What libraries are for.

I had a fascinating conversation with a librarian friend today. We were talking about ongoing collection development projects, the role of eBooks and emerging modes of media. Flashpoint: “But really. Don’t you really think that in a few years people will stop needing us since everything is online?”

In his defense, he was feeling a bit overwhelmed and bewildered by the pace of change. In his defense, there is much to feel overwhelmed and bewildered about.

The idea took me a bit by surprise. It was unsettling to hear a librarian speak the words “everything is online”. That was the kind of talk that used to rile me up in library school back in the early 2000’s. The speaker, usually a politician of some type, would get rewarded by a list of the many things that were, in fact, not online — encyclopedias, newspaper archives, scholarly journal articles, video, contemporary books.

Of course, all of that has changed. Which is to say, all of that is online now.

So here’s the point: that doesn’t matter. Librarians need to move beyond the old idea that our job is to provide a stronghold of printed information as authority against the less reputable, fadish online information sources. This was a dumb battle. We didn’t stand a chance. Mostly because there was nothing there to fight against.

The idea that libraries exist as some kind of print island oasis in a choatic ocean of digital resources is wrong-headed.

Everything is pretty much online now and libraries are more important than ever. Why? Because the companies that have made every aspect of our culture available and accessible to us online, want to sell that culture back to us.

I love Apple, Amazon and Google. They have pushed the information ecosystem forward in a big way. I love all three because they make information easy to locate, obtain and use. But they scare me a little, too. They scare me because they think of information in terms of consumption, as something that is consumed.

Apple’s iPod, iPhone and iPad are the 3 major vehicles for how I interact with my friends, my music, and my news. I love the iPad as an eReader. At the moment, I only read free, public domain or creative commons licensed books on the iPad because I don’t want to pay for my books.

Our library is working on implementing free download of EBSCO eBooks to the iPad and Nook with Overdrive access on the Kindle and iPad to follow. Still, I worry that the logistics of moving an eBook from the library collection to a personal eReader will not be as easy as the process of moving a purchased book from the Amazon or iBook stores to the native eReader apps. Will our patrons be willing to endure a little inconvenience to save money or will convenience win out? History places the chips on the side of convenience.

And so, we work diligently to explore, implement and develop eBooks plans and services that are highly convenient. Not because we are competing with Amazon for book customers or with Netflix for video watchers. We do this because we believe people shouldn’t have to pay tolls to access the products of their own culture.

I love to buy books. People should be free to buy books, but people shouldn’t have to buy them.

Apple, Amazon and Google are helping make sure everything is online. That’s their business model. It is a very effective business model.

Libraries are there to ensure that business models aren’t the only factor shaping the tools and terms of our cultural production. That’s what I find so fascinating about the work librarians should be doing.

For a long time, we worried that the Internet would somehow co-opt us, render us irrelevant and sweep us away. Now, librarians are learning to co-opt the tools of the Web to drive cultural production forward and keep the resources needed for good learning available to all.

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3 thoughts on “What libraries are for.

  1. Getting library books on the Kindle is just as easy as buying them from Amazon, with one great big caveat: the supply is limited from the library and infinite from Amazon. I do worry that libraries might find themselves in the same boat as print media. The sad thing is that even as we lose newspapers and potentially libraries, we need real journalists and librarians more than ever.

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