Fight the Future

“In the end, more than freedom, they wanted security. They wanted a comfortable life, and they lost it all – security, comfort, and freedom. When the Athenians finally wanted not to give to society but for society to give to them, when the freedom they wished for most was freedom from responsibility, then Athens ceased to be free and was never free again.”

That quote by the English historian Edward Gibbon was a favorite of my Grandfather. So much so that he printed it out, framed it, and hung it in the family room. It was only years later that we noticed a spelling error (responsibility sans the b, a funny reminder of the man years later) and now it hangs in my apartment above a shorter set of bookcases.

I’ve been thinking about that quote since I read Anthony Molaro’s post, “Libraries Gave Up Control” last week. His self-described rant talks about the lack of control within the public library and his points should give the reader pause whether you agree with this overall premise or not. Personally, I think the issue is twofold: how much control over content, tools, and services do we have and is there a will to reclaim it?

As to the former, I can see the nucleus of a culture of complacency (or, for the cynical, laziness) argument. Why work towards the development of a better ILS or better databases presentation platforms or expanding rights over library content when we can pull out a catalog or get a vendor proposal or basically have someone else do it so we can use our time to complain about the lack of choices, services, or bureaucracy? If we can’t get it pre-packaged, ready to go from day one, then I guess it’s not worth having or doing. This is the kind of mindset that sends people to fast food places every night rather than cooking at home. Given the related obesity rates, we can guess how that’s going to work out in the long run. I sometimes wonder how many librarians go to work with the idea of a good day being one in which no one challenges them on how the library is run or the order of things. Not a good thought to contemplate given the current fluid nature of the profession.

In addressing the latter, I’d like to imagine there is a will to reclaim it (mainly because I’m an obnoxious optimist). Barbara Fister’s recent post about taking back librarian professional literature from publishing companies who would be all too happy to sell it back to us certainly warms my heart. Given the course of eBooks, perhaps it is a good thing that the majority of publishers are pulling out. To me, it signals a chance for libraries to assert their terms if publishers want to deal with us again in the future. (First term: no taking your ball home on whims.) In looking to reclaim our content and services, it’s going to be a fight, one which I suspect will be a marathon over the course of decades and generations of library professionals (as is always the case in a change in culture).

In returning to Gibbons, this will mean forgoing the security of packaged solutions and prefabricated services to reclaim the responsibility as cultural curators and information educators. This is not a wholesale rejection of library vendors, but a call to rethink how solutions to library problems are reached. I don’t think there is a better time to be a librarian, given this communication and information digital age that is coming into being. But, to me, I’d like to see less complacency and more agitation when it comes to our current practices.

Our collective future is at stake here.

9 thoughts on “Fight the Future

  1. Always pleasant to see an X-Files reference. :B

    More seriously, I like the fast food analogy a lot. The state of librarianship is not really a healthy one; there are likely a variety of ways to combat that and bring it back to vitality and health. We need to be active–to keep with the food analogy, in the words of the First Lady, we need to get moving.

  2. I wonder what advice Steve Jobs would have given libraries? Would the library institution have even asked an “outsider”. Is always talking to yourself wise?

  3. As a library student currently learning about the various ILS “choices,” I find this post inspiring. While I’m a part time student coming from a corporate job, it seems clear to me that many librarians (including my classmates) are either afraid of technology or overwhelmed by it. Librarians as facilitators of information need to become fluent in the delivery mechanisms, if not the languages in which they’re written. I hope that more decentralized ILS creation will push for greater advancements. It won’t be until libraries are believed to be a key player in the information supply chain that publishers and others information brokers will feel the need to compromise. I continue to look to your blog for ideas on where this might be happening. Thank you!

  4. e-books, like databases before them, offer libraries a new chance to provide access and information in a new way. Sadly, just as with databases, libraries rushed in and now….

    E-books were originally designed to be read on computers. The idea of a dedicated device is simply a way to marry consumers to a particular vendor. Libraries have not only bought into that dubious model, they promote it! How many libraries teach people they can read e-books without buying an e-reader?

    For whatever reasons, libraries think they must rely on third parties to gain access to content. I didn’t understand that with databases (but came late to the party so I always figured something had happened that forced the lack of control or ownership of content). Now I see that it is simply the standard of operations that we operate on. We outsource, outsource, outsource and then get upset if a municipality wants to outsource the actual library to private companies.

  5. I agree that “Our collective future is at stake here.”, but as far as I’ve seen in recent years, the talent is not there to turn the situation around, because library school programs are not training new librarians to do any of the great and wonderful things you suggest we need to be doing – you and Anthony. Where does a librarian learn to create an ILS? Where does one learn the fundamentals of “expanding rights over library content”? Where is the entrepreneurial spirit?

    Even if we “hope” there is a will to reclaim control, who is going to lead that movement? Where are the leaders? I believe we are faced with a new paradigm of librarianship that places the emphasis on dealing with the local situation to position your library to survive, and yet that requires exceptional visionary leadership – not a common trait among the profession.

  6. Pingback: Being “The Library” Again | 21st Century Library Blog

  7. Technology is certainly a big part of the discussion, but begs the question “why are we being relegated to the category of amenities when we see ourselves as necessities?” For example, like many/most public libraries mine relies heavily on municipal support, and has since at least 1896. For most of that time it remained unquestioned that a library was considered integral to the common weal; a good library was an indicator of a healthy community. Part of the problem certainly was complacency about our status. We were the knowledge gatekeepers, our position was largely unchallenged and by the way, you were welcome to come to us. These are certainly untenable assumptions. An essential way to regain the status of necessity is to reassert the position of the library as a necessity. Look for ways to address community problems of literacy, crime-yes, not a typical part of a library mission statement-bringing our expertise to members and new audiences outside of the library, focus on our role as a center of community activity. Taking every opportunity to attend and participate in forums on community development, education, safety; be where the decision makers are and be visible. If we want to be taken seriously we have to advocate, think in terms of opportunities instead of problems and speak up. Be an essential and necessary component of solving community challenges.

    • Excellent points as always Bob, and more support for my premise that what we need most in the librarian profession right now is leadership. All the actions you cited require uncommon leadership to make happen – and they are essential to a library’s survival.

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