Some time ago, this little fascinating article rolled through one of the sites I frequent talking about a theory that ultra-rare celestial alignment led to a much larger than normal high tide that could have refloated larger icebergs that eventually made their way into the path of the Titanic. The part that really gets me is that this event happened on January 4th, a full three months before that night in April. Ironically, at the same time the lifeboats were being installed on the ship, its demise had begun its journey slowly off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador. I’ve always had a fascination with the convergence of events and how people and things come together all in the same place at once. If not for this particular event at this particular time of the year, the ship would be a modest entry in historical ship construction books. James Cameron’s fame and fortune might be linked to a movie called Lusitania.
It’s this preoccupation with convergence that has me looking at some of the technologies of the past fifteen or so years that will have significant impact (no pun intended) on libraries in the next few years. While there is no killer iceberg that will sink the Library ship, I do see some technologies that are knocking off particular aspects that have been maintained by the library over the years.
Take the development of the internet search engine which started years ago with names like Alta Vista and Webcrawler. Combined with the content that has been added over time, it has effectively killed off the Trivial Pursuit portion of ready reference. You don’t need to consult with Encyclopedia of Left Handed Victorian Irish Farmers when a simply query in Google or Bing can bring back the answer faster than you can lumber out of the reference desk chair. Even mid ranged questions with more in-depth answers can be handled in the same manner depending on the topic, thus depleting some of the inquiries to the reference desk being either (1) unable to search for themselves, (2) announce that they are too lazy and want you to look it up for them, or (3) actually require some expertise to sift through the answers to find credible results. Even while (3) justifies the existence of a reference desk, the first two do not pose a strong case for its continued purpose in answering inquiries.
The search engine has killed off some of the more mundane reference desk inquiries, shifting it to a faster DIY usage. This is not a bad thing since it promotes self sufficiency, but it represents an aspect of the traditional library service that has fallen victim to one of these smaller proverbial icebergs.
Are there other icebergs you see that are chipping away at the ole Library vessel here? What developments are finally coming into their own now and replacing or reducing a previous library aspect?
From the Cites & Insights April 2012 entitled “Public Library Closures:
On Not Dropping Like Flies”:
“For those who don’t have the patience for a long, rambling essay with lots of background and detail, here’s the tip of the pyramid:
As far as I can tell, at most seventeen public libraries within the United States closed in 2008 or 2009 and have apparently not reopened as of March 2012. That’s 17 out of 9,299 (in 2009) or 9,284 (in 2008) or 0.2%. […]
Why does this matter? I’ll get to that—and to why these figures may be different than some you’ve heard, read or assumed. The answer is not that I’m trying to make everything in public libraryland seem rosy. It is that I believe it behooves librarians to know what they’re talking about—that even more than in most fields, they have a responsibility to know the facts behind their assertions.” [emphasis mine]
It’s a long but well researched piece by Walt Crawford illustrating how the illusion of public libraries closing does not match with reality. Yes, budgets are down, branches are being closed, services and hours and staff are being cut, but the number of libraries actually being closed is extremely small. Some of the rhetoric (and I’m quite sure I’m guilty of it myself) around library closings works to invoke people’s emotional response and play on the public’s fear and apprehensions. That isn’t a card that can be constantly played without being called out on it.
Also, I think blaring a constant state of distress can lead to advocacy issue fatigue; it makes libraries sounds like the constant victim of a political Snidely Whiplash, perpetually finding ourselves tied down to the budget train tracks. “Save Our Library” cannot be the constant and knee jerk battle cry to all budget announcements; a little more assessment and impact needs to be determined before warming up those war drums.
I’m not without sympathy for that 0.2% of communities that no longer have libraries, but building a overarching and rampant narrative out of that seems a bit intellectually dishonest.
Money quote from the latest Eric Hellman offering:
eBook portability is Amazon’s kryptonite. If the vaunted Agency Model were not a sham, publishers could simply make portability a standard provision of their agency contracts: "Thou shalt enable portability". And that would be it. No collusion around pricing or discounts would be needed. Amazon could discount the living daylights out of their ebooks, but customers would still judge its competitors on their merits.
Stop what you’re doing and go read the rest of the post. I’ll wait.
As I see it, I’m not why publishers would get involved in the price aspect to this extent; it seems akin to dairy farmers telling Walmart what the price of a gallon of milk should cost.
Eric is right. Locking people into platforms is what gives companies like Apple and Amazon an obscene amount of power over the market. You make books platform agnostic and give people the ability to shift them around as they want and it sucks some of the pricing power out of companies like Amazon. (Either that or raise the wholesale prices and let Amazon figure out how much it wants to soak up in terms of loss leaders.) But the key aspect is to make their books portable which will in turn work to break open the market.
(Note: In posting about eBooks, I do feel like that Michael Corleone quote from the third Godfather movie, “Just when I thought I was out…they pull me back in.”)
The chart above comes from a recent post on The Atlantic hilariously labeled, “The Next Time Someone Says the Internet Killed Reading Books, Show Them This Chart”. The numbers come from a 2005 Gallup survey which will provide a great baseline for re-doing the survey in a social media and Kindle-Nook-iPad-eBook world that has developed since then. I would be curious to see if/how the trend lines would continue (especially since Gallup has a wee bit of a gap from 1957 to 1990). There was one question whose results caught my eye so I grabbed a screenshot of it.
I’d be very curious to find out what the breakdown would be for the “based on a recommendation from someone you know” and “by browsing a bookstore or library”. Given the power of the recommendation, this might be something to consider expanding and supporting as much as possible. It’s something that can be wielded as leverage in current book and eBook market since audience reach matters.
Both the article and the survey are worth reading through even if the latter is a bit dated and the former draws conclusions on that data. Combined with the recent Pew Internet findings about American’s general reading habits (2012) and the National Endowment for the Arts finding a rise in adult reading habits (2009), I think it is fair to say that reading is not exactly an endangered activity.
I have to confess as to being cynical and somewhat hostile when I saw stuff like the Milwaukee Library advertising campaign (pictured to the right) that is getting passed around recently. It reminded me of a Hugh MacLeod cartoon which reads “advertising is the cost of being boring”. Reading, as indicated above, isn’t really the problem. So what’s the goal here? To get people to borrow books instead of buying them to read? It makes me what the answer would be to a follow-up question, “And then what?” How does this work for the library in the long term?
I think my hostility comes from the often observed cyclical two step that starts with the well worn rebuttal line “libraries are more than books” which is then followed by advertising and/or advocacy that directly connects the library to books. It’s absolutely maddening to watch books be simultaneously embraced and pushed away in a schizophrenic display of identity. This probably says more about me than the advertising campaign, but it’s still my gut reaction.
I do think reading is an excellent library brand overall and that the expansion of reading over the last century puts the library in a good spot to capitalize on that trend. Whether libraries (especially public libraries) will or not is an entirely different matter. Can the heavy representation of the reader market be leverage as the institution deals with an increasingly frayed publishing market? Is that where the real pull exists?
There’s an old yet hilariously inaccurate saying that people only use ten percent of their brains, but I’d like to suggest that it may have some merit in regard to library usage. Not that library members only use ten percent of their brains, but that the average material holdings of a library only stimulate ten percent of people’s brains. In other words, rather than be supportive of the entire brain, the library focuses on a much smaller portion of it.
The relatively short neuroscience lesson is that there are three major areas that are used for reading: Broca’s area, Wernicke’s area, and the inferior parietal lobule. While current understanding indicates that the nerve impulses from reading are sent out to other areas of the brain, it still represents a small portion of the overall brain that is being activated. Consider these images of brain scans to the right taken in profile; reading is at the top. (The front of the brain is to the left. Click to embiggen.) From the color activity map, the major activity is focused towards the back of the brain where the visual information is received and processed. While there are some some spots of activity elsewhere, the brain is otherwise largely inactive.
Perhaps it is not mathematical equivalent to ten percent (lest someone gets stuck on that little detail), but to me it feels that the oft stated mission and goal of the library (literacy and reading) focus on just one particular part of the brain to the detriment of all the other wonderful senses and functions that have evolved from our primate ancestors.
I can’t say that the average public library completely ignores these other brain areas, but I do think we give up on them over the course of the life of an individual. If we were to examine at the average program offerings of public libraries across the United States, I would surmise that the pattern you would see is that early childhood and kids programs represent the most brain stimulating programs with crafts, songs, body movements, and things to hear, touch, see, and possibly smell and taste. But once people age out of that early stage of development, the programs shift away from those deeply interactive offerings. Adult programming moves to the more passive activities like book clubs and computer instruction with a lesser offering of crafting and other creation based programs. To me it feels like a sad and perplexing narrowing of the focus from body and mind combined to simply the mind with only limited (if any) jaunts to the body. It’s as if getting old meant you were beyond anything but intellectual activities. Why is this so?
As much as it is said that libraries are gateways to other worlds through the books that they carry, there is still a very real world that people want to experience with all of their senses and emotions. These are brains (and bodies) that are looking for more stimulation than just the printed word. If public libraries want to reflect life in their communities, a true reflection means more than just passive intellectual pursuits. It means having bodies in motion, multiple senses engaged, and reaching towards those other areas of the brain.
What do you think?
Well, it was sometime last month that my third year passed for the blog. I was thinking about writing something to mark the occasion but never arrived at the moment to do so during the month. I was somewhere between my apartment here in Bordentown and, well, somewhere else. Either in Philadelphia for PLA or Washington DC for CIL or staying with my girlfriend or traveling to a wedding, the month was nearly always in motion. When I get to traveling like that, I tend to do non-work non-library related things when I am home; I just want to enjoy the solace of being at home without feeling like I have do something. When you’re out and about, the feeling of doing nothing at home is a welcome contrast.
In taking this pause to reflect on the last year’s worth of issues and projects and think about what the next trip around the sun will hold, the one constant and easily predictable issue will be e-content (and most notably, eBooks). The thought of another year of eBooks winding its way through the library world news cycle has me weary already; quite frankly, I can’t figure out if it is issue fatigue or a moment of clarity. Perhaps it was a moment of frustration, but when I was preparing my eBook talk for CIL, there was a very dark moment when I felt a revelation: I hate eBooks. I hate publishers. I hate authors. I hate librarians. I hate readers. I hate the people who make the ereader devices. I hate DRM. I hate torrent sites. I hate self publishing sites. If it touches anywhere on the eBook world, I just wanted to put it into a giant pile and jump on it till it was tiny pieces. Then I would take the tiny pieces and jump on them till they were reduced to their atomic components. And then set that on fire.
You get the idea.
I could be that I’m just tired of the library-publishing eBook cycle: the publishers pulling something wrapped in the “we love libraries” mantle while librarians grumble, bitch, and moan while buying the eBooks under the “we need to provide for our patrons NO MATTER WHAT” manta. It has the drama and predictability of a Telemundo soap opera minus the stirring soundtrack reaction prompts. And, to further the television comparison, despite so many other possibilities it seems like there isn’t much else worth watching. But even that lends itself to issue blindness: there are libraries doing extraordinary things with eBooks, but most people would rather cling to the drama aspects.
I realize that this post has taken a turn off the beaten path of blog anniversary entries. What in my mind started as a simple reflection of the year’s worth of writing turned into a rant about the most unfairly all consuming issue of libraries in the past year. Perhaps I should take that as a sign of some sort.
In any event, I look forward to continuing to write and I hope you continue to look forward to reading this blog. I really couldn’t do it without you the reader. Thank you kindly and I appreciate your patronage.