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The Library’s Ending Again

It seems some librarians don’t like being told that the library is ending, whatever that means, at least according to this article in Techcrunch, The End of the Library, where the writer defends himself against librarian backlash for suggesting that libraries as we know them today won’t exist soon.

He hasn’t been in a library in ten years and explicitly asks librarians not to comment, so you can tell it’s your typically well informed article about the contemporary library.

Supposedly, “it’s hard not to imagine a future where the majority of libraries cease to exist — at least as we currently know them.”

That makes sense, and even some librarians don’t want libraries to exist as they do now. They want community centers and maker spaces and other such stuff.

Then again, it’s not hard to imagine just about any future at all. It’s not hard to imagine paper books remaining popular for another century. Two can play at this game.

But sure, libraries as we know them might be gone sooner than we think. I’ve even made the same argument myself, recently published in a book, Library 2020: Today’s Leading Visionaries Describe Tomorrow’s Library. I am, it seems, a leading library visionary.

I was asked to contribute by the editor, Joe Janes, a professor at the University of Washington and a columnist for the other AL. I haven’t seen the book yet, but I’m in there with a whole bunch of people writing about the future of libraries.

My piece is about how the transition from physical media to digital media spell the end of the traditional public library. To give you a taste, here are my opening and closing bits:

The library in 2020 will be just like the library today, except without all the books, movies, and music.

The library won’t be a bad place at all. In fact, it will still be a good place, of central importance for the community. It just won’t quite be a library anymore.

You’ll have to read the essay to figure out how I got from one to the other, and it’s not because the Internet has replaced everything. That’s the kind of thing that uninformed tech writers say.

For example, “The internet has replaced the importance of libraries as a repository for knowledge. And digital distribution has replaced the role of a library as a central hub for obtaining the containers of such knowledge: books.”

Huh? That’s one of those claims by people with shallow information needs who don’t know much about the information universe. It says a lot more about the ignorance of the writer than the availability of information on the Internet, since most of the deep information on the Internet is locked behind paywalls, which usually require a library acting as a “central hub” to make that information available to individuals.

Besides, are books really the main repository of knowledge, especially in college libraries?

The guy, by his own admission, hasn’t used a library since college, and so once again we get someone who doesn’t use libraries at all telling us that libraries are going away because he doesn’t use them or understand how they work.

“But even then, ten years ago [in college], the internet was replacing the need to go to a library. And now, with e-books, I’m guessing the main reason to go to a library on a college campus is simply because it’s a quiet place to study.”

It’s hard to say what’s going on here. Does he mean “the internet” as a substitute for “a library” because so many library materials, especially journals, are available even if you don’t visit an actual library building?

Because unless he means that, the statement doesn’t make a lot of sense. And if he does mean that, then people are still depending on libraries.

The “main reason” to visit college libraries has probably always been to study, so that’s not much of a guess. But unless students aren’t checking out physical books, or ebooks outnumber physical books – neither of which will be true for a long time to come – then even the traditional use of libraries will stay around.

It’s not like students are going to start relying on Amazon, even for ebooks. Someone paying $9.99 or less for the latest bestseller has a different motivation and budget than students working on research papers.

The irony is that “the library,” whatever that is, will inevitably end. It just probably won’t be the way pundits who don’t know anything about libraries think it will be.

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Comments

  1. Andrew says:

    I don’t think the near-term problem is libraries ending. The bigger issue I see is that, on the public side at least, there are a lot of librarians out there who have convinced themselves that libraries are ending.

    This results in organizations that should have a pretty clear mission – repository of knowledge, promoter of literacy, provider of the latest Janet Evanovich and James Patterson, etc. – flailing about constantly trying to jump on the bandwagon of the latest Next Big Thing. And they’re always glomming onto the Next Big Thing just as the rest of the world is moving on to the Next NBT.

    Resources and time are wasted on that chase and the library ends up providing a mediocre service anyways because, let’s face it, librarians are trained as librarians. They aren’t 3D printing experts or IT support or computer programmers or videographers or audio engineers or web designers or insert fad du jour here. If they were then they’d be working in those fields and not in libraries. Then you get the public seeing the library flailing and doing all of these things and while some think it’s pretty neat, most look at it and think the old sarcastic standby “my tax dollars at work.”

    I think worrying about the end of libraries and the constant kneejerk responses to that anxiety are going to do more to end libraries in the long run than other trends. The resulting mission creep will turn libraries into a building that might still say PVBLIC LIBRARY on the granite out front, but won’t be recognizable in any way as a library in the current contemporary sense.

    • The Librarian With No Name says:

      I would argue that a certain amount of flailing in this context is a feature rather than a bug. When a new technology is in its early stages, it is nearly impossible to tell the difference between “overhyped flash in the pan” and “cornerstone of future civilization.” Therefore, any reasonably innovative organization is going to spend a fair amount of time reeling drunkenly into enticing blind alleys.

      I think it is important to anchor innovation plans to a core mission of providing information access, but the concept of information access itself has gotten a great deal more complex in the digital age. Is a room full of computers really providing information access to people who have never touched a mouse, or do we need to provide training? How much training? What if they’re only going to use the training to become Facebook friends with Nigerian scammers?

      3D printing might be a weird thing people did for a while back when Breaking Bad was a thing, or it might be as ubiquitous as a photocopier in ten years. (Right now, it mostly represents catnip to philosophical librarians, since it allows those of a certain bent to expand the definition of information to include anything smaller than a bread box and with a middling-low melting temperature.) If it’s the latter, then it’s not unreasonable to expect that libraries of a certain size will provide access to them. Or maybe not. Maybe everyone will use them, but nobody will think of them as being part of the information ecosystem. Either way, it’s hard to imagine a faster way to answer the question than a few high-profile pilot programs.

      And if there’s one public relations problem libraries absolutely do not have, it’s people thinking that they’re just too innovative. The inherent conservatism of the institution (and the downright prehistoric conservatism the public imagines for us) is what allows really wild innovation to take root.

      My prediction for the future of libraries is that a minority of libraries will continue to flail toward innovation in a tightly-controlled and fiscally defensible manner. Most libraries will look up from their day-to-day activities in vague interest. Journalists with nothing else on their plate will spout inanities about how your granddaddy’s book warehouse is finally taking a doddering step into the future. Most innovations will fail and a few will spread, take hold, be polished and refined and presented on at conferences and eventually be flattened into a uniform layer of business as normal. And the library will look less like a building Dewey would recognize and it will keep on acting as a matchmaker between information and folks who want information, and little beyond the tools will really, really change.

  2. Amanda says:
  3. Alex Kyrios says:

    Joe Janes let you contribute under your pseudonym? Darn, I thought we were finally going to see AL unmasked!

  4. Jo says:

    At the risk of sounding like a cranky librarian ….. this guy comes off as a twit who just wants attention, and who knows that if he writes something like he did, that he’ll get a lot of attention. Woo. Hoo. Yawn.
    Librarians frequently discuss that the idea of what a library should be is something that is able to change, and evolve. And those of us who can discuss it, and be excited about that fact, don’t scare easily.

  5. Bob says:

    This positive take has been kicking around the web news lately.
    http://www.chron.com/jobs/gallery/12-jobs-on-the-brink-Evolved-or-extinct-68755.php

    The library as space is a real concept and is well discussed in LIS literature. Do people want social space to be quiet in doing something with their brains independent of each other? Does proximity to one another using senses other than what digital media provide matter? My guess is that it probably does– sharing the studying or reading experience for example.

    As a research resources and services librarian serving a research community, I can tell you the above is largely unnecessary– the more online the better or so I am told. Cognitve value aspects to books (over ebooks), well that’s another thread…

  6. Mark says:

    When the library is no more, where will we go to find librarians? I see no end to the usefulness of people who are expert at finding and characterizing information.

    • The Librarian With No Name says:

      Well, if you’re looking for librarians in the post-library wasteland, I’d start by searching cat shows, knitting supply stores, and any bars that are cheap and quiet.

  7. anonymous says:

    Both the author and many of the respondents, including most of the librarians, conflate library and librarian and confuse arguments pertaining to one to the other. These are two very different conversations.

  8. Joyce says:

    What I find sad is that getting all your information on the internet is a poor way to do research. There is much misinformation out there and not everything is available. Libraries are free, they have been the great equalizer of gaining knowledge. Now, thanks to our need to make everything a business, you have to buy your information, at least valuable information…who cares what Kanye and Kim were doing…we are no longer producing true scholars, they go on the internet and glean what they must…to get an A…I suppose the Annoyed Librarian doesn’t care. He/she will probably be retired with a nice fat check, never caring or helping anyone but him/her self.

    • Mark says:

      I would say that this is more a difference of degree. There have always been students who are there for the learning and those who are there for the marks. The Web may be making it easier to meet the (necessarily) artificial requirements of the classroom without actually learning, but the ones who are going to be worth watching were and are the ones who care about the subject and get the marks as a side-effect. What we need is sharper tools to tell people whether they are going to make it once they leave the academy, so they can (if they choose) optimize their efforts toward that goal.

  9. Librarian in Texas says:

    I’d like to know where the 100 or so people that are currently browsing around my library are going to go in 2020. The man with the Bible, notebook paper, and map colors, the LDS missionaries, Moms and kids, Genealogists, etc. I guess they’ll all have iPad 4000s, by then, given to them by the President, because they certainly can’t afford to buy their own. We can turn the old library buildings into soup kitchens. The staff here can’t keep up with repairs, because they’re too busy checking out PHYSICAL materials and reshelving those returned….and you think that is all going away in 5 years? Get real people.