Justice Department to weigh in on Georgia State suit
Some weeks ago I met someone who had gone into a library after not visiting one for several years, and who pronounced shock at how things had changed: specifically, at the lack of books. The shock, you may be sure, was disapproving, with a tacit “and appalled” after it.
And you know, it annoyed me. And I think I’ve finally figured out why.
It annoyed me for the same reason that people who assert that nobody uses the library anymore (because everything’s on the Internet! Completely ignoring that Pew Internet found that a major reason people go to the library is to get on the Internet!) and so public libraries should just all be closed.
Both of these groups of people, the people who are appalled at the lack of books (hint: there’s no lack of books) and the people who think libraries are useless in this grand new online age, are operating from the same faulty assumption. They have this mental model of the library that owes a great deal to Dale Carnegie. If you’re American, you know just what I mean: a quaint little building, late 19th/early 20th century, with tall dark shelves loaded down with books, and Shirley Jones in her Marian the Librarian glasses behind the desk. (Ironically, the Carnegie Library building in Freeport, Maine, where I was when this all went down, is now an Abercrombie outlet; the actual library looks like this.)
The thing is, that model no longer operates. It hasn’t for a long time. If these people thought about it for a minute, they’d find the answer in their own lack of use of the library: that model no longer meets people’s needs.
It’s not that we’re getting rid of books. We aren’t. My library’s shelves are still full, except for the reference collection—because those books have moved online (another hint: “moved online” does not equal “ceased to exist”, problems of digital rot and preservation notwithstanding) and that’s where people prefer to use them. Just like our academic journal use skyrocketed when we moved to digital subscriptions, with accordingly fewer magazine racks taking up space in the lobby.
I’m generally a fan of how libraries are changing. Being able to get to the library without going to the library is a boon for far-flung patrons and even those close by who can’t get there easily—those with tight schedules or difficulty getting around, for instance. And the communal nature of the building itself hasn’t changed. At my library, thousands of students come in every year to study, work, and especially collaborate in spaces intended to serve these needs. The library space and the library collection no longer perfectly overlap, and that’s okay. We still get more people coming into the library building every year than we did the year before.
They even check out books.
What I concluded from hearing this person talk is that they had this somewhat romantic notion that libraries don’t change, that we don’t have to be just as responsive to the biggest information technology revolution since Gutenberg as any other public-facing service (even a physical retail business, for example, has pretty much got to have a website these days, or at least a Facebook page), and that we’ll just sort of…be there, just like they remember, more or less indefinitely.
The danger of thinking that way should be obvious: a lot of the people who do also believe that we don’t need libraries anymore.
Inside Higher Ed: JSTOR Opens Access, Sort Of -
More than 700 publishers, in addition to the 76 that signed on initially, have agreed to make their journal content available to individual users through JSTOR’s Register & Read program, which launches in earnest today after the conclusion of a pilot that started last year.
“Librarians are pathologically helpful. Google could care less.” -
—Mark Busse, “Turn Off Google and Go to the Library,” Design Edge Canada, Nov. 23.
New Jack Librarian: The future of libraries is... -
…and how many library schools are preparing their students for these kinds of futures? Not many, I’m guessing.
Inside Higher Ed: Amherst Launches OA Academic Press -
…and the impetus comes from within the library!
C&RLN: 2012 top ten trends in academic libraries
Inspired by this excellent post from Barbara Fister, who knocks it out of the park as usual.
I largely agree with her; the recent report showing that the majority of college students do not consider the library essential to their success is not news. As an undergrad I probably wouldn’t have either. Certainly not as much as the music building where I spent most of my time and the staff of which had kindly allotted me a practice room of my very own to store my drum set in. (P.S. This is true. Thanks, Smith College!)
Here are some things that I think we should think about instead:
1. Do we really provide better, more suitable and higher quality resources for student research than what they can get through Google and Wikipedia? Equally important, can they find that stuff? I have yet to interact with a database interface that didn’t frustrate me on some level; if it annoys an expert, it stymies a student.
2. Can they get to those resources through Google? If they find a journal article this way, can they access it, or will they run into a paywall?
3. Is our space welcoming, conducive to getting the work done that students need to do, and do the staff provide good service? (This is one place where I do think libraries could learn a thing or two from retail.)
4. What barriers exist to our patrons availing themselves of the content and services we provide? What can we do to remove them?
5. Do the faculty at our institutions consider the library essential to student success? Should they? If we conclude that they should, and yet they don’t, how do we address that? Faculty have far more influence than librarians on student perceptions of the library’s relevance to their work.
In the Library with the Lead Pipe is one of my favorite library blogs. Not just because of the name, which is a direct hotline to childhood memories of playing Clue, but because it contains some of the most thoughtful writing about where libraries are and where they’re headed. It has faith that they’re headed somewhere, which in all honesty is what keeps me in the profession. The instant I’m convinced libraries have no future, I’m outta here.
But I think they do, and this month’s post on libraries in the next hundred years show some possible directions that they might go. Some of those aren’t too dissimilar from some of the things I think libraries should be doing right now:
Preserve the idea of a library as place. Not necessarily or primarily a place for books, either. But, look: most of my library’s collection is digital now,and yet the library building is one of the most highly trafficked on campus. It’s a place for students to meet, work, get help, discover something, and all of those things involve other people as much as they involve information resources. The idea that we’d all be distributed into our own little isolated spaces, often touted as an advantage to distributed networks and online information sources, reminds me a bit too much of dystopic futures envisioned at the end of the 19th century.
Build digital infrastructure. Information’s online? Great, let’s build the access necessary to make sure that people can get to it. At my university, library and IT operations are part of a single administrative unit. When I came here, I thought that was kind of weird. Now, I’m a little surprised this arrangement doesn’t exist elsewhere.
Create more cooperative arrangements. Increasingly, libraries cannot exist in isolation from one another; our cooperative networks and sharing arrangements are critical to our continued success. My library regularly touts the speed and efficiency of our ILL service to new faculty, to help make up for our relatively small in-house collection. Turning over library operations to private companies or corporations is a terrible idea; we need to collectivize, not corporatize. (Does that make me a socialist?)
Help people create, not just consume. One of the amazing and all-too-often dismissed benefits of collective knowledge resources, of which Wikipedia is the biggest and best known, is that they actively encourage people to not just take in information, but put it out. This is hard to do well, which is why so many people go to college to learn how, but too often the library sees its job as done once the information is in someone’s hands. This morning our instruction coordinator told us how much more she’s talking about use in her classes: not just getting the information, but doing something with it. We see more of what people do with information than anyone, let’s share that.
Last month I gave a brief talk on integrating libraries and mobile technologies. But that’s only part of the picture, as are each of the things discussed above and in the In the Library with the Lead Pipe article. It’s a big picture, and I think the only way to bring it to reality is to identify those component parts and work out how to bring them about.
What’s your 100-year library vision? Here’s mine: Knowledge node in an interconnected web.