Monday, January 11, 2010

Thinking about library futures

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:
  1. 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.
  2. 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.

What libraries can do -- and many are, very effectively:
  • 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
We're doing these things already. We're hardly sitting around unhappily contemplating our DVD circulation. Education and libraries are for everyone. We're looking to the future -- and it's exciting.


Tasha said...

Beautifully put. Thanks for putting into words everything that bothered me about Godin's take on libraries and their future.

Ritsumei said...

Sounds like the one who's out of touch - and thus obsolete - is Godin. While I periodically grumble about fines for lost books, as a homeschooling Mom one my my most valuable assets is the library's collection of books.

Retiring Guy said...

I read this article, pondered it, became troubled by it, then decided against linking it to RGD. (Self-censorship?) It deserved a thoughtful response. Thanks for your eloquence, Terry!

Terry Dawson said...

“Museums and libraries are more than buildings with artwork or books or historic artifacts,” says Anne-Imelda Radice, Director of the Institute of Museum and Library Services. “They are integral parts of their communities and, as much or more than any other entity, they are crucial to the community’s quality of life.”

- as noted by Terry Bergen, Executive Director of the History Museum at the Castle & APL Board Trustee

Anonymous said...

We live in a very small village of about 300 people, yet our circulation at our library is over 34,000 for the year. Yes, some are dvd's but many are books. Some may like to do their reading online but many of our patrons still like the feel of a book in their hand when they read.

Nanette Bulebosh said...

I also saw the Godin article and had a similarly uncomfortable response, although I couldn't quite articulate why. Thanks, Terry, for reminding me that, while there is much to admire and learn from in Godin's viewpoint, we librarians can't forget our responsibilities to the communities we serve. Your comments are great food for thought.

While I'm mindful of this age of great change, I still take more inspiration from Sanford Berman (the Howard Zinn of our profession, in some respects) than from the 2.0 gang.

I'll keep reading Godin's blog, though, as well as yours. Thanks, as always, for sharing your thoughts.