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.