Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Let's Burn the Libraries to the Ground!

It's ok to weep for the passing of ages, but who are you to blow against the wind. (And who said you couldn’t paraphrase Neil Finn and Paul Simon in the same sentence? Nobody, that’s who.)

There has been a lot of talk, and complaining, and excuse making, sentimentality, and puffery lately about libraries and their demise future. First, let me explain that I am only speaking to PUBLIC libraries. Public libraries are dying a slow and painful death. This is hard for me to say, because a public library feeds my family, but I wish someone would serve as the Institutions’ second and put them out of their misery. But, what about A country without libraries.

THINK OF THE CHILDREN! Think of what a horrible world they will grow up in without vast repositories of paper shown to them by a knowledge gatekeeper guide? Well, to this, I offer a big RASPBERRY.

After all, “Other than traveling on foot, horses were the proven method of transportation for centuries. They pulled carts, stagecoaches, covered wagons, and delivery vans. They hauled water tanks, men, and hoses to fires and for a time sped pony express riders to their destinations.”
But cars won the day.

There were LAWS that favored the horse as transportation, but CARS WON THE DAY.
I am sure that somewhere someone wept when the last wheelwright closed shop. I’m sure horse breeders took a hit. I’m sure horse breeders and wheelwrights worked to promote the social need for their professions. People suffered. Poor people couldn’t afford automobiles (some still can’t). I would bet that there were arguments made to preserve the horse drawn cart by any means necessary due to whatever advantages it had over the automobile. Cars got better and cheaper. Mass transit filled gaps for the needy. Wheelwrights learned new trades- maybe even became mechanics. Though this did not happen overnight, compared to the eons of animal powered transportation it definitely feels that way.
Public libraries, as we know them, don’t have nearly as long a history. I will not bore you with a history lesson here. I only bring it up in reference to the analogy. Technology is killing libraries as surely as the car killed the wheelwrights. Despite more people being able to read than at almost any other point in human history, it seems as if reading for recreation is in decline. Sure, movies, television, the internet have all taken a share of the entertainment pie. (Much as radio had before.) To the credit of public libraries, they have noticed and tried to shift and keep up with the time. Public libraries all over the country are now Blockbuster + Sam Goody + internet cafes + Borders + homework help + foreign language classes + etc… Blockbuster has lost. Sam Goody has lost. Internet cafes have lost. Borders lost. I’ll stop beating that dead horse. Libraries also offer downloadable e-books, videos, audio-books, etc. Maybe that’s the future, maybe not. I do know that those services are only tangentially connected to the brick and mortar- and librarian staffed- public libraries so that they cannot be their savior. Also, I’m sure there were all kinds of bells and whistles added to the last horse drawn buggies in an effort to keep them relevant.

Instead we get sentimental drivel about how libraries are good and librarians are necessary, and how the smell of library books cures cancer… ok, sorry for the drift into hyperbole, just fighting fire with fire. Librarians, much like wheelwrights probably were, are busy proving their importance. They keep stats, they showcase programming. They do things that they can record in order to justify their existence and their salaries (not to mention their Master’s Degrees). It, like the cake, is a lie. Public librarians have convinced themselves of it, however.
But wait… why not just change it? Why not let it evolve to meet the needs of its users? Because if that ever happens, and it might not if baseless sentimentality holds strong, it will be slow and painful and it will get much, much worse before it gets better. But the car overtook the buggy… yes, but the buggy wasn’t backed by massive government bureaucracy and massive national organizations with dues paying members that would be out of jobs.

I advocate metaphorically burning public libraries to ashes so something else can rise and take their place. Is it community centers? Is it an online document repository? It is public internet cafes set up in malls and strip centers? Is it small neighborhood book swaps? Is it a combination of all of the above? Is it the black swan that no one has seen coming on the horizon? I don’t fully know. As I have lamented in the past, something might be lost along with the public library, but I’m sure something was lost when we stopped getting pulled by horses too. What was that, you ask? I’m not sure- and that’s the point.

The bottom line is libraries and citizens must learn to do more with less. Innovation and change will make libraries of the future leaner, stronger, and better.

1 comment:

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