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Today’s Librarian: Hip, Delusional, and Doomed

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There was an interesting article on the other day (“interesting” in the sense of discouraging, scary, and unintentionally funny) titled “The Future of Libraries, With or Without Books,” about how librarians, in the same spirit as a 54-year-old woman getting a nose piercing and tramp stamp to keep up with “the kids,” have wholeheartedly and uncritically embraced the digital revolution, and, in the process, are dumping the “shushing ladies, dank smell and endless shelves of books.”

Are you one of those dwindling band of benighted bibliophiles that labors under the naive misconception that “endless shelves of books” are what libraries are all about?  Shush.  Today’s library contains “hipster staffers who blog (and) chat on Twitter.”

Wow.  Blogging.  That’s some cool new technology that all the teens are doing, isn’t it?

But wait.  There’s more!  Even as “authors, publishing houses, librarians and Web sites continue to fight Google’s efforts to digitize the world’s books and create the world’s largest library online…
many real-world libraries are moving forward with the assumption that physical books will play a much-diminished or potentially nonexistent role in their efforts to educate the public.”

Note the use of the term “real-world” in the above excerpt, with its confident assumption that librarians have made the right choice about the inherently unknowable future, and its equally confident assumption that the virtual world is the real world, rather than merely one crucially important but nonetheless limited part of that world.

There was a (print) newspaper article here in Chicago a few months ago, bylined by Chicago Public Library Commissioner Mary Dempsey and American Library Association President Jim Rettig, that went into more specifics about what today’s, and by ill-considered extrapolation tomorrow’s, library will be all about.  In today’s plugged-in library, the article noted, you can scan job listings, create resumes, set up e-mail accounts, download materials, and so forth; in fact, these services have proven so popular among unemployed (and presumably computer-less) patrons during this current severe recession that libraries are experiencing a substantial increase in patronage, and good for them.

Absurdly, and with a touch of desperation, Dempsey and Rettig gamely offer up yet another example of the advantages of the plugged-in library: You can also use online resources, they assert, to get “good deals on everything from having one’s hair done and buying shoes to pre-movie dinner options.”

There are two flaws in this approach that should be obvious to anyone who isn’t a librarian.  The first is that, as digital devices converge, it becomes easier and easier to get every kind of information you need —
from job listings to the Dialogues of Epictetus to those all-important “pre-movie dinner options” — on a single handheld device.  And the volume of that information, of course, grows exponentially every day. So why bother walking over to the library to get that same information, even if the place smells all fresh and electronic-y these days?

The second flaw is that, as these handheld devices get more and more affordable (as, of course, happens with virtually all useful electronic devices) they’ll be in the hands of more and more people, just as has happened with cell phones.  That means that, despite the current recession-driven uptick in library attendance, people will eventually figure out that they can get everything a library currently offers, including not just information, but movie downloads, music, and of course every form of social media, in their own homes.

Perhaps recognizing these flaws, librarians are responding by ceding ground at an amazingly rapid pace while unconvincingly pretending that they’re not waving the white flag but, instead, proudly flying their freak flags.  True, in their article, Dempsey and Rettig acknowledge that patrons currently “don’t even have to visit the library physically.”   But the way to cope with this realization is apparently a kind of proud and forward-focused denial.  So, for example, one librarian, Toby Greenwalt, the “virtual services coordinator” at the Skokie Public Library in suburban Chicago, told CNN that he and his colleagues can “pick up on all of these trends that are going on.” So he now offers a “Twitter feed and text-messaging services,” and “monitors local conversations on online social networks and uses that information as inspiration for group discussions or programs at the real-world library.”

And yet, “real-world” or not, he and his colleagues are, he says, “no longer bound to the physical library…Librarians must venture into the digital space, where their potential patrons exist, to show them why the physical library is still necessary.”

Let’s see if we can follow this logic: The way to show that the physical library is still necessary is to no longer be bound to it.  And the way to get patrons into your “physical library” is to venture into their “digital space,” thereby making it that much less necessary for the physical library to continue to exist.

All this, it seems to me, is not only a twisted rationalization and evasion of a library’s central purpose, but a kind of death wish.  How many librarians will be needed in the future if what they’re doing is setting up Twitter feeds, blogging, and enabling either in-person or virtual social-media discussions?  As anyone who actually uses social media knows, these things are not only quite easy to do, but precisely what social media is all about.  For example, the collaborative and communal nature of various social media allows people to set up their own local groups and meetings, but they can do so just as easily at a local Starbucks or park or online, without any need for a librarian “monitoring” their conversations.   Speaking personally, I spend 10 hours a day or more on a computer, using social media and various other tools, and neither want nor need to go to the library for still more of the same.

So if providing exactly the same services as everyone already gets (or soon will get, when the prices drop, the unemployed find new jobs, and the economy picks up) on their home computers or handheld devices isn’t the best way to ensure future employment for librarians, what is?  It seems to me that perhaps, just perhaps, librarians should be exerting at least some energy, as their counterparts in publishing are, in helping to ensure the continued viability of the physical book, which has been and should continue to be the cornerstone of most public libraries.

Let me be clear about what I’m saying.  My local public library, one of the best in the United States, has Internet access, DVD rentals, CD rentals, readings for children, and a host of other services in addition to books.  That’s all wonderful stuff, but these services are in addition to, not instead of, books.  My library’s DVDs and CDs will all disappear in a few years anyway, as everyone downloads movies and music, and the Internet services will eventually fade away, too (just as pay telephones have) as fewer and fewer people find themselves without access to a computer of their own.

But “physical” books are in a different category, and are not so easily replaceable.  (I don’t wish to revisit old arguments, but digital readers are not adequate substitutes for books in the same sense that MP3 players, for example, are adequate substitutes for CDs.)

In Dempsey and Rettig’s article of 750 words, the word “book” appears only once, and then, needless to say, in the context of “reserving books online.”  There seems to be something profoundly wrong with this.  Yes, it is possible that the physical book will disappear, and that eventuality, as I have gone on record as saying on this site and elsewhere, would be a great loss for our civilization.  Somehow it seems even worse that many librarians are not only resigned to this prospect, but are actively encouraging it, even at the cost of their own jobs and their own “physical libraries.”  (The CNN article notes rather mildly that “some libraries may not get to take part in technological advances. It also could mean some of the nation’s 16,000 public libraries could be shut down or privatized.”  Some? If they give themselves over entirely and thoughtlessly to digitization, try “all.”)

If “physical” libraries do begin to disappear, it won’t be the end of the world.  After all, the incremental ways in which our culture is being degraded never are the “end of the world,” but that world, if it has few or any libraries, bookstores, newsstands, books, magazines, or newspapers in it, will be a poorer, bleaker, and more sterile place than the one we live in now.  (I should note that the Skokie library referenced in the CNN article is not far from my house.  It’s a beautifully designed, warm and welcoming place, is stuffed with wonderful books, at least for the time being, and doesn’t smell even the least bit musty.)

If, on the other hand, librarians recognize that the traditional printed book continues to be a essential feature of our civilization, and treat it as such, they’ll still have libraries to work at 50 or 100 years from now. The digitization of information has unquestionably brought us manifold benefits and should be seen as a vitally important complement to print. But it concerns me to see librarians worshiping the digital age so uncritically, and to such a degree that they seem willing to toss all of our books onto the funeral pyre. They don’t seem to realize that their own jobs are about to go up in smoke, too.

The response of some librarians to the digital revolution is described by as follows: “Some wear tattoos, piercings and dress like they belong on the streets of Brooklyn instead of behind bookshelves. They’re also trying on new titles.  Instead of librarians, they’re ‘information specialists’ or ‘information scientists.’ ”  Frankly, I don’t care if my librarian “wears” tattoos or piercings, though the poor choice of verb is an inadvertent indicator of the superficiality of the gesture, and I don’t care if they call themselves “librarians,” “information scientists” or “corporeal data facilitators.”  What I care about is if my librarian is helping, in his or her small way, to maintain our culture and our civilization, or whether he or she is acquiescing, in a limp and laughable way, to its degradation.

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24 Responses to “Today’s Librarian: Hip, Delusional, and Doomed”

  1. Good energy; good article. On Friday in class, not one student seemed able to define the word “ebb” which was taken out of common context (ebb and flow of time, the tides, etc.) and used to describe unemployment by as in: “Job losses ebb but unemployment up” My guess is that is trying hard to rid itself of the “Wrong Kind of Readers” (Ben Bagdikian) and attract the young ones. Hence, the tattoos emphasized more than the Talmud.

    Although you call it an “old argument” I liked your point here:

    But “physical” books are in a different category, and are not so easily replaceable. (I don’t wish to revisit old arguments, but digital readers are not adequate substitutes for books in the same sense that MP3 players, for example, are adequate substitutes for CDs.)

    Also, as you quoted from

    “Some wear tattoos, piercings and dress like they belong on the streets of Brooklyn instead of behind bookshelves. ”

    This is ironic because I bet Brooklyn has as many bookshelves as any other city (when they get the Nets it’s official) in the country. Unless we also count Cambridge, MA as a city. Which we do I suppose.

    Good writing; thanks.

    PS–As a side note, to some of the younger writers reading this, particularly in the Philly area, the librarians I know who did an MLS at Drexel got jobs and seem happy with their careers. (A few are grateful refugees from teaching.) Down here, I’ve also met employed English majors who went onto the Masters in Library Science. Anyway, just a thought. The degree leads to a job at a public library, a law firm, an internet company, etc. In most cases, you don’t wind up at 19th and Vine but I hope that beautiful building stays alive and open. As a library!

  2. I liked the article and envy the fact that you work or go to a public library that smells “fresh”.

    My large downtown public library smells like body odor.

  3. @Alex — Thanks! I had meant to mention that the article’s “Brooklyn” reference was an outdated and insulting stereotype of one of America’s cultural hot spots, but the piece was already overstuffed, so I let to pass.

  4. Even if every single resource in the world is digitized, libraries are still viable. No matter how cheap handhelds become, our society needs a FREE source of materials. It matters not whether patrons can take a print book or download a digital copy from a library. What matters is that the library offers it for FREE.

    I can afford to buy “stacks” of physical and virtual books. But not everyone can. Libraries were designed to provide access for ALL. Yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

    And guess what? As of today, you still can’t get everything on Google. Some specialized information (medical, legal, business journals, dissertations, research studies, etc.) is still accessed only by costly database services. Does the average student or layperson have a few million dollars lying around to access these sources? No, but libraries and information consortiums do. Thank goodness, or I’d never have made it through grad school.

    Unless you want to see a class stratification of those who can access info and those who cannot, libraries are still necessary.

  5. Ah, but the only people proposing “class stratification” are the librarians, by positioning libraries as specifically for those who can’t afford access to specialized information, and for those who can’t afford access to computers at all. But I think libraries should be for ALL social classes, including those who see libraries as special places to gather and read and learn and browse, regardless of whether they can, or cannot, afford access to the information therein.

    In any event, I’m sure you’ve heard the expression, “information wants to be free.” The nature of digitization is such that much of the stuff you can’t get today on Google, or that is today available only on costly database services, will be freely available to everyone next year, or the year after that, which means the “access to expensive databases” model of libraries probably doesn’t have much of a future long term. Google’s ambition is to digitize everything, and while they’re not there yet and may never get there, the pool of information available only through expensive database services is likely to shrink over the coming decade.

    That’s why libraries (while continuing to offer free access to data, which is of course a valuable service) cannot forget that they are built on books, and that by washing their hands of books as if they’re something to be embarrassed about, they are washing their hands of the one thing that today and forever after will distinguish them from digitized databases.

    I think libraries are necessary too, as my article made clear, but I want to see them continue to be necessary for the next hundred years, not just for the next two or three years or so. Ironically, the way to accomplish this is not to depend exclusively and uncritically on a new set of digital tools that will, a few years from now if not today, outrace libraries’ ability to compete.

  6. I’m curious to know whether you talked to a librarian in preparing this piece, or just went with the quotes in the news stories you cited? These issues are complex and are often glossed over (surprise, surprise) by journalists who seem only to enjoy writing about these crazy new librarians who don’t shush or wear cardigans. I will admit that there are a few librarians out there who seem to be carried away with visions of the all-digital future, but the vast majority of us, especially those who are still actually practitioners, have a much more nuanced view of our role and the role of our physical spaces in an increasingly digital (and therefore sadly sometimes less accessible) future. We believe, as you seem to, that providing access to ALL of our civilization’s cultural objects. Yes, even books. Even if they are sometimes digital.

  7. Hi Laura —

    Thanks for your comment. Let’s make a distinction between the two articles I cited. One was a piece that undoubtedly did gloss over the complexities, as you note. In good part, my brief posting was focused on that article itself, rather than endeavoring to be a comprehensive survey of attitudes of librarians worldwide, which would require a much-longer piece.

    However, the other article that I cited was written by the PRESIDENT OF THE AMERICAN LIBRARY ASSOCIATION and the COMMISSIONER OF THE CHICAGO PUBLIC LIBRARY. Pardon the all-caps, but the point I’m making is that this would strike me as being a rather official statement, written by two of the most important personages in the library world, and accordingly what they had to say was a direct and unfiltered opinion, not glossed over by journalists.

    Thus, this latter article (which mentioned the word “books” only once, and prattled on about how libraries can be used for getting good deals on shoes) was far more dispiriting than the CNN piece, which I acknowledge could have been exaggerated or overly selective.

    In any event, if the issue of the library’s future becomes part of a longer-form work I’m contemplating, I’ll of course plan to talk to librarians of many stripes, including those like you who admirably have an more nuanced and less faddish view of your roles.

    The problem I’ve had to date, however (in talking to bookstore owners and the like for a related, and much-longer, article I published recently called “The Future Is An Empty Room”) is that the proponents of an all-digital future tend to have the loudest voices, whereas the voices of reason, who would like to see digital and printed media playing complementary roles in the future, tend to be muted and rather timid. A lot of people who love books and see an important part of our cultural heritage crumbling are afraid to speak up because, I’m convinced, they’re dazzled or intimidated by the new technologies, and afraid of appearing foolish to posterity by defending the old technology. And, unfortunately, it’s often the case that a “vast majority” ends up ceding ground continuously to a more-vocal and more-confident minority. I don’t think this is at all inconceivable when it comes to libraries, and thus will not be at all surprised when the trucks start arriving to cart the books away to landfills — especially when influential people like Dempsey and Rettig seem to have shuffled the physical book to the bottom of the deck.

  8. One of the reasons that I retired as a librarian last year was that I was very frustrated at the lack of respect for physical books that I was seeing in my library’s administrators. There seems to be a belief among many library leaders and library educators that to survive public libraries must become a different type of institution, one that appeals to the “digital natives” who get all their information online. So there is a push to make libraries and librarians seem hip and non-bookish to attract those people. The library becomes a gateway to online information, both by providing computers to the computerless and by purchasing access to databases.

    I’m all for that role since it has made incredible amounts of information available in even the smallest libraries. But libraries have never been just about information–people read for pleasure, for knowledge, for wisdom. Finding a great book while browsing the bookshelves is a pleasure that I can’t imagine happening online. A library that undervalues books is not a library to me. And as you point out, some day the information gateway role may become unnecessary.

    Unfortunately there is some reality behind the fear that public libraries are in danger–some of the people who provide the taxes that support public libraries (even on library governing boards) think that everything is available online (or soon will be) and that libraries aren’t needed any more. It seems to me that libraries would wiser to emphasize their role as preservers of our cultural heritage than to jump so heavily on the digital bandwagon. I for one don’t trust Google or any other for profit company to preserve that heritage–when all the books are just electronic impulses, who owns them, who controls access?

    Sometimes I imagine a future where no physical books are available in public libraries (if there are public libraries). Then book owners start sharing their books with others, and new libraries emerge. Hope springs eternal.

  9. The most obvious failure of reality is simply knowing that a virtual book does not exist except at the pleasure of the provider. Unless it’s downloaded, you are reading from someone’s hard drive who can stop the feed at any time,

    For instance, recent Kindle users were reading merrily along until their books vanished in mid-sentence because a court ruled that permission to “publish” had not been properly secured. One massive Google bankruptcy (a black swan) and the library is as good as burned.

    Prairie Mary

  10. Michael: You make very valid points in your comments. Libraries should be for all. Agreed. Wholeheartedly.

    I agree less that format matters. Yes, we should not abandon books. But we should not shun other mediums, either.

    Who knows how long books, e-books, or any other format will last? Librarianship, to me, is about providing information. In any form useful and desirable to the patron.

    In my library, we have 20,000 books, databases, e-books, videos, audiobooks, and services. Books are still by far the most popular format in circulation.

    I haven’t abandoned books; I’ve just abandoned the notion that libraries are only about books.

    Thank you for your insightful post.

  11. Your blog post is interesting and I appreciate the detailed discussion of this issue, but I this isn’t an either-or choice. Books or digital. And it isn’t a matter of caving in or appeasement or anything like that. I am the administrator of a library that spends–and will continue to spend–significant resources on print materials–last year nearly $3 million. But we are also very interested in moving to digital content. Why? Because that’s where the information is. I love books and much of what I do is about encouraging the reading of books and exploration of the ideas contained in books, but that is simply not how a growing portion of society is accessing information any longer. And more to the point, a different model of information acquisition is emerging. All the models that are based on gathering together what a mediator feels the public needs and waiting for them to come and get it are shrinking or outright dying. This includes newspapers, recorded music publishers, and bookstores. I am eager–in fact, I see it as a responsibility–is to do what I can to keep libraries out of this list of dying institutions. So we will use digital content not only to serve people who prefer digital content, but we will also use it to supplement, complement, and even encourage the use of printed content.

    One last note in the it’s not either-or argument. I have several friends who own Kindles (I do not). All of them are avid readers who read both print books as well online content. They don’t see it as an either-or choice, but when they fly, they prefer the Kindle. If anything, the device is allowing them to read more, not less.

  12. Michael, you say that libraries are “built on books.” Do you mean only bound ink-on-paper books? The first known organized library, that of King Ashurbanipal in Nineveh (Iraq) about 2600 years ago, contained clay tablets, leather scrolls, wax boards, and maybe papyrus sheets. Among them were “books” – the Epic of Gilgamesh, for one – but of course no ink-on-paper objects.

    What’s interesting to me is the variety of media. After all, leaving aside McLuhanist thoughts, it’s the message that counts, not the medium. Today’s libraries also collect a variety of media. Content creators, as usual, are working with a variety of media. Just when we thought LPs were dead, up came the turntablists to give them new life. If LPs still have a place, it’s unlikely that ink-on-paper will disappear. However, it is true that our current libraries no longer put clay tablets on the shelves. So time will tell.

    In any case, I would say that libratries are not built built on books, they are built by people. And they are buildings people go to, to engage in a kind of activity defined by Library of Congress chief James Billington as “the life of the mind.” A broad definition like that helps us understand that the fate of libraries, and librarians, is not going to rise or fall according to the medium of the moment.

    People will always want to gather together in physical locations to share the life of the mind. (“Now, what news on the Rialto?” etc.) What if, in a couple hundred years, we can have our brains modified to be online at will, with all the memory of the world accessible? I’d say we’d still have the urge to get together in some local, physical place to share our discoveries, and to collaborate to make new discoveries. We are social beings, and embodied beings. That ensures the future of the physical library location.

  13. It’s unfortunate, but not surprising, that the librarians referenced in this article (and the author and those who replied) forgot a fundamental function of libraries –organizing information, or in digital parlance, creating metadata. There is no equivalent in the online world. Search engines only go so deep in discovery and must rely on either keywords or the metadata supplied by the website creator. There are countless examples of website creators using software to render a site and completely failing to create metadata, or creators which don’t consider how a site will be found and used. Keywords will locate a site and are great for convenience, but the English language is far from precise. Consider the concept of AIDS. Most of the time, we will think of a disease, but that word is used in many other contexts (i.e. ambulatory aids, etc.) and a search engine can only guess based on previous searches that the user means a disease. Names create an even greater problem. For example, the first two results for Samuel Clemens in Yahoo are a genealogy and a high school. The “try also” suggestions do not include Mark Twain. Google attempts to create metadata in their book project and, on average, they do ok. However, machine generated metadata encounters the same problems as search engines–it cannot distinguish nuances. Check out this PowerPoint on some of the problems with Google metadata:
    Books published before the author was born; fiction books tagged as non-fiction, etc.
    Creating differentiations between names, name changes, iterations of corporations and associations, authors with multiple pen names and pseudonyms, book and journal title changes, various versions and dates for items (i.e. 2nd ed. versus 2nd edition revisited) is the real value in librarianship–at least until someone figures out how to organize the Internet or creates search algorithms which take the imprecision of language and culture into account.

  14. As my library’s Virtual Services coordinator, it’s my job to reach out to those patrons of ours who spend a lot of time on the web – people like yourself. I create conversations, judge patron needs, and offer recommendations of my own. What’s the end result of this? Increased library use, and the creation of an online space where the library is recognized as a useful set of people, and not a set of static web pages.

    Similarly, it’s also my job to find new and better ways for people to take advantage of existing library services. One such project is the text-messaging service alluded to above. This service – funded graciously through the federal Library Services and Technology Act – makes our website and catalog accessible to mobile web browsers, and sends alerts to patrons as to when items are about to be due, or if a hold is about to come in. Patrons can even renew items by sending us a text message. Soon we’ll be able to take reference questions via SMS.

    Did we develop these services for the sake of doing them? Of course not! I found out that our patrons were looking for such conveniences by asking them. Add to the fact that at least 90% of our population has a cell phone, and the need behind this platform is more than apparent. Through this, our core services – i.e. books and answers – are served, in a way that fits in with our public’s busy life.

    Our brand always has been and always will be books. That’s certainly the case at Skokie. Our print circulation for August is up over 20% from the last year. At the same time, people are continuing to expand on their use of our electronic resources. Our donwloadable ebook and eaudiobook collection is up nearly 50% for the same interval. The Rettig/Dempsey op-ed also noted similar gains for CPL.

    That’s the beauty part of the library: it’s not a zero-sum game. Just as I have regular contacts that I only really interact with online, we have certain patrons that we see on a daily basis. In either case, we can’t be a part of daily community life if we’re not there. I may not be bound to the physical library, but I’m certainly not leaving it any time soon.

    If you’ve got the time, I’d encourage you to swing by the library. I’d be happy to give you a tour and show off all the venues with which we’re creating connections between our physical space and the digital world.

  15. What I care about is if my librarian is helping, in his or her small way, to maintain our culture and our civilization, or whether he or she is acquiescing, in a limp and laughable way, to its degradation.

    Where did this come from? What condition do you believe to be a sign of the degradation of our culture and civilization? The decreased popularity of physical books? I guess, then, that you see the changes public libraries have made lately in order to meet the changing needs of their users as acquiescence to this degradation?

    That’s an unfortunate view of public librarians, whose primary commitments are to recognize useful sources of information, to provide each patron with the book (or website, PDF, Twitter stream, etc.) according to his/her need, and to grow and evolve the library in order to meet these commitments. By meeting these commitments, librarians actively maintain our culture and our civilization.

    Our culture and civilization are in the expression, not in the media. By making cultural expressions available and freely accessible to the public librarians actively maintain our culture and our civilization.

  16. @Toby: Thank you for your message. As I stated in my piece, I’ve visited the Skokie Public Library on several occasions, and it’s a truly beautiful library — one of the nicest I’ve ever seen. So I don’t think we have any disagreement there. It would also seem to me that you’re part of an effort by the Skokie Libary to combine online and print services in a balanced and complementary way, which I think is great. But it is my strong belief that many well-meaning people who wish to maintain this balance haven’t fully engaged with the future implications of digitization and the manner in which it’s likely to upset that present-day balance.

    Listen to what Google CEO Eric Schmidt has to say on the topic, as quoted in a Chicago newspaper earlier this week. First he’s paraphrased by tech columnist Brad Spirrison as saying that “Moore’s Law…will make the transmission of information 1,000 times cheaper and faster over the next 15 years.” Then Schmidt is quoted directly: “Unless something changes, my grandson will have all of the world’s information on a single hard drive.”

    What Schmidt doesn’t say, but undoubtedly believes, is that the price of hardware devices that permit access to this universal database will continue to drop at the same time, even as it becomes increasingly difficult to fence off proprietary data, thus making most of the world’s data very nearly universally accessible. (Unless, as a couple of commenters on my item have noted above, Google turns the switch to “off.”)

    What this means for the future of the library is, to me at least, fairly evident: Libraries cannot depend too heavily on digital tools at the expense of print media, either today or in the future, because the ubiquity and ease of use of these tools (including not just the kind of immense databases that Schmidt refers to, but also social media and other interactive tools) will ultimately — not next year, maybe not in ten years, but eventually — render many of the digital services offered by today’s or tomorrow’s library utterly irrelevant.

    Incidentally, it’s great that libraries are currently experiencing a boom in patronage, but I suspect that much of this is recession-driven. Once again: After our economy recovers, and once the currently unemployed find new jobs, the pool of people who will need to depend on a library to, for example, scan job listings or create resumes is likely to shrink very rapidly.

    As one of your fellow librarians notes above, “There seems to be a belief among many library leaders and library educators that to survive public libraries must become a different type of institution, one that appeals to the ‘digital natives’ who get all their information online. So there is a push to make libraries and librarians seem hip and non-bookish to attract those people. The library becomes a gateway to online information, both by providing computers to the computerless and by purchasing access to databases…Unfortunately there is some reality behind the fear that public libraries are in danger–some of the people who provide the taxes that support public libraries (even on library governing boards) think that everything is available online (or soon will be) and that libraries aren’t needed any more. It seems to me that libraries would wiser to emphasize their role as preservers of our cultural heritage than to jump so heavily on the digital bandwagon.”

    There’s a balance here that libraries and librarians, based on my personal experience and my reading, haven’t quite managed to strike yet. Digitization has already delivered wonders, and promises infinitely more. But as the ubiquity of digital devices bumps up against human nature, I think a great many people (including, most of all, the “hip”) are going to hunger for more textured, more varied, and less-sterile cultural interactions. I fear that, by the time this happens, many libraries will have already cleared their shelves of books, or will have been forced to shut their doors because municipalities and voters will have begun to question the long-term viability of libraries in an age of ubiquitous information. That’s why librarians need to continue to place at least as much emphasis on books as they do on digital media.

    And this brings me to Erik Sandall’s comment. In brief, I think there’s a fine line between accommodating patrons and pandering to them. Libraries, and librarians, are not (in my opinion) merely neutral facilitators. They also must provide cultural and intellectual leadership to their communities, and part of this leadership means being willing to speak out strongly in favor of our cultural heritage, even at the expense of appearing temporarily unfashionable. Take a look again at that piece co-authored by the President of the American Library Association. You know, the one that talks about using libraries to get good deals on hairdos, shoes, and dinner reservations, and mentions the word “books” only once. (It can be found here: This is what I mean by pandering, and this is where my comment about acquiescing to cultural degradation “comes from.” Frankly, I’m surprised that more librarians haven’t spoken out about this superficial depiction of their profession, by two of their chief “spokespeople,” as being somehow akin to a hotel concierge.

    Back to Toby: I genuinely appreciate your offer of a tour, and probably will take you up on it, if a larger piece on this topic that I’m contemplating ends up taking shape. However, I’d like us to also contemplate a second tour as well in, let’s say, 2020. At that time, we can both see if your shelves are just as full of books as they are today, and if your (actual, physical) location has just as many patrons as it has today.

    If I’m wrong about either the nature of digitization or about the willingness of librarians to assert intellectual leadership, and your library thus continues to be a healthy and balanced institution that’s stuffed with books and people, I will be very, very happy to admit my error.

  17. Michael –

    I’d be happy to show you around the library, be it in a few days or in ten years. It would seem like we’re coming from the same place in terms of the role we’d like to see libraries play in their communities. Personally, I’ve always approached my role as a librarian as that of the freely accessible public accessible. At risk of sounding too arrogant, it’s a goal to be recognized in the community as someone who Knows Things.

    More than just making the materials available (and recognizing where everything is), a big part of our jobs is providing the proper context. As any Internet forum or blog troll will demonstrate, a fact poorly used can be more dangerous than someone with no facts at all. It’s my hope that the library can establish itself as a virtual resource for this context and guidance much in the same degree it serves as one in the physical space. Both worlds are meant to complement one another, and we devote many resources to each in the interest of developing strong blended skills in our public.

    As a corollary to this conversation, I would also urge you to keep an eye on what’s going on in Philadelpha. Gridlock over the state budget is putting the city’s public libraries at risk. If no decision is made by October 2nd, they will be closing indefinitely.

    The effects of this (should the closings actually come to pass) may be a bellwether for the purported value libraries offer to their communities. I’m certainly going to be watching closely.

  18. Michael, your concern about the future of libraries is heartening and we need people like you from outside the professional community to help shine a light to avoid short-sighted library closings in our communities. I hope you’ll follow through to push for enlightenment on this issue. I would offer the following advice.

    First, you need a deeper view of libraries and the especially the library professionals you’re so worried about. If you do decide to write that longer piece, talk to (don’t just read about) more librarians than you have represented here. Use some of those 10 hours a day you currently spend online to seek and have conversations with thoughtful, intelligent, active, and yes, balanced librarians like Toby Greenwalt. There are many, many others like him. One article written by the president of ALA may arguably seem to constitute an “official” statement, but is hardly enough to form the basis for the sweeping judgments you make about the status of the profession. The lightweight CNN article is hardly worth mentioning.

    Librarians are not the problem, but don’t take my word for it. Talk to some of the leaders in the field. One ALA president and one Chicago library commissioner are not representative. Call some of Library Journal’s 2009 movers and shakers ( Call Janice LaChance of the Special Libraries Association or one or more directors of large public libraries.

    Try to keep an open mind. Build on some of these responses to your blog:

    – “Our brand always has been and always will be books”
    – “this isn’t an either-or choice. Books or digital.”
    – “I haven’t abandoned books; I’ve just abandoned the notion that libraries are only about books.”
    – “the fate of libraries, and librarians, is not going to rise or fall according to the medium of the moment.”
    – “People will always want to gather together in physical locations to share the life of the mind.”

    Second, your identification of the problem with libraries is misplaced, whether you see it as losing out to universally accessible data, or librarians acquiescing to cultural degradation. Few, if any, librarians would argue to get rid of books. But as several of your commenters have pointed out, public libraries in the U.S. have never been just about books. Don’t take my word for it. Read a history of U.S. libraries. Public libraries serving up programs on how to find a job or get good deals on shoes and dinners are doing what they have always done – respond to community needs. After this economy recovers, they will do what they’ve always done – adjust to the needs of their communities.

    On two of your points, I wholeheartedly agree, and I hope you’ll look more deeply under the surface and refine your arguments in favor of keeping libraries open. Don’t give in to facile notions about libraries becoming obsolete because all the world’s knowledge will soon be at everyone’s fingertips. This is the false notion that is triggering many of these closings. Look deeper.

    These are the two points I most agree with:

    “I think libraries should be for ALL social classes, including those who see libraries as special places to gather and read and learn and browse, regardless of whether they can, or cannot, afford access to the information therein.”

    “municipalities and voters will have begun to question the long-term viability of libraries in an age of ubiquitous information. That’s why librarians need to continue to place at least as much emphasis on books as they do on digital media.”

    Finally, discriminate between intelligent and lightweight news stories like the CNN article. For a good story about librarians, I recommend this one from the NYT: In Web Age, Library Job Gets Update (

  19. Elizabeth, I appreciate your message and the time and evident care you took in composing it. I think it’s safe to say that any longer piece that I write will represent the more balanced and nuanced view of libraries and librarians that you advocate, since that’s a view that anyone who read my original posting would know I share. And of course, any longer piece would include the views of the sorts of librarians you mention, including perhaps some of the actual individuals you’ve nominated.

    However, I think you’re way too quick to dismiss the other side of the argument. The CNN article may be “hardly worth mentioning” from your perspective, but it was read by an extremely large audience who aren’t as knowledgeable as you are about the state of the nation’s libraries. And try as you might, you won’t be able to convince me that the opinion of the President of the American Library Association and the Commissioner of the Chicago Public Library carry no weight. I took what they had to say seriously; I don’t agree with it, and I don’t consider it to be representative of the library community as a whole, but I certainly did consider it to be representative of one faction of that community.

    Incidentally, you advise me not to “give in to facile notions about libraries becoming obsolete because all the world’s knowledge will soon be at everyone’s fingertips. This is the false notion that is triggering many of these closings.” But I’m not the one giving in to those facile notions; I’m resisting them. Further, while these notions might be facile, they are hardly lacking in influence, as you yourself suggest by noting that they are, in fact, “triggering many of these closings.” This is precisely why I take “lightweight” articles seriously – they eventually add up.

    Lastly, I think you may be assuming that my relatively humble blog piece was intended to provide a balanced overview of the U.S. library community, hence your repeated admonitions to “keep an open mind” and “look more deeply under the surface” and take a “deeper view.” But that was not my purpose. My purpose was to draw attention, employing a bit of well-merited mockery, to a small but worrisome segment of that community that is very likely to grow in influence in years to come unless you and your colleagues step up to the plate.

  20. Like Michael and the other commenters, I’m passionate about our public libraries. A few opinions and observations:

    * I’m very concerned about mainstream media coverage. Regardless of whether the articles are informed or balanced, they will influence funding support of municipal officials and a significant portion of the public. Here’s an analysis of some of the major stories in 2009:

    * This post has sparked a terrific conversation, with librarians and patrons contributing thoughtful comments. It is atypical based on my observations of library blogs, the popular press and my personal attempts at library advocacy beyond my own town borders. Seems as though we have forums for librarians and forums for the public … and few where the conversation truly cross-pollinates. It’s richer when it does.

    * I believe many people are passionate about books, education, culture and community — and they see public libraries as the nexus of all those things. Posts like this one suggest it. So does a recent story in the Boston Globe that has garnered 477 reader comments to date: I’d like to see someone in a position of library leadership spark and facilitate the conversation. It’s a vital one, and currently much too fragmented.

  21. Michael, my advice to talk to more librarians, and forgive me if I was repetitive, was for the event you decide to write that longer piece.

    Did I say the ALA president or Chicago library commissioner carry no weight? It wasn’t my intention.

    I’m happy to learn that you’re resisting the idea that technology will soon make all the world’s knowledge available to everyone, making libraries irrelevant. I must have misread some of your postings about this.

    The CNN piece is lightweight, but you’re right that these are the things people are reading and I should take them more seriously.

    By the same token, I would suggest that you are too quick to identify librarians as the problem – “hip, delusional, and doomed” – on the basis of a couple of articles, which seems to be your premise, at least for now.

  22. For a much better article that provides much better perspective on the young librarian (despite relying on the old shushing-spinster meme), not to mention showing how the traditional and the technological blend together in the library world, you may want to check out this article in today’s Chicago Tribune Education Today section:

    And I’m not just saying it because one of my co-workers is in there. People like Jacobsen, White, and Stephens provide continued ample demonstration that the current crop of librarians are pursuing their services with a strong level of pragmatism. And I know they’re not the only ones out there doing this.

  23. Mike, as one who loves libraries and the act of walking among the shelves, plucking books down and entering whole worlds I never knew existed, I’m intrigued by your article. I had no idea stuffy librarians (dontcha love stereotypes) are all hot and bothered over digital outreach to the detriment of their actual mission.

    My take on the situation is that folks in library science are feeling their way uncertainly in the daunting and rapidly changing landscape of information transfer and access. It would seem that librarians would understand that a library, much like a museum, is a physical thing, a storehouse, a compilation of artifacts (in this case, print and other media), information and ideas. It’s one thing for libraries to have connections in digital media and another to give themselves over to a virtual reality. The shush meisters must not lose sight of the importance of the physical library and their role as facilitators in that physical place with shelves, stacks and digital media.

    Just as a museum has little to offer and little reason to exist without its exhibits, so a library and librarians will be unnecessary without a physical presence and physical media of some sort. Only in a brick and mortar locale are people (read librarians) needed to help other flesh and blood humans. Otherwise, virtual helpers will do just fine, thank you, in which case adios librarians.

    Beyond this, In both the case of a museum or library, the space and the physical artifacts offer the patron an experience that is unique and “actual” instead of virtual. They also offer a gathering place, a space where people can be near others, yet within their own worlds if they so choose. That experience is seen as valuable by a lot of folks, besides me.

  24. If the printed book did not exist, someone would invent it – and make BILLIONS. No “device” can match the tactile heft, the consistency, the presence – the flip and feel and the way it can look so clean and used, read and comprehended – or not – and just plain appropriate, on a shelf with a hundred others just like it, than a book. People would and will collect them; hence why libraries prefer to their holdings as just that – collections. And, anyway, where the hell else are all the damned stinky broke folks supposed to flop and sit around? Your house?

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