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.