe diem!

    • Yeah, I appreciate his affirmation of the library being a place. I also duly note that the soldering iron example is pushing the creative boundaries; that the library be a place for people to learn in a multitude of ways. Why not have a car clinic where people can look at their engines or share auto care stories? Or a garden club that actually gardens on the premises? As people learn and experience the world in different ways, why not work towards accommodating that?

  14. I wish some libraries and librarians could stop trying to live in the “good ole days.” The days where the library was the only place in town to get information, the days when the library only had a card catalog, the days when the library kept a spare finger-guillotine just in case someone made more than a whimper. Society has evolved, everything has evolved except for libraries. It is time we do the same.

  15. Pingback: The future of libraries – Why Seth Godin and Bobbi Newman are both right | janholmquist

  16. I would prefer to dump a wheelbarrow full of cash on the desks of the six major publishers and say,”My associate Mr. Franklin thinks you should lend to public libraries. Does this cover your intellectual property worries?”

    We at Gluejar are working on it! Well, something very similar, anyway :). Let’s keep in touch.

    As for the rest…of course as ever I mostly agree with you. If a prominent voice outside of libraries wants to talk about libraries — in a way that makes it clear he likes libraries — that’s not an enemy. That’s an ally. If we demand that people be wholly in tune with our libraryland paradigms and wholly informed on our issues before they get to be allies…gonna be real lonely out here.

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  21. To quote from the Janet Doe lecture that I gave at the Medical Library Association conference in Minneapolis this past Monday: “The focus on the part of some librarians to try to figure out how to make “libraries” more relevant for their communities is the single most misguided response to the changes we face that a librarian could make.”

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