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Get Rid of the Libraries or Just the Books?

With all its library levy controversy, Seattle has just been a-hoppin’ with library excitement. Now that the library levy has passed instead of broken, it’s time the Seattle public library gave some serious thought to adapting the library for the future.

Fortunately for the library leaders of Seattle, they have just the leader they need, as shown in this this op-ed by a 22-year-old son of a retired librarian. Library knowledge runs in the family, I guess.

According to him, nobody comes to the library to read books, so libraries should get rid of the books. The “crusty books” should all be sent off-site somewhere and shipped in for library patrons, who would browse and select them using a redesigned OPAC that would “make browsing a more pleasant experience.”

I don’t have any trouble browsing via an OPAC, but then again I’m a librarian.

This makes some kind of sense if you assume that everyone would stay home browsing books via a computer, select books, and then come pick them up at the library. Lots of people do that, but is it the norm, especially for children? Seems unlikely.

But the suggestion is odd when combined with the suggestion to replace all the “crusty books” with more computer terminals, since “computers are the new gateways to the vast sea of human knowledge.” (I haven’t decided yet if that’s a mixed metaphor.)

Why would people need more computers at the library when presumably they have them at home? And if they don’t have them at home, are they supposed to come to the library, browse for books through the OPAC, and then come back at some later time to pick up the books?

The two suggestions seem to cancel each other out.

We could also certainly question whether computers provide us with gateways to the “vast sea of human knowledge.” They provide the gateways, but not always the vast sea.

Computers, when combined with the Internet, search engines, subscription databases, and various digital projects certainly allow us to identify vast portions of the vast sea of human knowledge, but good luck getting to much of that knowledge without print books. Ebooks could go a long way to fill the gaps, if libraries were allowed to lend them.

So if I were running the Seattle public library, I’d keep the print books for a while longer, just in case people want to read a larger selection of books than the relative sliver of ebooks available.

On the other hand, perhaps we should go the route one of the commenters to the article suggests and just get rid of libraries altogether. This one’s too priceless not to quote in full:

A recent study suggests that Education is failing in America not because of teachers, or lack of funding. It is the parents. Library funding should be put where it will increase education to the masses.
Close the libraries and buy every student in America a kindle filled with the classics. 10 year plan for Eutopia.

There does seem to be some truth in that. Uneducated parents who live in poor areas with dangerous schools and can’t compensate for their child’s inadequate schooling make it hard for anyone in those schools to achieve. It’s a vicious cycle.

On the other hand, America has really never tried to spend education money adequately or wisely. Put those same kids in year round, all day schooling from the age of three with plenty of extracurricular support and social services supporting the parents, and those same kids might have a fighting chance. Except, you know, it’s not about teaching or funding, it’s all about the parents.

What I can’t figure out is the mental leap from bad parents to closing libraries and buying “every student in America a kindle filled with the classics.” Huh?

I suppose those parents who are so inadequate that they can’t teach their children anything can just stand back and watch those children, desperate for learning, pick up those Kindles on their own and work through “the classics,” presumably public domain classics, because nothing inculcates the love of reading into kids today like some Victorian fiction or stilted translations of the Iliad.

Rather than a 10 year plan for Eutopia (which, by the way, means “good place,” as opposed to utopia, which means “no place”), it would be a ten year plan to eliminate reading among children almost entirely. That doesn’t seem like a good place to me.

Then again, if we eliminate the desire to read books, then we wouldn’t need libraries after all, so we could close them. I suppose self-fulfilling prophecies are prophecies nonetheless. Out with libraries and books. Kindles with the classics to the rescue!

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Comments

  1. LibraryGuy says:

    Well, if we give all those kids Kindles, they’ll be easy to find at pawnshops and Goodwills, since most of the kids will trade them for money. Libraries could pick ‘em up for a song and send ‘em right back out again!
    Another loudmouthed idiot making libraries look bad.

  2. Matthew says:

    Bah. I just submitted a rebuttal to this editorial to the Seattle Times this morning, but here you’ve gone and beaten me to the punch!

    My main beef with the whole “computers are the new gateways to the vast sea of human knowledge” idea is that it supposes people read books only for knowledge. What about books for fun? Ah, yes, we can get those on Kindles, of course. But what if I want to read a book and I don’t think it’s worth my money to buy it? Libraries FTW!

    And Seattle already has the “librarian portal” he suggests. They call it “Ask a Librarian.”
    And if we just demote all librarians to trivia nerds, what purpose will they serve that the Internet doesn’t? I don’t have a library science degree, but I can look at Wikipedia just as well as my librarians can – that’s the source they usually give me anyway.

  3. Library Spinster says:

    Those who are tech savvy (I don’t just mean librarians or library paraprofessionals) underestimate how many people are on the wrong side of the digital divide. Not everyone has a home computer. Not everyone has a cell phone. Not everyone has an ebook reader.

    Digital technology is a great help, but it is not the answer to all needs.

  4. Sarah says:

    Thank you for this, I read the Op-Ed in the Seattle Times and just shook my head as the “vision” seemed a lot like turning our libraries into Starbucks locales. I’ve also noticed through similar comments that people (1) don’t grasp that many people don’t have access to computers and the internet outside of the library; (2) understand how few digital books are available for libraries to purchase and lend, and (3) that our libraries perform other community services such as research assistance, providing homework help, story times, providing a forum for book discussion groups, tax help during tax season, a variety of classes from how to fix your bike to how to use Excel, exposure to the Opera and Ballet through special presentations, and author lectures. Plus, many of us love those “crusty old books” including my 21-year old sister and her friends!

  5. Rand Simmons says:

    Why not consider George Hageman’s Seattle Times OpEd as an opportunity for dialogue with 20-somethings rather than a threat against the establishment?

    • LibraryGuy says:

      Because that’s like saying: “Why not consider Duane Gish’s latest creationist rant an opportunity for dialogue with creationists rather than a threat against science?”

      “Never try to teach a pig to sing. It wastes your time and annoys the pig.” Robert Heinlein

  6. Matthew says:

    Not all of us twenty-somethings are so vehemently anti-Library. Some of us like to read.

  7. Bonnie Jean says:

    When the urban library became a haven for the homeless, it ceased to be as attractive for the taxpayer. It sounds cold and inhumane, but an honest evaluation by the consumer of library services will show this to be true. It is not the “fault” of librarians… it is simply social reality.

  8. Tired Librarian says:

    Distasteful as this issue is to raise, why is Mr. Hageman describing books as “crusty”? Were they crusty when he signed them out, or by the time he was finished with them?

  9. Public Librarian says:

    George is describing the ideal environment for a lazy student. All the student needs to do is go to the designated librarian (for example, geography)and the librarian will do the deep database search and provide him/her with the needed books and articles. He evidently doesn’t think that people need to browse to have their creativity awoken, unlike the many writers and researchers who are complaining about NYPL sending their stacks off-site. I’d love to know if he told Harvard to off their stacks and put in a Starbucks.

  10. Sarah Last says:

    I’m surprised Mr. Hageman has not suggested replacing librarians with robots. Or even better, just asking to destroy the books altogether and turn Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451 into a reality.

  11. Development Arrested says:

    I’m all for a better designed OPAC. Is there any real reason why it’s 1,000 times easier to find something on Amazon than it is to find them on an OPAC (even when the library has the book)?

    • Joneser says:

      I’m amazed at the times I’m not able to find something very simple and obvious on Amazon . . . it’s good for bundling a lot of stuff, but it’s not always very relevant.

    • annoyedlibraryworker says:

      Because Amazon has a way more sophisticated searching/tagging system that is patented and very powerful

  12. I Like Books says:

    Ever notice that if you find a good, informative article on the internet, when you check the references at the end of the article it will list a lot of books. Books enrich the internet. Even if you don’t use the library, authors that write for the internet use the library.

    Of course, if the Wikipedia article references a dozen books, each three or four hundred pages long, only so much of that information can fit into an article of a half dozen pages. If that satisfies your research needs, fine, but some people need more.

  13. Dianne Gardner says:

    It’s wrong to assume that everyone has a computer. I know quite a few people who do not. Those people are not unintelligent. They read (books) and go to libraries. Talk like this and I see people wanting to make computer ownership a law. People can be so blind to the rest of the world sometimes.