Oh The Future of the Library is still in question. This time it’s Seth Godin weighing in. I actually agree with most of what he has to say. I think alot of what he thinks is shaped by an aged or narrow sample of libraries. I find it kind of like saying ‘It’s over for Restaurants’ after getting poor service from an old-style greasy spoon that’s been around for 50 years. It’s the future of ‘restaurant’. Not ‘restaurants’.
Librarians have weighed in as well. One of them is Sarah Glassmeyer. I have to say I am disappointed in her response. When it is fairly obvious that Seth is talking about Public Libraries, her response is to refute by reminding that we also have academic, legal and special libraries. That’s pretty weak. The latter libraries serve a specific purpose and are available for a specific audience. I would not expect Seth to have a beef with Academic libraries, unless he had a beef with academics in general (which might be the case, but it’s kind of a different story). Public Libraries have to stand on their own two feet, thank you. We need to comfortably explain what we do in very specific terms. We have to envision a future of service that meshes with reality.
For instance, Seth speak in particular about offering DVDs for rental and how this is a fairly uninspiring use for public libraries. It’s a bit of a sham argument, actually because it offers flawed anecdotal evidence. DVDs may circulate more often than other items, true, but they also have shorter borrowing times (they used to have 1/7 the allowed borrowing time at MPOW; we just changed that to 1/3.) and tend to have larger fines when they are late. In short, by nature every DVD we circulate will have the opportunity to be borrowed 7 times before a book gets returned. Not to mention that DVDs tend to be on hold, so they are un-renewable, and so-on.
DVDs also act as a catalyst for other library uses. It’s plain good old fashion solid business practice, like offering a coupon for Prime Rib Roast knowing that people will also pay full price for the horseradish, potatoes and string beans to go with it. And, well, some of those DVDs are the popular renditions of Pride and Prejudice, and The Lord of the Rings trilogy and encourage reading (re-reading, even) just as well.
But enough about DVDs – we need to talk about the future of libraries.
Part of the problem is that a public library is not specifically about individuals, but a learning community. Take, for example, the idea that we could just buy everyone a Kindle and be done with libraries. At this time, the Kindle offers a selection of about 336,000 books. As an individual, that is a huge collection of books to choose from, and almost certainly bound to improve my learning. On a community level, 336,000 books is dismal. We do not want or need a community that reads the same 336,000 books, and probably the same 336,000 books that will be yammered on about in the usual channels. Maybe Amazon will fulfill this important community knowledge diversification need in the future, but I would suggest that they have no incentive to do so. On some scale, for a good 25 years at least IMHO, communities will need to share their resources in an organized way for the interest of the community. Some libraries will fulfill this need very well. Others will not. The former will succeed and flourish; the latter will die a slow and painful death (until another model emerges from the ashes).
(Notice that I haven’t brought up the many other issues with things Kindle-ish, like Jessamyn West has previously.)
In other words, this one idea about libraries (which covers about 50% of library work, I would say), while admittedly declining, still has a fairly good shelf-life on it. I would also remind that no librarian in the 21st century is advocating for a faster horse here. Public libraries are dropping those reference books like they were no tomorrow. They’re also getting rid of those old books that no one is borrowing too. Public Libraries are no archives. We don’t keep artifacts on any large scale (although it’s a bit of a political thing to admit that we do actually throw books away when they’ve had their time.)
I haven’t brought up the plethora of other things that libraries can, have and continue to do. For one (shameless self promotion) MPOW is hosting Podcamp Halifax, which (i think) strives to do precisely what Seth suggests is the right thing: Train People to Take Intellectual Initiative. Except it’s not really training. It’s better. It’s providing space, moments-in-time and opportunities for people to gather and train themselves. Actually, training is not even the right word. When a space is designed right, the learning is self-organized. Learning is a natural human behavior, provided that barriers don’t get in the way. Oh hell – Angela Mombourquette explains it all much better than I do. In short, we need more unconferences in communities and public libraries are one avenue to help make sure these happen.
And you know what? I’ve been talking about this for years. My very first post (July 2006) is an interesting look at how to help people take intellectual initiative. Not too long after that, I was talking about Open Space and The Law of Two Feet. The way I see the future of public libraries then and now is still the same and Seth pretty much hits the nail on the [side of the] head. It’s not about training. The public, as a rule, doesn’t want training per se. They would go to school for that stuff. What they want are places to learn. Places that have, among other things, DVDs to borrow. (It’s always nice to bring a little bit of library home with you. ) Places with a little bit of friendly nudging to keep you motivated about learning. Sometimes with a bit of facilitation. Sometimes with a bit of structure. Other times but just leaving them the heck alone to read in a nice quiet spot. No one is filling this niche right now on any grand scale. It’s a market failure. That’s why we need public funds to fill it. For now and into the future.
Finally, this article needs a shout out because Erin Downey speaks my mind about information and learning as well.