Re: [ACAT] Time to Get Rid of Libraries

Posting to Autocat

There are so many different types of libraries that it is difficult to generalize about any of them. There are corporate libraries, school libraries, 4-year academic libraries, research libraries, government libraries, public libraries big and small blah, blah, blah. I gave a paper where I said that I am not all that sure what it is that libraries really do and mentioned, “What I am questioning is whether the job of librarians is really to select, acquire, receive, catalog, shelve, circulate, conserve, and provide reference help, and do it all efficiently and effectively, or do they actually do something quite different?” I still say that the job of libraries is something different and that when we think of it in such terms, we are mixing up what we really do with matters of workflow, bureaucratic responsibilities and so on.

But I still maintain that libraries should be a place for people to go where they can get good, reliable information. Maybe not the latest information, or the “best” information (whatever that means), but although the librarian may have very definite opinions on specific issues (Obamacare, the NSA scandal, the legacies of Ronald Reagan and George Bush and the War on Terror), when people come to consult the librarian professionally, people need to know that they will not be seeing only the librarian’s personal opinion, but will become aware of all sides of a debate. I think that is a vital service to offer today–perhaps as vital as at any time in the history of libraries. And the Googles will not offer that. I think that is our advantage.

And yes, people will come to love libraries as they learn the secrets it holds (books filled with notes, maybe by famous scholars), or materials once owned by major figures of their community. Or they will associate libraries with the deep friendships that they have made with people they have met through browsing the shelves together. This is all wonderful, and one of the reasons why I decided to devote my own life to libraries.

But we have to recognize that those times are changing. We must assume that everything published today has been made on a computer (all books, articles, maps, videos, audios, etc.) and when it is already digital, it is literally child’s play to make it available to others digitally, to play on their own computers. As of now, several highly powerful people in the media industry have said, “NOOOO!!!!!” to this idea, but it can’t go on forever and all it will take will be a handful of strategically-placed individuals (or maybe two handfuls of such individuals) to decide to make all of those files available to the world. And suddenly POOF! It will happen. The question is when? For instance, if someone has written a book, how long does it take to make that file into a Kindle (mobi) file? About 5 seconds. The same goes to make it an epub or pdf. So, it will happen, but when?

And that is when the information world will really change and what libraries should be planning for. Will libraries still be needed to “select, acquire, receive, catalog, shelve, circulate, conserve, and provide reference help, and do it all efficiently and effectively”? I hope they will be needed for some of those tasks. And some types of libraries will probably go the way of the dodo, with research libraries being last. The physical materials may wind up being valued only as individual exemplars and libraries will be seen as museums where people may like to sit in, but not as places to go for information.

I think there is a lot that librarians can provide, but if the tools librarians make (e.g. the catalog) do not provide what people want and need, then it is difficult to foresee a positive outcome.