Alchemical Thoughts

Are libraries as we know it slated to die?

Posted on: February 17, 2009

This idea that libraries will gradually become arcades and internet stations has been around for a while, but it seems to be gaining some more steam recently. On the one hand, you get all sorts of headlines about libraries being wonderful places where people can get Internet access for free so they can do constructive things like job seeking, especially now in a bad economy. On the other hand, you get the sort of headlines of people doing anything but constructive stuff on the Internet while at the library, which leads to a whole new round of hysterics from some segments of society. This could probably make a longer piece for my main blog, but for now I am just pondering ideas.

This blog post, "Where do libraries go to die?", by Owen Strachan made me think on this a bit more. The author is pointing to an NYT piece on libraries and how the digital revolution is affecting them (yet another one). Mr. Stracham highlights some pieces from the article and adds some commentary that I think is worth considering:

  • "I feel for librarians. This is a tough age. Trained to share a passion for one of the sweetest specimens of common grace, books, today many librarians find themselves as little more than Internet monitors, reduced to pulling up pages of vacuous celebrities to kindle even the slightest spark of interest in their students. This spark, of course, cannot possibly last for more time than it takes a synapse to fire. The librarian–what does that term even mean in this digital age?–is thus a mere custodian of the hyper-short attention spans of her students. Ironically, she was trained to be the very opposite, to be one of the few voices in youth culture that urges “reading” and “thinking”–technical terms, I know–on youth."

It is a tough time indeed. While I am all for learning new technologies and helping people with them, I don't particularly recall the class in library school where they told us we would end up as nothing more than glorified Internet monitors or babysitters without a license. Maybe it is because there was no such class.

  • "It is not a good sign for a society when children have no interest in books and care only for celebrities, twittering, texting, Facebook, movies, and so on. We are, I think, producing a stupid society. Our children are going to be dumber and dumber as times goes on, and it is no one’s fault but our own. So you heard it here: unless something miraculous happens, our children are going to be unmotivated, uninteresting, boring, and dumb, and parents and a ridiculous education culture are to blame."

Now, saying something like that will likely inspire the ire of certain techie librarians who worship at the 2.0 altar. These are the people that think we should be online on every possible platform even if it is not practical and/or viable. It's the hip thing to do. In the meantime, the educational mission of libraries is lost along the way. Of course, saying something like "we are producing a stupid society" is deemed as doomsaying or too negative. But let us look at this a moment. The usual objections to someone making the statements above can include:

  • "You just are not customer service oriented." This is basically an extreme form of "give them what they want" and damn the consequences.
  • "You are not open minded" which often goes along with "you just don't get it." This is a favorite of the 2.0 crowd when they do not want to be questioned or confronted.

And the thing is we do find ourselves as glorified internet monitors, and we are not even in full control then. The whole nonsense over porn in libraries is a good example. In the interest of disclosure, I will say I have no personal problem with porn. If it is your thing, you go right ahead and enjoy, and I have no problem with it being available. I do have a problem with people who feel a need to go watch their porn on public access computers in the library. Either put those people in some isolated room of the library (and thus out of sight of the squeamish; ever notice that those who complain are often either religious conservatives or busybodies. You never get a libertarian to do said complaining) or simply ban it from public computers: period, no appeal. You would think this is common sense, but not even the fine ALA dares take a stand on this. I am all for the First Amendment, but you have to be responsible for your rights too. When libraries start becoming the place du jour to get your porn fix, you may have a problem. Go do that at home, and while at it, get back to basics.

At this point, I am trying to recall a couple other good posts I have seen on this, so as I find them, I will probably link them in here as well to help flesh things out. We'll see. I am really thinking this over and at the same time worried that a good number of my professional brethren are more than ready to let libraries die in favor of the communal rec room and arcade.

P.S. This post on "Thinking about research" by Matt Ostercamps seemed pretty good too, and I did not want to miss it. It considers the notion of research as asking questions instead of simply finding tons of information. Something else for librarians to consider.

Update note (same day): I found the post I had in mind regarding the role of educators in policing the Internet. The situation described in the post, while very emotional, sounds like an example of what happens when a self-righteous busybody takes it upon herself to denounce someone else she has no business denouncing, especially without context. The discussion does make some good points; I even made a comment on their blog. And it is a discussion we in librarianship should probably have at some point. Post comes from Learning.Now.



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