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Monday, August 6, 2012

More on the value of libraries

These ideas must be floating around the ether right now. Last week I wrote a post about the persistent narrative of doom and demise of the library, in response to a similar post by Barbara Fister at Library Babel Fish. Now today, First Monday has released its latest issue, including this article by Jessa Lingel, "Occupy Wall Street and the myth of the technological death of the library." Lingel writes,

What we see here is that some of the very tools that have been hailed as signaling the demise of libraries (mobile devices, the Internet) are in fact being used to create an enduring record of what goes into the library. Here, tools of digital media are not exposing the irrelevance of libraries, but instead offer the means of developing it into a complex, sophisticated and digitally-accessible entity.
She goes on to discuss how the People's Library at Occupy Wall Street, and libraries in general, can reflect, instill, and reinforce the values of their community not just through the collection but also through the policies and decisions they make.

Returning to Shera’s ideas that libraries are a reflection of a community’s ethics and values, it makes sense that a movement founded on (at least the ideals of) democracy, free exchange of ideas, egalitarianism and openness would create a library with a collection development policy, with an egalitarian work force and open lending policy.
After I wrote the post last week, I had a discussion with my partner about the value of policies in an organization, when/why/how they are created and also when/why/how they are enforced. This article is well worth the read, thinking about how the values of a library are reflected in all the decisions it makes, even seemingly innocuous ones about what kind of software to use or the length of lending periods.

Friday, August 3, 2012

The Stories We Tell About Ourselves


A while back a friend of mine from high school visited me in Seattle, and as I was telling her about school and my plans for the future, she bluntly asked me, “Aren’t libraries obsolete?” It was not the last time that someone has declared/asked that of me in conversation, and the sentiment always rankles me. In part because I think the answer is, emphatically, no, and in part because I don’t know what to say to a person who thinks that. 

There are countless ways that libraries are invaluable to society, both the people who use them and even those who do not. Every day I see how the information landscape is changing and how libraries are integral leaders in that process. I see students needing guidance in how to sift through the vastness of the Internet and even to choose an appropriate point of entry. I see how librarians are asking the essential questions about the ethical, political, and social implications of the technologies and systems we build to create, store, and transmit information. I see libraries playing central roles in their communities. Yet there is a strong and persistent narrative in the news and even in the profession of librarianship that is always ready to declare the demise of libraries. My day-to-day reality is so far from this narrative of demise that when I come up against it, I am often flabbergasted and unable to succinctly or coherently state why libraries are definitely not obsolete (not to mention why you would probably be a better person if you used libraries more often, but I’ll leave that for another time).

I’m thinking about this today after reading this piece by Barbara Fister, The End of the Twilight Doom. Fister asks,
Why do we love apocalyptic metaphors so much? Nobody reads. Libraries are doomed. Higher education must change radically or die; no, wait, it’s already dead.  
It is almost trite to suggest that the answer is because it sells papers (or rather, pushes page views), though that is definitely part of it. I also think that there is a strong tendency towards myopia in our society, and that we often mistake change for destruction. It is this idea that we are on the edge of a precipice (or maybe we’ve already stepped off it) and this is the moment in time where society is about to fall apart (or already has) and we are the only ones who can do something about it and if we don’t act now it will be too late (or it already is too late). 

It is an engrossing narrative, but critically lacking any historical perspective. I think you could make the same argument about the narrative of demise in almost any context, but speaking specifically about libraries, it is safe to say that we have always been in a state of flux. I spent countless hours in graduate school reading texts like the U.S. 1876 special report on public libraries, Samuel Green’s "Personal Relations Between Librarians and Readers" (1876, assigned in at least two of my classes) or Vannevar Bush’s “As We May Think” (1945, also assigned in at least two courses). Though at the time I often cursed the poorly made scans and uneven typeset, the overwhelming message I got from reading these historical texts is that the core principles of librarianship remain  the same (public service, access, organization, preservation) while the superficial and technological details are constantly changing (card catalogs, print journals, etc.). Libraries are now and have always been engaging with changes in the way our society creates, accesses, and shares information.

In her post, Fister notes that the attention-grabbing, gloom-and-doom headline has been around for decades, and she suggests that it is time for libraries to create “a counter-narrative to the apocalyptic rhetoric.” I would say that a counter-narrative already exists in the profession: it is the narrative of leadership and innovation in the field of information. The problem is that this is the story we tell to ourselves, but we have been less successful in conveying the idea to others. Indeed, I have trouble imagining making the case to my friend who was sure libraries have become obsolete. We are combatting an emotional argument (Libraries are doomed!) with an intellectual one (Libraries are actually fulfilling the same role in society as they always have, and you are merely mistaking change for destruction.) It is not just that we need a counter-narrative, it is that we need one that packs the same emotional force as the fear-inducing notion that libraries are on the brink of collapse. I am now taking submissions for the parallel rebuttal, so when the next person says to me, “Libraries are obsolete,” I can respond, confidently and persuasively, “No, libraries are ________.” Please fill in the blank.