Annoyed Librarian
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Inside Annoyed Librarian

The Post-Librarian World

First of all, I’d like to take a moment to ask Mother Nature to let up a little. Please and thank you.

Now to the serious questions: when will libraries cease being libraries? Or have they already? And when they do, why will we need librarians?

I thought about those questions as I read this long article on public libraries in Minnesota. The headline states that the libraries are “rushing to adapt to a post-book world.”

That’s not quite right, unless ebooks don’t count as books. There are really two trends involved, moving to a truly post-book library and moving to a paperless library.

The paperless library is inevitable, and probably not a great thing in the long run for libraries or library patrons. Although technology saves money and time in some ways, ebook technology will end up costing libraries a lot more upfront and give them less control over their wares.

That change could be offset someday if library buildings and librarians disappear. After all, if a library is just a mediator between digital publishers and digital readers, listeners, and viewers, then there’s not much reason to have a building or very many librarians. That stuff costs money.

People notice these sorts of things. Someone from the Freedom Foundation of Minnesota thinks “that libraries have an identity crisis as they try to be all things to all consumers and figure out a niche, and are spending a lot of taxpayer dollars in the process.”

And you have to take that seriously, because it’s a foundation for freedom, and who could be against freedom? Maybe you, you fascist, but the rest of us like it.

The libraries in Minnesota know what’s going on, which is why some of them are trying to do anything to keep themselves relevant. Circulation is down, but there are a lot more cultural events and computer classes and such to keep people coming to the library.

Or is that what they’re coming to? A paperless, or perhaps physical objectless, library doesn’t need library buildings and hardly needs librarians. What does a truly bookless library need?

Just going by etymology, we might wonder whether bookless library is an oxymoron. If a building is primarily a community center, then it’s a community center, not a library.

It’s easy to understand why librarians would continue talking about libraries, even as they’re converting them into something else. They’re counting on the cultural capital of libraries to sustain them.

People like libraries, and generally people like funding them. Will people still be as willing to fund community centers? To willingly tax themselves so that others can enjoy cultural events and computer classes they probably have no interest in? Hardly as inspiring as, say, promoting childhood literacy.

Time will tell, but I suspect that if libraries metamorphose completely into something else, people will feel less warmly towards them.

However, even if libraries do make the transition to something else – community centers, computer banks, and maker spaces – and they still need buildings, there’s still one thing they won’t need: librarians. The post-book world is a post-librarian world as well.

There’s no need for a library degree to host cultural events and teach computer classes, not even for the managers. Moving to the “post-book world” is moving to a world that doesn’t need librarians. No amount of ALA accreditation or library school reform can prepare people for a world that just doesn’t have libraries or librarians in it.

Then again, library schools know how to suck money out of people. Maybe there will be new degrees, the Master of Public Entertainment. The ALA might even accredit it, because they’ll accredit anything.

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Comments

  1. feldspar51 says:

    We embarked on the road to ruin the day it became widely known that everything could be reduced to the level of “information.”

  2. Walter Strong says:

    Did I write this? I’ve been having these same thoughts as I watch my Comm Coll library slowly die. Without out any clear evidence that our collections and services cause students to meet course learning objectives, we’re simply viewed as overhead that will need less staff and space as collections go digital. Thank goodness the various higher ed accrediting bodies still require library services be provided. Without them, I bet there’d be a lot less of us.

    • Walter Lessun says:

      My CC library is slowly withering away, too. Our accrediting body and our professional association do not help. With imprecise standards like sufficient, suitable, partnering, enable…we meet the standards according to my president’s definitions, but not mine. We still have a print collection so I’m not losing space. But I am losing staff and budget. My solution: retire in359 days and go canoeing.

    • Andrew says:

      I had the same experience working in libraries at a for-profit college. To their credit they were very serious about maintaining the library, providing a good budget, and making sure that they met all accreditation standards. But you could tell that the library was a line item that would’ve been eliminated in a heartbeat if those accreditation standards ever changed.

  3. The world is NOT prepared to exist without librarians. It just doesn’t realize it yet. I’m currently reading the book “To Save Everything, Click Here” by Evgeny Morozov. There’s a great quote in one of the first chapters that says something about how people need MORE help organizing and managing information in a tech-advanced culture. I’d say that’s an argument for the necessity of librarians. (Of course, I don’t have the book handy right now.) Let’s also remember that there may be a time when power is knocked out by solar flairs or some other catastrophe, and librarians we’ll again be needed to put things back in order — at least for a little while.

    • Zeke says:

      It’s very possible that many communities will exist a hundred years from now in areas where there is no wireless access and no iPads or Kindles. It would be myopic to simply assume that today’s technology will remain as accessible in the future as it is today.

  4. Library Spinster says:

    “The paperless library is inevitable, and probably not a great thing in the long run for libraries or library patrons.”

    I’ve been hearing about the inevitability of paperless library (and the paperless office) since the 1970s.

    • Andrew says:

      To be fair the technology wasn’t there 40 years ago in the same way it is today.

      I don’t think there will be a paperless library though. Some entrepreneur will crack the formula for making the Netflix of books. The paperless library will be a startup that sends traditional libraries further into obsolescence.

    • Alex Kyrios says:

      I read an article about the race to be the “Netflix of books” on The Atlantic the other day. I was very heartened to see that most of the comments amounted to, “Isn’t that just a library?”

  5. tactical-librarian says:

    What is the one thing people all around the world will be desperate for within the next 20 years?

    A quiet place to learn and think away from advertising and (general) government intrusion.

    GEE – That’s a traditional library!

    • Andrew says:

      Have you been to a public library lately? In my experience the quiet space has more or less been destroyed outside of a few select meeting rooms in the name of being open and inviting to the public and creating a vibrant community center where people want to hang out.

  6. blgriffin7 says:

    Oh AL must be particularly cranky today, provoking all us insecure embattled librarians.

    But, the paperless world without traditional libraries is a long way off, unless the Freedom Foundation gets it right, being so concerned with all us being so free (not to contribute to the public good?) and all.

    Many many people, and that includes young adults, at least at the high school that I work at, prefer print for serious, extended reading with fewer distractions. Maybe the forces that are trying to cut libraries are forgetting or neglect to see that. Maybe they don’t care. Maybe freedom means little more than keeping your (tax) dollars to yourself and not worrying about educating the masses. We (and that certainly includes some librarians working within them and their “leaders”)seem to forget that the public libraries have a deeper educational mission than being community/meeting/hacker spaces and that librarians SHOULD be in them and outside of them functioning as independent facilitators and educators. We may not need as many books or as many traditional library buildings going forward, that should depend on how people prefer to read and learn, but we should always be in need of really good independent educators who work for equitable access and intellectual freedom, really good committed librarians. And if we don’t see ourselves that way, than maybe should go by the wayside.

    • Zeke says:

      “We may not need as many books or as many traditional library buildings going forward, that should depend on how people prefer to read and learn, but we should always be in need of really good independent educators who work for equitable access and intellectual freedom.”

      Yes, one would hope that society would perceive the need for people like that. But who creates the need for independent educators? It’s not us, for the most part – it’s society. We can do our part by excelling at our jobs, but no matter how excellent a librarian may be, he or she will be rendered unnecessary if the community isn’t interested in what the librarian’s selling: independent education and access. Cultural standards and views are the foundation for our professional existence.

  7. Timothy says:

    I think our basic problem is that we have used circulation as our proxy for success. This means that a person self-checking a copy of Skyfall,, me helping a school student find the perfect book for her assignment, and me helping a desperate mother whose child has just been diagnosed as autistic to find the perfect tool in our special needs library all count as one transaction each, of equal value.

    This means that if you are an administrator, and you are trying to meet the goals set for you by the circulation-based system of measurement, the obvious plan is to have the little reference work as possible, and fill the collection with high-rotation self-service items, like DVDs. This works, for the limited value of “works” which is measured by circulation. It mistakes the measurement for the desired outcome, though, IMO, and leaves the industry vulnerable to being flanked by other providers who superficially meet the measurement. Netflix, for example, isn’t legally available in this country yet, but when it is, our circulation (which has risen every year due to population growth) will taken a sudden plunge. At that point we are going to need a rationale for our funding that’s not based on people loving us.

  8. Mary says:

    So, I’m in the thick of this as a Teen Librarian at a large, busy suburban public library. We do an inordinate number of programs, and it’s so time-consuming, I feel like my main job has become event coordinator, not librarian. There hasn’t been any cut back in job duties, just a constant piling on, with fewer workers and more part-timers. Before you all tell me I should leave the profession : YES, I am doing just that very soon. I’m leaving because librarian work is not librarian work any more. It’s event coordinator and like you said, Public Entertainer. So, before I get blasted with hate comments–I do a good job, I don’t hate people, I provide great customer service, I love libraries, and I am not the devil. I wouldn’t mind doing occasional creative programs here and there, but the current expectations are complete madness. The maker movement is ridiculous. I hope libraries pull through, but I see them changing into community centers–and that is something else, NOT libraries. Bye bye!

  9. Zeke says:

    I think there are two dynamics at play here. First, yes, many articles, books, etc. have been digitized now, so that for people who like to read on their tablets and laptops, they can often subsist wholly in that way if they prefer to. Secondly, however, what we’re dealing with is a meme – a.k.a. a faddish, trendy cultural viewpoint – that says that book-reading is not really “the thing” anymore. And it is important to differentiate these two strands, because the latter often has nothing at all to do with the former. Politicians, academic administrators, talking heads and assorted other pundits proclaiming that we are in a “post-book” world are creating a self-fulfilling prophecy, and I think it has every bit as much to do with a lemming-like rush to erase time-tested intellectual standards as it does with the real technological advances that have occurred. Hearing the meme parroted everywhere makes librarians like me, who continue to check books out to intellectually curious patrons, infuriated.

  10. feldspar51 says:

    Is ILL access is the last justifiable reason for having a public library?

  11. HL says:

    I’m wondering if some private and academic institutions will reduce their libraries to nothing, and then find themselves hiring librarians back as specialized researchers for whose services they will have to pay 30% more simply because the job title sounds more impressive.

  12. jhan says:

    As far as I’m concerned, public librarianship is already dead, long before physical libraries have bitten the dust–and getting rid of librarians will make getting rid of the physical spaces much easier. When librarians are forbidden to do anything that actually requires a degree (my system has said that we are no longer in the business of information, so no professional development stuff is necessary), why have librarians? They are not necessary. Once librarians are gone, information and knowledge are going to be acquired by the individual, on-line and off, without professional help. As long as they have a family member or friend to help them, they can download most of what they need, whether that meets their needs or not, and find some other way to get the rest which may include the library but also may include any place that sells books–and the physical space of library becomes irrelevant for too many, even redundant (especially if your community already has a community center and your primary focus is being a community space. Where I’m at, “cultural programming” does not sell well). Politicians will tout bookstores and whatnot as alternatives, whether those meet public needs or not, and the library is razed so a Walmart can take its place. Walmart sells books, you know.

    • Librarian in Texas says:

      Interesting. How many Bookstops closed within the last 3 years? We have lost 2 retail bookstores in the last 2 years and several mom & pop used bookstores have dried up, but our PUBLIC libraries are busier, than they have ever been.

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