In Defence of The Library
I made a decision at the start of this year to blog and tweet less. Talk less, do more. Up until now it’s been fairly easy, but I’ve had to interrupt my writing of the last few chapters of the book to write this post.
A couple of days ago Seth Godin wrote about The future of the library. While it is positioned as a love-letter to librarians and the latent potential in a new vision for the library, I see it as a dangerous and (ironically) outdated article.
Throughout our last year of travel, we relied on libraries – from Cardiff to Vancouver to Melbourne. Initially it wasn’t a positive decision to use them, more-so a “I suppose, if we really have to…” decision. But we quickly developed a deep appreciation and respect for libraries and the surprisingly modern services that they provide. So much so, that I now feel it is our personal duty to protect them.
Wherever we went, we could use a library. FOR FREE. We didn’t live there, but we were always welcomed and given warm shelter, free WiFi and a large desk with a convenient power outlet. It seems that many other people were also making use of the service – if you haven’t been to a library for a while and presume that most others haven’t either, you may be surprised.
Libraries are wonderful places to work, and many already meet Godin’s “future vision” of rows of available computer terminals and masses of convenient working areas. Some also have meeting rooms and other facilities that make them even more friendly to the development and exchange of information and ideas.
And yes, they still have books too. I’m currently sitting next to a pile of beautiful library-borrowed books – including wonderfully typeset and illustrated Tufte masterpieces – that are far superior to online equivalents. There’s probably about $250 worth of books in that little pile, and if there’s something specific we need, we can just order it. Isn’t that amazing, when you think about it? We can get any book we want, for free.
Libraries also offer an amazing array of other services, including DVD / Blu-Ray rentals and video game rentals. Mostly for free. As Godin states, I’m sure some librarians resent this “dumbing down” of their establishments, but isn’t this also the most incredible way to get people into the building, together as a community, and slowly inch them towards other activities? Getting people through the door is half the battle, so these services make sense to me. Plus, let me just re-state, they are mostly FREE. You can borrow a $60 video game for FREE.
I’ve also seen libraries with video game consoles inside the library, playgroups, and other non-literature-based services. These have been well used – it was incredible in Melbourne to see kids queuing for the library in the morning so that they could play games that they couldn’t afford to otherwise. And afterwards, they’d often progress to the comics or magazine section that had been strategically placed beside the consoles. Sure, it isn’t Mark Twain, but doesn’t the video game > comic > graphical novel > book progression just make sense to you? It certainly does to me. Well done, libraries.
My main gripe with Godin’s post, however, is that he seems to be almost blaming libraries for a lack of vision. No, Seth, what they’re lacking is CASH. And pointing out that they’re currently crap does not help their fight against cuts. They’re not rolling in money, but instead are facing reduced budgets every year. And you know what you can do with less? Less.
I’d like to return to the start of this post and ask Seth to do something that I’m trying: talk less, do more. It’s fine to point out foibles and wax lyrical about beautiful technical visions. But what libraries really need is support. They ARE heading in the right direction, but what we need to do is encourage people to get libraries back into the zeitgeist and to use them. When people realise how wonderful libraries are we will hopefully see more people willing to demand budget increases rather than cuts, which will help to further evolve their services. But moaning and navel-gazing won’t get us there.
If you haven’t visited a library for a while, I urge you to take 20 minutes out of your weekend and give one a try.