Annoyed Librarian
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Inside Annoyed Librarian

The Great Debate

As some of you are aware, British public libraries are facing hard times, possibly harder than American public libraries, prompting this bit from Auntie Beeb, Are libraries finished? Five arguments for and against. The good news is that the “against” arguments aren’t that great. The bad news….

We can see for ourselves. Here are the five “for” arguments, thing found “only at a library”:

1. Specialist research
2. Environment to learn
3. Expert staff
4. Free internet access
5. Engage in local democracy

“Specialist research,” as described in the article, really just means that libraries have things available in print that aren’t online, especially historical collections that should be maintained. That’s not much of an argument for libraries as living institutions, though it does have the merit of being true.

Libraries do provide an environment to learn, but much of that argument is devoted to “lonely people.” One librarian claims that “some lonely people would be even more isolated by being left on their own in a room trying to use the internet.” Aww, the poor lonely people. Let’s build a library so they can stare silently at computer screens surrounded by lots of other people staring silently at computer screens.

Supposedly, “Librarians have specialist knowledge and are trained to find reliable information and evaluate it – a skill as relevant in the digital age as it has always been,” and the example is navigating medical websites for information because Google is so confusing. Yeah, maybe, but it’s funny how I never hear from my non-librarian friends that they find Internet searching confusing and need some “expert” guidance.

Librarians in the U.S. also like to tout free Internet access, but that’s not something that requires libraries. Libraries provide it now because libraries already existed. It might be cheaper to give everyone a laptop and provide free wifi in public buildings.

Another complaint: “The problem with the internet is people flock together and have similar views, there’s no real dialogue between people who have different views,” Libraries can hold discussion groups where people can talk to others who don’t already agree with them. This ignores the obvious fact that people don’t want to hear from others they disagree with, which is why they flock together on the Internet in the first place.

The opposition is even worse, though. What we get “only online”:

1. Searchability
2. Digital books
3. Comfort in numbers
4. Brings niches together
5. Self-publishing

It’s easier to search online than in books. However, this ignores that a significant amount of library content is online, and is available only because libraries pay for it. Lots of stuff is “only in Ebsco.” Try affording that stuff without a library.

The digital books argument is pretty bad, too. “For those who can afford a portable reader like a Kindle or iPad, the convenience of accessing books on a beach, up a mountain, or anywhere else for that matter, can be irresistible.” And for those who can’t afford one, the inconvenience of remaining ignorant and illiterate isn’t worth bothering about. It also makes it sound like once you get the device, free books just arrive.

“Sometimes the right answer just comes when people ask each other questions on forums.” This is true, and the Internet is good for this, if you can find the right forum. And, speaking as a librarian, I’m glad that this person asking if she was possessed while playing with a Ouija board went to Yahoo Answers instead of my library.

Thanks to the power of the Internet, people in the demon-possessed niche can find each other more easily than ever, which I suppose should also be celebrated. If they’re busy nattering with each other in a chat room, it keeps them from nattering to me on the subway.

Self-publishing as an online-only phenomenon and a strength of the Internet is wrong on both counts. “You used to only be able to publish news by owning the printed presses, and you needed a publisher to agree to publish your book, now you can publish books on demand.” There have always been vanity presses, and most writing is crap, whoever publishes it. I still can’t figure out what this has to do with libraries, since they’ve never published much.

As usual, the comments might be even more thoughtless than the arguments in the article. This one is a howler:

“If the searches on the internet became more accurate and tablets became cheap, then we really don’t need libraries. One can carry thousands of e-books, that would be such a convenience and one doesn’t has to care about the wear-n-tear of the e-book. Libraries should be converted to museums and should be preserved for the future generation. We should promote digital books and reduce paper demand.”

It assumes some utopia where every book you want to read is both findable and free online.  Where is this utopia? I want to go live there.

Like some of the “against” arguments, it also assumes that libraries don’t provide ebooks, or that you can actually make a distinction these days between libraries and the Internet. These arguments sound like they’re made by people who haven’t set foot in a library for 15 years.

This is a tough debate to decide, because both sides are poorly represented. I’d go with the libraries on this one, though, because the “only online” arguments are so obviously ill informed about both libraries and the Internet that it’s impossible to take them seriously. Since the BBC is run by a bunch of library-loving socialists, maybe that was the whole point of the article.



  1. It is interesting that of all materials on «Save Our Libraries Day» we chose the same. Overall, the campaign to protect the British Libraries was carried out successfully? What do you think?

  2. “It also makes it sound like once you get the device, free books just arrive.”

    That’s a recurring theme in all the mean-spirited, poorly-researched news articles floating around claiming that the library is obsolete. Yeah, I want to live in a world where everything you could ever want to read is free online. Then I could afford to be an unemployed librarian. But why would writers and publishers put in all that time an effort to produce books if they’re not going to be paid for it?

    Perhaps it takes a librarian to help the ignorant make that leap.

    Also, there’s this:

  3. AL…I suppose it’s an interesting intellectual activity to dissect these arguments pro and con, but let’s be honest, the bottom line is always about money. Local funding authorities will continue to fund libraries if people continue to use them. Why do people use public libraries? Well, my local library is crowded with people every single day basically doing 3 things: using the childrens book collection and programs, sitting at the study tables using personal laptops, and lining up to get an hour at a computer. As long as people keep flocking to do these 3 things, my local library will survive. Politicians don’t ask why people use libraries; they just want to know that they ARE using them. It’s all about cost/benefit and votes. Librarians won’t decide the future of libraries; users will. 8 track tapes died because people stopped using them not because the 8 track tape manufactures decided they didn’t have a future. I personally feel that libraries have a long future. Why? people need them and use them…always have; always will.

  4. It puzzles me that people often do not mention the free distribution of electronic books as an important role for libraries. E-reader cost is an issue, but it’s the issue of content that is most serious in my eyes. I do not want to live in a stratified society where wealth dictates access to books. Overdrive is not great, I think we need to push for better modes of distribution, and access to reference and scholarly materials. The public would really take note if it were clear that libraries were a reliable source for all types of e-books. There will certainly be a fight with Amazon, B&N, and others, but we fought the Patriot Act valiantly, and we can fight for fair e-book access too!

  5. librariann00b says:

    One thing that puzzles me is why there’s not a dedicated PR person on the payroll of any large library – academic and special libraries included. Many museums have great PR – beautiful eye-catching imagery on subways and billboards, well-publicized events and membership drives, and people flock to them to enjoy the resources they provide – and pay for the privilege! If the issue is that the majority of the public hasn’t set foot in a library in 15 years, why aren’t libraries allocating at least a tiny part of their (I understand meager, but a little now could see a real ROI) budgets toward making the public more aware of what they have to offer. Then maybe we wouldn’t see ill-informed articles like this one all over the place.

  6. librariann00b says:

    PS – I work in a library, don’t have very much experience with PR but just see the difference it could potentially make with a generation of users that gravitates toward aesthetically appealing marketing. Another thought – maybe some of the artists who find the library so useful would be willing to do some pro bono advertising work.

  7. librariann00b: I actually work as a “PR” person for my library (outreach is the official title, but a lot of what I do is PR). For it to work, you need to have support from the rest of the library staff. You can plan all the neat programs in the world, do all sorts of publicity (deity knows I do), but if the library staff themselves do not show up or even support the efforts, it is not going to happen. At least that has been my experience, where I was hired precisely for that role, except the director had no idea quite what to do with the position (or what it is actually supposed to do), so even as I try to shape things, it has been rough going. A pity because I do think good PR would mean better ROI.

    I could go on, but then this would get too long.

    And a brief thought on the e-book thing. AL makes a good point. People think you get a Kindle (or whatever device) and books somehow appear magically on it. While there are some free e-books (mostly “classics” out of copyright that, let’s be honest, most people do not care to read), everything else is NOT free. Sure, give them your credit card number now, but sooner or later, that bill does have to be paid. And as gatoloco says, “I do not want to live in a stratified society where wealth dictates access to books.” And yet it does seem we may be heading that way.

  8. librariann00b says:

    Dances with Books – that’s what I’m talking about! Effective outreach requires the involvement, or at least the support, of everyone in the library – I guess where I’ve worked, the issue has generally been that there’s a recognized need but no real knowledge or experience, but I have also come into contact with some “guardians of knowledge” who might have difficulty supporting efforts like yours. Best of luck to you.

    Brief note on ebook readers: Kindles do not support the Adobe ePub format, which is the format most – maybe all? – public library ebooks come in. More expensive tablets – pretty much talking about the iPad here – support both formats (for now).

  9. Elizabeth says:

    Hey, Dances with Books! Many library marketing networking meetings I’ve have included at least one comment similar to yours of the importance of everyone in the Library helping to market it. You might enjoy Linda Wallace and Peggy Barber’s Building a Buzz: Libraries and word-of-mouth marketing. The book is about WOM marketing, but includes case studies of libraries that used their staff to promote WOM both inside and outside their libraries. The case studies document success using this approach (involving staff) and perhaps you could use this to help show your director what to do and how to do it.

  10. @willmanley

    I realize this wasn’t the point of your comment, but the conclusion drawn about 8 track tapes was illogical. People stopped using 8 track tapes because more appealing models became available–there were more attractive ways to access and collect music. All this through the beauty of competition. The same could easily happen to libraries–if a better model is proposed and proven, people would likely transfer their allegiance to the new model. I don’t know if this is likely, but it is a more accurate conclusion drawn about the possible future of libraries as it relates to your 8 track tape analogy.

  11. @ question
    That’s my point exactly. People dumped 8 tracks in favor of better alternatives. People will dump libraries in favor of better alternatives, but right now I don’t see those better alternatives, not now and not well into the future. Ultimately, the people will decide. Despite all the gloom and doom from librarians, libraries have never been more popular.

  12. The public library near my house is always very busy, particularly with the kids, so it seems people here haven’t gotten the idea that public libraries are obsolete.

  13. librariann00b – we have a marketing manager in the large(ish) academic library I work in. She’s atrocious. She’s a rather old fashioned librarian who before doing the job hadn’t ever worked in marketing or promotion, and fell into the role because she knew about printing out posters. What she sees as “marketing” is putting up a stand at a show (not always an appropriate one, student welfare?!), and publishing posters. No Twitter, no web engagement at all, no utilising the expertise in the University or encouraging students to do stuff for us so they get experience. Hopefully she’ll retire soon.

    I went to a Read-in at one of the public libraries near me last Saturday (I’m in the UK). It was a really enjoyable experience, and there was so much love for libraries from the people who came along, and there were many, many people, it was really positive. I just hope that the people in charge here take their heads out of their backsides and listen to us. [Strangely enough, the £7bn that this year’s cuts will save will directly cover the £7bn bail-out that our government gave to the Irish government…funny that].

  14. librariann00b says:

    Elizabeth – Thanks so much for the book tip. That looks terrific!

  15. Print formats are wonderful for children, tactile, and developmentally appropriate. What about the adults who are migrating to e-books quickly? Also interesting to consider, is that many working poor have cell phones and these tools can be a primary connection to the world, and maybe a library too. The rate of e-reader adoption is growing exponentially. I think your right Will, libraries are not the 8 track legacy type devices today, but I am not certain about the future. The lack of integration of e-books into the ILS is a big problem. It is also a big opportunity for vendors. Let’s hope they take the bait, and the result is reduced costs for libraries.

  16. ChickenLittle says:

    For all the hand wringing, the article is indeed correct, that library usage is way down across the board in the Western world, especially in public libraries. It has to do with demographics and technology. The aging boomers, the “reading generation” are using the library less and less. The younger up and coming “Millenials” are not darkening the doors of the publics, they prefer online content and like to participate in that content via Web 2.0. They also like to buy and sell used books on Amazon. I had a Millenial tell me the other day, “why would I wait for a hold for 2 months when I can buy it off of Amazon and re-sell when done?? Overall, it is a dark future for publics, the Academic libraries will always be around in some shape or form because they are still luckily part of the academic experience in most institutions. The publics…had better re-boot or be prepared to turn out the lights!

  17. Randal Powell says:


    I agree that many public libraries need to be re-booted. There are major problems in how many libraries, public or otherwise, “do business”. And I want to be clear here: I think that many public libraries can be SUCCESSFULLY re-booted.

    The internet has made drastic transformations in modern life in a very short period of time, but not all of those transformations have been positive. Virtual social interaction, via whatever 2.0 invention you want to include, is not as satisfying as real-life social interaction. For every good piece of information or reporting on the internet, there is an overwhelming abundance of crap. And don’t tell me that staring at an LCD monitor to read an e-book is no different than reading a traditional book.

    I’ll reference Will’s comment above since it illustrates what I am saying here. There is a certain segment of the population that uses the public library out of desperation. They are the people who stand in line to use (usually not very good) computers for one hour or less (which is not enough time to accomplish much of anything, but I will save that rant for another day). Then there are people with laptops and children, or yes, even the normal, intelligent adult who just wants to read a book or magazine. These people who DO NOT need to use the library. They are there for the EXPERIENCE. Public libraries, I think, could do much more to capitalize on that fact.

  18. Yes, it’s definitely weird that people don’t seem to realize libraries stock e-books (especially given how hard we’re supposed to be pushing the things… apparently, our marketing is not good, which is shocking for people who’ve had as much training in marketing as MLS requires[/sarcasm off]).

    I’ve always found the “libraries vs. internet” to be a very strange argument in general. As a librarian, the internet is a huge resource. Not the only resource, but certainly not one I would resent. There are a lot of things that are vastly improved by it, and searchability is a big one. (I have no desire to go back to little green Readers Guides, thanks.) But it doesn’t replace print resources, and as far as fiction goes, the book trade is much heartier than the e-book trade.

    While we all, as readers, have this dream of free books falling out of the sky, as Librarienne says, how many authors and publishers are going to want to work without any compensation? That’s not terribly fair.

    And of course, Kindle won’t play along, but that’s Kindle’s problem–patrons who want to use library e-books check into it and buy a different reader.

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