In Defence of The Library

May 18, 2011

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to librarians and the latent potential in a new vision for the library, I see it as a dangerous and (ironically) outdated article.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.

6 Responses to “ In Defence of The Library ”

  1. Keeran on May 19, 2011 at 12:03 am

    On top of that, try visiting your local library as a cool place to work. It’s usually a lot quieter than Starbucks on a mothers wednesday meet & greet and has a whole lot more to offer than an awkward table and an overpriced wifi connect.

    FWIW Cardiff central library is a great place to work and chill out at the same time :D

  2. From_A_Librarian on May 19, 2011 at 4:40 am

    Great reply to an article that is quite outdated – the main philosophy behind the community-local library is to provide FREE access to INFORMATION to those who otherwise would not be able to get access. Therefore – libraries do still provide books, but also internet and computer access, computer literacy courses, as you said – games, DVDs, CDs, eBooks and whatever else will pop up in the community that a community requires

  3. Andrew Male on May 19, 2011 at 8:57 am

    I’m reading this on the free super fast wifi in Newcastle City Library. This library has all of the services you’ve described.

    I wonder if these new libraries can position themselves as places where new businesses can start and grow as well. The infrastructure is already in place and perhaps new customers are just down the corridor browsing the books. An audience ready to test your ideas and products on.

    I’ve just checked and they do have one of Seth’s books available (Linchpin) so I’ll go and check it out!

  4. Susan Ujka Larson on May 19, 2011 at 1:03 pm

    This librarian says thank you. Even I’m beginning to feel outdated with all the budget cuts to libraries and reports about libraries being nonessential and outdated. Thank you for encouraging me in my profession.

  5. @libraryweb on May 19, 2011 at 1:26 pm

    Is there a question of management though – there evidently is a vision, but we don’t have any management making the noises to indicate the management actually have any vision.

  6. Dennis on May 20, 2011 at 1:51 pm

    I think Seth makes some good points though. Netflix is probably a better option for those people who can afford it. So are ebooks. Shorter waiting times are worth the not-unreasonable expense to a lot of our users. There are huge efficiencies to be gained by embracing the digital possibilities. But the licensing agreements publishers insist on for ebooks make them less viable for libraries to license/purchase them. So we lose out on the conveniences that someone who owns a Kindle and doesn’t mind paying for reading material gets for a reasonable price. Not being able to share books that you purchase might seem a small price for them to also pay.

    I like libraries. I work in one. I give money to them. But we’re facing a turning point (another one– and certainly not the last) that we’re not able to embrace as fully as we’d like. That’s a problem for us. Not an opportunity. A problem. I think Seth was correct to recognize that and brave to air that opinion.

    I will continue to use my library. It’s convenient for me– I’m there every day. But I won’t purchase ebooks or an ebook reader until it’s in my interest to do so. Borrowing e-materials through libraries via Overdrive doesn’t come close enough.

    And our funding agencies and the public that elects them are probably as aware of some of Seth’s arguments as we are. There will probably be more of them willing to say that libraries are a less useful investment of their/our tax dollars than they were. We can respectfully disagree with that argument. But it doesn’t make us right and them wrong.

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