Annoyed Librarian
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Inside Annoyed Librarian

Complement, Not Compete

One of the latest sallies from the other AL is a listicle about how libraries are still better than the internet. It’s an interesting and sometimes questionable list that might better be called “how libraries are better than the internet if the internet was something other than a neutral platform for information sharing.”

For example, “Libraries are safer spaces.” The idea is that they’re safer spaces to exchange ideas with strangers without the danger of them starting to call you a Nazi or a beta cuck.

Libraries do restrict the number and geographical distribution of people you can learn from. However, the internet is a safe space if you just don’t interact with strangers at all, which you really shouldn’t be doing.

“Libraries respect history,” we’re told, because they have more stable collections, no link rot, etc.

This one seems a little disingenuous. Libraries are funded entities staffed by actual humans trained to build library collections in various formats.

The internet is just a medium for sharing information. For example, even though one of the great thing about books, as the article mentions, is their longevity, it doesn’t make sense to say that books respect or disrespect history. They’re just a medium.

If there were no people behind the internet, there would be no information on the internet at all.

Besides, libraries do have an equivalent of link rot. There’s a funny website somewhere of pictures of REALLY outdated books that are still in library collections.

We find out that “Librarians digitize influential primary sources,” which seems like a false comparison. Librarians are people who can do things, the internet isn’t.

There’s an attempted caveat that “the internet is the platform that enables this progress, but librarians are doing the work.” Well, sure. But the result is from one perspective still just “the internet,” if you’re dealing with the people ignorant enough to think one replaces the other.

It’s like saying the book is the platform that allows reading to happen, but writers still do the work. But nobody compares writing as an activity with the idea of a book as a medium of communication.

Can libraries really be better than something if they couldn’t do the thing they’re supposedly better at if that something didn’t exist?

Others are similar, like “Librarians are leaders in increasing online access to scholarly information,” or “Libraries are publishers.” But how do they do this? Through the internet.

Thus, libraries aren’t better than the internet, because without the internet they couldn’t do the things they’re doing that supposedly make them better.

Focusing on the physical is one way to distinguish libraries from the internet. “Libraries host makerspaces” is a good example of that. An entity whose only physical presence is servers and such can’t host makerspaces. Well played, libraries.

Then their’s the intellectual work of librarians, which should be superior to a medium of information sharing that has no intellect: “Librarians can help you sort the real news from the fake.”

Librarians CAN help you do this. Obviously nobody cares about that. It’s not like the people caught in their bubbles where they believe in things like Pizzagate and anti-vaxxing are going to start vetting their news through librarians.

Also, “Librarians guide you to exactly what you need,” but that guidance partly involves helping you use Google better, which is also information provided on the internet. Of course, as the article implies, librarians are better at most people even at finding that information,” and they certainly help you find better information that isn’t available on the internet, even though you don’t want to bother. Again, well played.

Another bad comparison: “Librarians do not track your reading or search history to sell you things.” Then it immediately mentions Amazon, even though Amazon isn’t the internet. That’s a great Amazon v. Libraries comparison, although the only other thing libraries have going for them in that comparison is that they’re free to use.

Corporations on the internet track you like crazy, but the internet as such doesn’t do anything.

Also, “Librarians do not censor.” However, the internet doesn’t censor either. The internet is just a platform controlled by people, who can and do censor parts of it.

I suspect most articles like this for the last 15-20 years are read mostly by librarians wanting reassurance than the public. Hence the place of publication.

In order to build up the reassurance, the comparisons don’t have to be bad ones, though.

Libraries and the internet don’t compete with each other, but complement each other, so better or worse comparisons always have to be strained.

However, since so many ignorant people believe the two do the same thing and the internet has made libraries obsolete, I guess it’s also necessary to meet them where ignorant people congregate, on the internet.



  1. “1. Libraries are safer spaces.”

    Safer? Safe libraries are the #1 concern? Ha, funny!

  2. Good piece. The Internet is the electronic equivalent to pen and paper. It can carry wonderful messages and content, but it can also carry dreck. Let’s be honest. Lots of librarians censor ideas that they don’t like.

    Can we please not hear any more about “maker spaces”? There may be many libraries where this is appropriate. Not all though. I know a librarian that has difficulty keeping the lights on due to funding cuts yet was pressured by the state agency to spend grant money on a 3D printer. Why? To be on trend. It doesn’t serve that community.

  3. “Can libraries really be better than something if they couldn’t do the thing they’re supposedly better at if that something didn’t exist?”

    It think that really says it all.

  4. Suzanne Tecza says:

    It’s sad that most folks don’t understand the value of a real librarian and the benefits of having access to a library.

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