It’s such an exciting time to be a librarian in this fast-paced age of constant change! Or so I used to hear from librarians applying for jobs at my library, back when there were jobs available.
Nowadays, the excitement has turned more to desperation. We used to get news articles about hipster librarians and tattooed librarians and other kinds of librarians much cooler than you. We’re still told how much the library is changing, only the tone is different.
This article about libraries reinventing themselves is a good example. It starts out hipstery enough:
Kathy DeGrego’s T-shirt lets you know right away she isn’t an old-school librarian.
“Shhh,” it says, “is a four-letter word.”
Ooohh, where can I buy that tee shirt! And the article’s fluffy, hopeful tone keeps up for just a little bit longer. “That spirit of bookish defiance has guided the makeover of the suburban Denver library system where DeGrego works. Reference desks and study carrels have been replaced by rooms where kids can play Guitar Hero. Overdue book fines have been eliminated, and the arcane Dewey Decimal System has been scrapped in favor of bookstore-like sections organized by topic.” That defiance sounds anything but bookish to me.
This is all part of the reinvention of the library, and is very exciting. Why do you need reference desks or reference librarians if you have space to play Guitar Hero. That’s what libraries are all about, baby!
And the librarians must be feeding the reporters their language, because every time I read about some library getting rid of the Dewey Decimal Classification it’s called “arcane.” I can’t quite make out how a classification system that’s been in use for 130 years and is currently used in over 200,000 libraries in more than 135 countries can be “arcane.”
We’re told that libraries must reinvent themselves, and then given a list of typical reinventions: “Many public libraries are also becoming digital activity centers, where in addition to books visitors can find game rooms, computer clusters or Internet cafes. Collections of DVDs have swelled, as has the number of high-definition televisions.” Game rooms and Internet cafes and HDTVs. I’m sure glad my tax dollars go to support these necessary and important features.
And it wouldn’t be an article about libraries dumbing themselves down (I mean reinventing themselves as “digital activity centers”) if it didn’t include one comment about how libraries are dumbing themselves down.
“If you want to have game rooms and pingpong tables and God knows what — poker parties — fine, do it, but don’t pretend it has anything to do with libraries,” said Michael Gorman, a former president of the American Library Assn. “The argument that all these young people would turn up to play video games and think, ‘Oh by the way, I must borrow that book by Dostoyevsky’ — it seems ludicrous to me.”
Merely in order to refute it. “Others argue that reinvention is a matter of survival in an age when Google Inc. has made the reference desk almost obsolete and printed books are beginning to look more like antique collectibles.”
Huh? Somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000 printed books are published in America every year, and they look like antique collectibles? If that’s the argument “others” are making, it doesn’t seem like a very good argument.
The odd assumptions of the argument aside, take a closer look at the logic. The claim is that “libraries” must survive, but all the changes – Guitar Hero, breakdancing competitions, and whatever else the kiddies get up to these days – have absolutely nothing to do with the ordinary historical or contemporary understanding about what libraries are.
To throw a little linguistics at you, the only thing that is “surviving” is the sign library, while the referent the sign refers to is slowly disappearing under various technological and legal forces. People are using sentences like “libraries are changing,” but what they really mean is, “some totally new thing is emerging in the space we still call the library.” It’s not reinvention so much as redefinition.
A library consultant and “futurist” (is that like a fortune-teller?) quoted would disagree with me. She “believes that the underlying purpose of libraries will not change, even if bookshelves disappear. ‘Saying that there’s a challenge to libraries because books are changing would be like saying there’s a challenge to family dinner because plates are changing,’ she said.”
There’s not much you can say to a statement like that except, “No, it’s not at all like saying that!” The plate is more analogous to the library building or the sign library, not the dinner itself. If you remove the meat and two veg and replace it with cotton candy, there is a change to the family dinner. If you changed the name library to information center but kept everything else, that would be like changing the plate.
In talk like this, the only “underlying purpose of libraries” is to keep librarians employed, since there’s obviously no coherent purpose underlying changes like this.
If institutions that call themselves libraries change to the point where they offer nothing but entertainment space and computers, either because they don’t care about anything not extremely popular or because publishers freeze them out of the digital information market, then “libraries” aren’t surviving at all. To say otherwise is an exercise in doublespeak.
It would be nice if people who want “libraries” to be postmodern arcades would just come out and say they don’t like libraries. They don’t like books or reading. They don’t like providing information about serious issues. They like to play games. They hate the bread, but love the circus.
They could also stop pretending to be librarians and call themselves something else. This article on libraries as amusement parks seems dead on, so “carnies” seems an appropriate designation. The carnies want their amusement parks to be called libraries because libraries still have a good public reputation and might continue to get funding.
If the carnies would just acknowledge themselves as such, we could have a serious professional conversation about the future of libraries. Until that happens, no one can be sure what anyone means by wanting “libraries” to “survive.” Are they librarians who really want libraries to retain their purpose under changing circumstances, or carnies who want amusement parks called libraries? It’s hard to tell which is which anymore.