While I have a lot of respect for business/marketing guru Seth Godin, he misses the mark in his blog posting on the future of libraries. While concern for the future is right, he's off-base in two respects:
- Godin seems to assume that libraries are now irrelevant, that books are passe or that people can afford all the books they want and all other information is available free online. He writes...
What should libraries do to become relevant in the digital age?... and thus begins with the preconception that we're already irrelevant.
They can't survive as community-funded repositories for books that individuals don't want to own (or for reference books we can't afford to own.) More librarians are telling me (unhappily) that the number one thing they deliver to their patrons is free DVD rentals. That's not a long-term strategy, nor is it particularly an uplifting use of our tax dollars.Let's break that down: our library circulates a lot of books that people either don't want to own or can't afford -- and that's not just reference books. DVDs are hardly the number one thing our library does: most of what we circulate is books and the number of books we circulate has been growing every year, and holding steady as a percentage of circulation for several years. It's also true that our library's DVDs are targeted toward a different market than video stores or Red Box, but books are still our number one.
- Godin suggests our focus should be "train people to take intellectual initiative."
... the net turns things upside down. The information is free now. No need to pool tax money to buy reference books. What we need to spend the money on are leaders, sherpas and teachers who will push everyone from kids to seniors to get very aggressive in finding and using information and in connecting with and leading others.Even assuming he's recommending that librarians become his sherpas, it's not realistic to assume that our best efforts could turn everyone into aggressive leaders. By implication, this marginalizes those who may never fall, or grow, into that group. This smacks of an elitist perspective -- and while I know not everything we do has be factored by a lowest common denominator, it's a mistake to discount the value of making knowledge broadly available.
Godin's assertion ot the contrary, information is not free, and that which is apparently free comes with hidden costs. Not everyone can afford even most of the books they'd like to read, nor highspeed Internet connections, nor the databases that hold information they're seeking. Not everyone will be sherpas, nor could the craftiest sherpa make everyone in our community into aggressive information seekers.
- recognize that our core functions of education, connection, information equity and opportunity have not changed, though the delivery methods have
- make books and other media available in a variety of formats to meet user needs -- and keep evolving with the times into downloadable ebooks, downloadable audiobooks and whatever other formats emerge to be effectively useful
- train people to become savvy consumers of information resources, help provide tools and instruction in their use -- and give needed assistance where savvy is lacking
- provide formal and informal community spaces
- have a sophisticated understanding that although the public needs equity and "information wants to be free," publishers and creators of information content want to put food on the table -- know where knowledge comes from and what it costs -- and use this understanding to creatively make resources available
- find a variety of channels to push information and learning opportunities out into their communities, through websites as digital branches, through social media, through cultural programs and games, through putting librarians at the table with community groups and through marketing resources -- helping leaders and non-leaders alike find ways to meet their needs
- actively promote family literacy