What Will Become of the Library?

 Posting to Autocat

For your weekend reading, you may be interested in this: “What Will Become of the Library? How it will evolve as the world goes digital” / by Michael Agresta (Slate, April 22 2014)

In it, he talks about many of the new directions libraries are taking, primarily, the library as “third place”, and he quotes Caitlin Moran who wrote that libraries are “… cathedrals of the mind; hospitals of the soul; theme parks of the imagination.” He goes on to describe libraries as “maker spaces,” “incubator projects” and so on. In this way, it is similar to other articles on this same topic I have read recently.

But these articles have a couple of assumptions that they do not mention: the idea of the library as a place to find reliable information that you need, or where you can find help to find the information you need. The assumptions seem to be: people can find their information on their own using the new tools, and that the information they find will be valid. There are even more assumptions hidden inside these statements, e.g. that the new tools in their turn can detect and organize the information you need, and present it to you in a way you will understand, but we can leave that aside for a moment.

Is it true that people can successfully find information on their own using the new tools? To be honest, I have had tons of problems with them, and I have seen lots of people have major problems. If I am just trying to find a hotel for a vacation, that is one thing, but if it is any more complex, it becomes really tough. As an example, I have been watching the Ukraine crisis very carefully, and I often see claims made by a journalist, a blogger, a comment, that I want to discover is true or false. In many cases, all I can find are loads of obvious propaganda (on all sides) and I cannot find anything I feel I can trust. If I–who am supposed to be some kind of expert–am having those kinds of problems, I can only imagine the feelings of an untrained person when they are trying to find something useful. All many of them know to do is go to “Wikipedia”, which is not much different from the way it used to be when people could only “look it up in Funk & Wagnalls.”

So, while this is an interesting article, I think there is no real evidence that people are finding reliable information on the topics they are interested in, or whether they are just accepting whatever they find. To help people in these ways has always been the library’s main mission. So, I hope that while libraries become these “third places” (which is fine), in the process they do not abandon their primary task, because it is just as important as ever.

We all need new tools and methods that make a difference to the public, however.

I also suggest another, related issue from the Chronicle: “As Researchers Turn to Google, Libraries Navigate the Messy World of Discovery Tools” https://chronicle.com/article/As-Researchers-Turn-to-Google/146081/ and the really excellent article cited there by Andrew Asher, Lynda M. Duke and Suzanne Wilson, http://crl.acrl.org/content/74/5/464.full.pdf