Friday 20 May 2011

Defending libraries

Library cuts are threatened everywhere at the moment, and spirited defenses abound.

Calls for libraries to embrace the digital future go hand in hand with heartfelt tales about how visiting a library as a kid opened up a new world, even a new life, for the writer (this writer not excluded). The problem is, libraries are embracing their digital future - providing free wifi, digitising their collections, loaning e-books, training their staff, reaching out through social media - and have been doing so for years. Being told to go suck eggs must get quite tiresome.

A recent blog post by Seth Godin is a case in point. He writes:

Just in time for the information economy, the library ought to be the local nerve center for information. (Please don't say I'm anti-book! I think through my actions and career choices, I've demonstrated my pro-book chops. I'm not saying I want paper to go away, I'm merely describing what's inevitably occurring). We all love the vision of the underprivileged kid bootstrapping himself out of poverty with books, but now (most of the time), the insight and leverage is going to come from being fast and smart with online resources, not from hiding in the stacks.

The next library is a place, still. A place where people come together to do co-working and coordinate and invent projects worth working on together. Aided by a librarian who understands the Mesh, a librarian who can bring domain knowledge and people knowledge and access to information to bear.

On O'Reilly Radar, Nat Torkington calls bullshit on Godin:

Libraries are already much more than book caves, and already see themselves as navigators to a world of knowledge for people who need that navigation help. They disproportionately serve the under-privileged, they are public spaces, they are brave and constant battlers at the front line of freedom to access information. This kind of patronising "wake up and smell the digital roses!" wank is exactly what gives technologists a bad name in other professions.

And Dan Zambonini joins in:

A couple of days ago Seth Godin wrote about The future of the library. While it is positioned as a love-letter to librarians and the latent potential in a new vision for the library, I see it as a dangerous and (ironically) outdated article.

... My main gripe with Godin’s post, however, is that he seems to be almost blaming libraries for a lack of vision. No, Seth, what they’re lacking is CASH. And pointing out that they’re currently crap does not help their fight against cuts. They’re not rolling in money, but instead are facing reduced budgets every year. And you know what you can do with less? Less.

Libraries do know what they're doing. I was amazed when I was working in library world by just how clear the sector's sense of mission; far clearer, I'd say, than art galleries. Libraries don't need people to tell them what they should be doing - they need people to support them so they can make it happen.

So, how about going to your local library this weekend? Using its services is probably the most helpful thing you can do to ensure it sticks around. You might even be surprised by what you find there.


staplegun said...

Ruh roh, can of worms time...

I think I agree with both sides here. And, unfortunately it's the usual problem of libraries hiding their light under a bushel.

Yes, some people in some libraries know what is needed for their digital future, but not all of them (and certainly not their funders). And for my taste, what is being done isn't radical enough to overcome the tides of change.

Then, whatever libraries are doing obviously isn't being noticed by most people - is it Seth's fault he doesn't know what libraries are doing, or is it libraries' fault for not promoting it well enough? One quote I saw: "Show me one library in the world that actually has a proper marketing department".

I think what libraries are doing is more reactionary rather than anticipatory, along the lines of rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. Study after study shows most of the public still think of libraries as places where books are and Google is where you go to find out what you need to know. And with ebook takeup poised to explode in the next 2-5 years, we're moving into crunch time.

It's great libraries are responding and adapting while also catering to their existing patron base, but unless there is also strategic change to address the real, disruptive changes in the environment, it's hard to see how they will survive in the longer term other than as archives.

So I think we need commentators on both sides - Seth to remind libraries that they haven't succeeded yet, and people like you and Nat to help spread the light. ...Err, and possibly not so much of people like me sitting idly on the fence judging ;)

Courtney Johnston said...

Point(s) taken - and thank you!

I have a bit of a gut feeling that people who pontificate about libraries aren't always frequent library users now - there is a theme of dewy-eyed nostalgia for the barns full of books and the miracles hidden therein (and I'll be the first to put my hand up and admit my primary-school fantasy was getting shut in the public library overnight).

OTOH you have your frontline staff and your library leaders - and your informed commentators - who are saying yes, libraries will always be homes of knowledge and ideas and inspiration and free access for all, whatever the format, however people wish to experience and consume it. I have yet to hear a blogger suggest libraries should be doing something that libraries themselves haven't already thought of - or put into action.

And a few more cents from me: I think libraries have an important role as social and community spaces. We need places where we can be together, without having to pay for anything, and have respite from our worlds and access to others. And books. And e-books. And DVDs and story sessions and community advice and help applying for jobs and access to stupidly-expensive online journals and like-minded people and and and and and ...