There was an interesting article on CNN.com 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 CNN.com 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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