Annoyed Librarian
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Inside Annoyed Librarian

Libraries of the Future

Libraries have been getting a lot of good press lately, especially when they play the “we can’t get ebooks which means we’re doomed” card, though I prefer the “Why Libraries are a Smart Investment in the Country’s Future” card, which may or may not contain ebooks.

Then there’s the kind of press that’s supposed to be supportive (I think) but is really just weird and uniformed, like this blog post by Matthew Yglesias on power tools as the “libraries of the future,” helpfully illustrated, as a commenter points out, by a photograph showing neither a power tool nor a library.

Yglesias rightly doubts “that providing me with access to taxpayer subsidized comic books is a crucial public mission,” though I know some librarians would argue with him, especially the “comic librarians,” of which there must be some scattered about the profession.

He also believes that “low-income people are getting internet access” is a more important mission than providing free comic books. Somehow, though, he thinks there could be more efficient ways to provide that internet access to the poor, like subscribing them all to low-end DSL Internet connections.

That suggestion ignores a few realities. First, DSL sucks, and many libraries have faster Internet connections than that. I realize that for most people, being poor in America is a sign that you’re a lazy loser who deserves your fate, but why rub in the sentiment by giving the poor slow Internet connections? Don’t they deserve to stream Netflix Instant and Internet porn like their richer brethren?

And while we’re at it, why not throw in subscriptions to Netflix Instant and Hulu as well, to give them something to watch via the Internet.

But what are they watching on? If you can’t afford $30/month for an Internet connection, you’re probably not going to have a computer, or at least a computer that does much. It’s no use subscribing to an Internet connection and then supplying one of those One Laptop Per Child machines.

After extensive research at the Best Buy website, I’ve concluded that you’d need to spend around $400 for a decent all-purpose laptop, one with just enough processing power to make your DSL connection seem slightly sluggish.

The blog post suggests the $300/year or so that the library has per poor person could be spent on DSL for each person, but what about the computer? Even if you figure the computer could last a few years, we’re still talking about adding at least another hundred bucks a year to the equation. Libraries are beginning to look better and better as mass warehouses for computers as well as books.

Plus, unlike the typical poor household that has no computers or Internet connection, libraries have people who can show you how to use computers. Some of them might even have people who teach you how to maintain them, but I haven’t seen those classes.

Because one thing that avid computer users tend to forget after a few years is that computers don’t just maintain themselves. Stuff we do on a daily basis is learned over a long period and becomes second nature, like not clicking on that suspicious email attachment because it might be a virus. (Yes, a virus, unless we’ll be providing the poor with MacBooks.)

Then there’s that traditional mission of libraries to supply reading material. He wants to toss that out the window to make room for power tools.

establishing vast municipal stockpiles of books for people to borrow is much more efficient than relying on a series of household stockpiles. But over time digital technology is eroding this rationale (the day has not yet come when every individual is equipped with a smartphone or tablet capable of reading e-books but it’s quite foreseeable), and it makes more sense to shift away from stockpiling of books and toward things like the Oakland Public Library’s tool lending program.

This is the kind of thinking that separates the upper-middle class from the poor and downtrodden. Yes, it is quite conceivable that everyone will one day have a smartphone or tablet capable of reading ebooks. It’s much less conceivable that everyone will be able to afford any books to read.

A lot of us don’t think twice about buying a book or “buying” an ebook. What’s ten bucks here or twenty bucks there, after all. If I buy a $4 latte every morning before work, $9.99 for an ebook is hardly a big deal. It’s only when ten bucks here becomes “the family dinner” and twenty bucks there becomes “the gas I need to get to my dead end job so I don’t get fired” that it starts to matter. It’s not like they’ll be getting their ebook fix at the local library.

In addition to the DSL and the barely acceptable laptop, should we also throw in an ebook subsidy? Let’s say, a $100 Amazon gift card, so they can buy a few books a year? They could even buy some print books, like those Nancy Pearl “rediscoveries” that will be available almost exclusively on Amazon, as detailed in this article, helpfully illustrated with Pearl’s action figure giving the finger to independent bookstores. If libraries aren’t supplying books anymore, we’ll have to get even print books from stores.

Instead of reading, we should be thinking about “what sort of club goods are being underprovided thanks to transaction costs, enforcement problems, and information issues,” with “club goods” linking to a Wikipedia article that comes with a warning that it “needs attention from an expert on the subject,” so be warned. Perhaps club goods aren’t excludable, non-rivalrous goods. I’m no expert.

In addition to things like books, music, and movies that can be considered club goods, we could also have cinemas, golf courses, and the like. Maybe libraries could provide these. If libraries should provide club goods rather than reading, that would give some librarians something they want, an almost infinite expansion of the library mission.

After all, if libraries are providing power tools, why not other kinds of tools? Stairmasters, free weights, blenders, cocktail shakers, dildos, hedge trimmers, shovels, tractors, automobiles, water bongs, and coffee makers? What wouldn’t it make sense for libraries to lend?

Honestly, why are libraries competing with bookstores when they could just as easily be competing with gymnasiums, rental car agencies, and headshops? I can see the posters now: DRIVE, WORK OUT, TOKE UP, all with appropriate celebrities extolling the virtues of the club good library.

We could do that, or, we could do something sensible. Libraries are having a hard enough time doing what they’re trying to do now. Expanding the mission ad infinitum would assure the doom of libraries, not their future.

We just celebrated the Fourth of July. America isn’t first in anything anymore except income inequality, military spending, and obesity rates, but we used to think it was a good thing to educate our citizens.

Skip the power tools, provide some books, maybe even books about how to use power tools. Invest in an informed citizenry, and let the informed citizens buy their own power tools..



  1. “Some of them might even have people who teach you how to maintain them, but I haven’t seen those classes.”

    Challenge accepted.

  2. Librarian says:

    I read the article you mention regarding libraries providing access to club goods. What a ridiculous concept! As America becomes more illiterate the result is less and less support of libraries. I enjoy my e-reader, my tablet, my smartphone and my laptop but I am still in love with printed books! I agree with your post. If we try to become all things to all people; we will end up becoming nothing. We have a good mission and we should stick to that. Free access to information for our patrons.

    • Re: “If we try to become all things to all people; we will end up becoming nothing.”

      Librarian, I fear that process is well under way across the country.

  3. Joneser says:

    Show me a library with $300/yr to spend on every poor person. SHOW me. PLEASE.

  4. Midwest SciTech Librarian says:

    “After all, if libraries are providing power tools, why not other kinds of tools? Stairmasters, free weights, blenders, cocktail shakers, dildos, hedge trimmers, shovels, tractors, automobiles, water bongs, and coffee makers?”

    There’s at least one item in your list that I wouldn’t want to be working at the circulation desk when it is returned

  5. Wishing there was a “like” button for some of these comments.

    “There’s at least one item in your list that I wouldn’t wnat to be working at the circutlation desk when it is returned.”
    Like; like; like; like; like. :)

  6. “As California goes, so goes the nation.”

    Libraries in Oakland and Berkeley already lend tools.

    The West Hollywood public library reportedly has “bad-ass Shepard Fairey murals”, rooftop tennis courts and a coffee bar. (Can cinemas and golf courses be far behind?)

  7. Yawk and gawk says:

    I think libraries should circulate multipurpose fighter aircraft, but not fighter aircraft designed as dedicated interceptors nor fighter aircraft designed for a primary emphasis on air superiority missions. It’s really unfair for all the Library 874.0 crowd to insist that every conceivable type of fighter aircraft should be circulated. At my public library here in Gagville they don’t provide any inflight refueling services, nor will they rearm my aircraft between sorties. Further, they keep raising prices for the number of AAM’s I expend each borrowing period. I think that’s fine, and yet I read plenty of bloggers complaining that many public libraries have stopped providing full ground crew logistical support for their circulating fighter aircraft; one blogger who shall go nameless was *itching a fit because her public library announced that if she wanted to have the sorties of the aircraft she checked out coordinated with her regional air defenses, she’s have to pay an additional fee. Well, I have no problems with such additional fees here in Gagville. So I think people should stop complaining and be grateful that you can even borrow an up-to-date advanced weapon system like a fighter plane from a public library.

  8. Things like laptops and e-readers are also tools. I suspect they’d be more widely used than hedge trimmers, but I could be wrong.

    Tool lending libraries have the same issues as traditional libraries– budgets, space, lost-stolen-damaged materials, and the inconvenience of getting the needed tools to the borrower in an efficient manner. But the intention is the same: use a pool of community resources (money) to select materials which some members of the community will find useful, but which those members don’t (wish to) purchase individually. Tool-lending libraries really aren’t a bad idea– but I don’t think they’re a particularly new idea. The materials being loaned are different.

    But if we’re comparing an analog item with a digital storage and distribution system then to my way of thinking analog loses that comparison. The only area where analog has an advantage is in ownership. We can buy analog materials. We can merely license some restricted rights to receive access to digital materials.

    The library of the future might still be able to purchase, distribute, and store some materials electronically/digitally. And currently, we could buy e-readers and iPods and fill them with all kinds of books and audiobooks and music and video recordings and loan them to members of our library community. Assuming we want to do this. We could “buy” the e-content, but loan the (analog) carriers/players. That may be as close to digital as we can get unless the rules of ownership change in a way that favors libraries. I don’t foresee this happening, but I could be wrong.

    Please remember that all this is a fairly recent development and development is ongoing. Somewhat lost in our discussion of these issues are the opinions of the creators themselves. Do they prefer to sell more copies to individuals or would they prefer to increase access to e-materials for libraries?

    I suspect the library of the future will be “different” but I’m unable to imagine what it will look like because I don’t know how far into the future we mean. All I can say with certainty is that in the future I’ll be older. Somehow, that’s not a happy thought.

    • Re: “use a pool of community resources (money) to select materials which some members of the community will find useful, but which those members don’t (wish to) purchase individually.”

      Hi Dennis – I believe your concept reflects more what libraries have become rather than what they were at their founding. When libraries took root in this country they were resources for materials deemed valuable that people could not acquire on their own (either because they were scarce or expensive). Libraries held materials you would not find elsewhere: encyclopedias & other reference works; globes and maps; newspapers from faraway places; collections of great literature and some entertainment materials. They also employed literate people – also a scarcity at the time.

      IMO, libraries have failed to appreciate the essence of their special value as a resource for what is scarce and dear. Instead they increasingly trade in ubiquitous materials that, as you say, people don’t find valuable enough to acquire on their own. My sense is this isn’t a function the taxpaying public will support much longer.

      AL’s closing comments get at libraries’ special value, as does Steven Bernstein’s recent LJ essay “Embracing the Shhhhhtereotype“.

    • Jean: this is the most intelligent comment I’ve heard on the “change” discussion. I’ve been mentally flailing around trying to come up with a coherent conceptual boundary for what my library will and will not do/be/provide. My gut said the line needed to be drawn, but it’s difficult to explain to my stakeholders. Like other commenters here, I feel that to articulate a tight mission will enable me to nail the “wills” and not waste energy on the “will-nots”. Well done.

    • Thanks Mlisa. You may be interested in a comment thread on the Lead Pipe blog (two comments and an author reply). I share ideas on what distinguishes libraries from mere sites of information, which are virtually anywhere-and-everywhere today, to sites of knowledge conveyance and meaning-making.

    • Hi Jean,

      I think my previous comment got a little side-tracked by the title and I really was thinking about the future of libraries rather than the AL’s take on someone else’s idea of the future of libraries. Apologies for that.

      But I do have a different take on what constitutes the special value of libraries. Libraries are public institutions that provide free access to materials that some members of our community can’t afford on their own. It used to be sets of encyclopedias. Now it’s internet access. And maybe some power tools.

      The AL makes a point that we want an educated and informed citizenry. No argument there. But much of what we provided in the past to help inform and educate our citizenry is accessible to a large part of our service populations without the library as intermediary. Which was somewhat the point of the original post that prompted the AL’s response.

      But do we realize that many of the citizens without the means to independently access those resources that will make them educated and informed citizens could be starting to improve themselves from a very low level? Are we using the proper metric to judge their choices? And they may not be able to afford the tools that we describe in the how-to books we provide so a tool-lending library may make a huge improvement in their lives. Or they could simply be working two or three jobs and just want some cheap entertainment while they ride the bus between jobs.

      I’d argue being “better educated and better informed” is a relative condition.

      This is not to say we’re only serving the more desperate people in our communities. But the better educated and better informed know how to access our resources without librarian assistance. Even if they’re still borrowing physical materials, they can place materials on hold remotely and pick the materials up without spending much time searching the shelves. Their time is valuable to them so this level of service is probably just what they need. And if they occasionally want to read a best-seller (but prefer not to buy a copy they’d only use once), then the library can provide that as well.

      The future of the library is still kind of a mystery to me. Which future? The one five years from now? Ten years? Twenty? What will the service needs be for seniors? Children? The affluent? The poor? The foreign-born? I suspect that the more marginalized among us will be the ones who need the library the most. The more affluent, who in response to surveys still say they think libraries are a great idea, will probably continue to support us with their tax dollars. For a while anyway.

      We’ll still occasionally provide the special value that Jean refers to but I think we do need to change as conditions evolve. And they do evolve. Whether we can keep up with the pace of change is a discussion for another time.

      Apologies for being so wordy. Thanks for reading.

    • Dennis – your reply is the most honest and intelligent statement I’ve read about public library service today. Much of the service is situated at a low level, as you say, and while that meets the needs of some it leaves many others wanting.

      I’d submit targeting low-level services is not good for libraries or users. It spreads libraries too thin offering services that do not require skilled labor and are not “best in class”. Few organizations can make a service strategy like this successful. Additionally, it’s unwise to continue a model whereby many of the people who fund libraries (average tax payers like me, not the rich) don’t find their services useful. The economy is still on shaky ground for the 99% and many of us who have traditionally voted YES to library funding may go the other way as we continue to feel financially pressured and see our libraries moving away from the aspirational model.

      For users, I agree that providing internet access is a good thing, though of far less value than libraries make it out to be. A greater public good IMO would be to cultivate materials and services to help us all (users and non-users who would be drawn in) to foster meaningful conversations. Why is internet service so expensive? Why do so many people need to work 2 jobs to make ends meet? Why are a staggering number of people on food stamps? Why have “corporate profits just hit an all-time high and wages just hit an all-time low? What resources (economic, artistic, spiritual) have people used to face such challenges in the past? These are but a few topics that merit investigation and dialogue. Could skilled librarians help participants find authoritative information about these questions? Could they help keep the dialogue space open so people with differing viewpoints could ask their questions and air their views?

      Regardless of our economic circumstances, most of us are gagging on information. What’s scarce these days are embodied community, thoughtful engagement and dialogue. Our libraries are uniquely positioned to provide space & resources for these — they’re the only institution I know of with the broad physical presence & human network, traditional mission and professional values to make a difference. And it’s why I advocate for them.

  9. Hmm, how can libraries stay afloat if people don’t care about libraries anymore? Make a library not a library! Ah, the old MTV solution to staying afloat.

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