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.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Other Shoe is Dropping

Here's my response to nice a blog post at Agnostic Maybe . Then there's his response back, and response to his response. It's all very dizzy.

Because a lot of librarians feel like they’ve been getting away with something for a very long time. They feel like the other shoe is bound to drop. I mean, how much should they get paid for showing someone where to type in the address bar? Or for writing a schedule for their clerks?

No, the believe because they know they have been getting paid for not doing a whole lot of work. They feel guilty for this and realize that someone else must figure this out one day- and that will be the end of the public library.

on May 17, 2011 at 1:52 AM | Reply Andy
Interesting comment. So, what do you do at your library, if I might ask?

Based on the feedback from my basic computer classes, that kind of information (showing them where to type in the address bar) is rather valuable. While it may be easy to me, it’s not to other people; they talk about it as it will give them confidence to go online, email, and be more active online with their kids and grandkids. But I guess that’s basically stealing from taxpayers, right?

on May 17, 2011 at 10:40 AM | Reply stuartspencersmith
I am a public service and reference librarian. I was a corporate librarian before. I understand the benefits of adult technology education, but I also see- every single day, all day long- the same people with the same problems that don’t learn- because they don’t want to. I see people demanding that I dial the phone number for them. I see a babysitting service provided by employees with Master’s Degrees. I see employees steadfastly holding on to the past instead of realizing that THEY must change for the institution to still have meaning.

I’m on the front lines of the digital divide. It’s not ebooks here, it’s DVDs, Plenty of Fish and free online MMORPGs. We are not providing education, but entertainment. We are already a community center/homeless shelter/daycare.

NONE of these things require a librarian- or at least a librarian’s education and training. So, old guard wait to retire while bitching and putting their heads in the sand. The young turks are worn down under the weight of the institution. We are left with the ones who are happy with things the way they are- and what does that say about any profession when you’re left with the ones who are happy with things the way they are?

The old guard KNOWS what they used to do and how much work it was. The young turks LONG for more work. The rest treat the patrons like they’ve interrupted an important task. The rest have convinced themselves (and maybe they really believe) that what they do is important. They are sure that they are the torchbearers- but the flame has been dying for a long time now. Most of their job duties are JUSTIFYING their job’s existence- and they’re ok with that because they are IMPORTANT.

That is what I meant. Also, I am speaking only to public libraries.