future of libraries
What's love got to do with it? further thoughts on libraries and collections
Rick Anderson, in his Ithaka S+R "Issue Brief" paper, Can’t Buy Us Love: The Declining Importance of Library Books and the Rising Importance of Special Collections, proposes a radically different vision of the future of libraries in which libraries cede the organization, preservation, and curation of large areas of the information landscape to individuals and the private sector.
I just finished reading Rick Anderson's Ithaka S+R issue brief "'Can't Buy Us Love:' The Declining Importance of Library Books and the Rising Importance of Special Collections." it is not the most articulate argument for the future of libraries, but it certainly may be the best eulogy.
Anderson's perspective bothered me so much that I jotted down a few thoughts to ponder in response. I wanted to post as a comment but it ran a little longer than Ithaka allows on their site. By all means, read Anderson's piece, and then my comments below. I'd love to hear what our readers think.
Full citation: "'Can't Buy Us Love:' The Declining Importance of Library Books and the Rising Importance of Special Collections." Ithaka S+R Issue Brief. August 1, 2013. Rick Anderson, Interim Dean & University Librarian, J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah.
Here are a few thoughts to ponder:
Rory Litwin has a nice comment today over at Library Juice. He says he hates the slogan "Librarian: The Original Search Engine" because it confuses what librarians do with what search engines do. He suggests a better analogy would be: "Librarians are to search engines as astronomers are to telescopes."
People who don't know much about astronomy can get some use from a telescope, but we understand that with an astronomer's knowledge it can become much more powerful as a tool for discovery. We would not say, "Astronomers: The original telescope," and we wouldn't think for a second that that a slogan like that would be flattering to astronomers or supportive of the astronomy profession.
But he goes further. Read the whole (short) post:
- You would not say, "Astronomers: The Original Telescope", by Rory Litwin, Library Juice, (November 30, 2012).
...a good slogan for the library profession should also encompass the other roles that librarians play in their institutions, as selectors, organizers, and preservers of information resources who have their communities in mind, and as the creators and maintainers of the systems and intellectual infrastructures that facilitate the connections between them.
Today I was re-reading an article from a few years ago and was struck by how prescient it was in providing a formula for the success of libraries. Here are some of its main points:
- Find a niche with growth potential (serve a community).
- Organize information to make it useful
- The internet is a distribution channel -- not a product (add value!)
- Turn words into math (sophisticated mathematical formulas can find patterns in content and make it more discoverable)
- Separate the signal from the noise (Type the word "jaguar" into Google's search engine and you'll get 64 million results. Fix this!)
- Computers can't do everything (humans indexers and editors make the difference that algorithms cannot)
- Print's not dead, it just needs online help
There you go!
Oh, I left out two things: One of the main rules was "Treat content like patented material" and the article was not about libraries but about Westlaw which has a successful "business model" of doing what libraries don't do anymore because "it is all on the web" and "someone else is doing that" etc.: selecting, acquiring, organizing, and preserving information and providing discovery of, access to, and service for that information. And they built their business model on using Free information. Most libraries do not have to make money which means they could do this for less cost and deliver the results to more people for free. But libraries would have to make the case that this is a better, more equitable, more democratic model than relying on the private sector. And they'd have to have leaders with the vision to build a 21st century library. Westlaw and others did it in the 20th Century. Google could never have built Google books without all the work libraries provided by building collections. What libraries have this vision today for future generations?
Read all about it:
- Westlaw rises to legal publishing fame by selling free information, By Erin Carlyle, City Pages, (April 29, 2009).
Earlier today I posted a couple of favorite quotes about the role of libraries as institutions that hold in our collective memory things that would otherwise be forgotten. A short article in Scientific American notes the importance of "the internet" as "external memory" or "transactive" memory:
- Piece of Mind: Is the Internet Replacing Our Ability to Remember?, by Larry Greenemeier, Scientific American (July 14, 2011).
...[T]he Internet has become a primary form of external or "transactive" memory ... where information is stored collectively outside the brain. This is not so different from the pre-Internet past, when people relied on books, libraries and one another ... for information. Now, however, besides oral and printed sources of information, a lion's share of our collective and institutional knowledge bases reside online and in data storage.
The researcher says that "Information is much more available than it was." An interesting article, but it misses, I think, the key point that if no one preserves "the internet" (or the parts of it that we want to preserve), this transactive memory won't be there for us to use. (The article even makes this amazingly naive statement: "And if our gadgets were to fail due to a planet-wide electromagnetic pulse tomorrow, we would still be all right.")
This is important because, if we think our "external" memory is safe and we rely on commercial interests to preserve that information, then we are leaving our very memory at the commercial mercy of those companies. An alternative is for communities of interest to rely on libraries to preserve important information.
A related article about the same research:
- Internet Use Affects Memory, Study Finds, By Patricia Cohen, New York Times (July 14, 2011).
From the Library of Congress:
- It Takes a Village…to Archive the Internet, guest post by Abbie Grotke, Web Archiving Team Lead at the Library of Congress (posted by Mike Ashenfelder), The Signal, digital preservation blog, Library of Congress (July 14th, 2011).
Despite the tremendous amount we’ve preserved, we know we can’t do it alone. We often collaborate to build web archives with other libraries, archives and organizations in the United States and around the globe. We do this when events unfold quickly on the Internet and the Library can’t react as quickly as we’d like for whatever reason, but also when the scope of a collection is so big that we must work with others to ensure that breadth of content is preserved.
...So while each institution has its own collection policies to follow, there is an obvious recognition by web archivists that the Internet is a global place, not neatly wrapped by physical boundaries. Personally, I value these collaborations and know that my colleagues do too. If we work together, we can ensure that more of the Web is preserved, and often we can act more quickly, particularly when the risk of loss of content is so great.
Corrected attribution above.
On a quiet Sunday, here are two quotes that I find both memorable and inspiring when I think of the role and future of libraries. These days we see so much emphasis placed on fast access to current, popular, "must see" information. Although libraries have a role to play in that as well, few if any institutions have the long-term role that libraries have.
We mustn't model the digital library on the day-to-day operation of a single human brain, which quite properly uses-or-loses, keeps uppermost in mind what it needs most often, and does not refresh, and eventually forgets, what it very infrequently considers -- after all, the principal reason groups of rememberers invented writing and printing was to record accurately what they sensed was otherwise likely to be forgotten.
-- Nicholson Baker. Double Fold. NY: Random House, 2001. p245.
Libraries exist to preserve the thoughts and deeds that no one else has time for anymore, to collect items that might not be used for another ten, fifty, one hundred years -- if ever. It is this last uncertainty that makes libraries the most heroic of human creations.
-- Paul Collins. Banvard's Folly: Thirteen Tales of People Who Didn't Change the World. New York: Picador, 2001. p.285-286.
This research shows how much users value convenience and quick access. That will probably not surprise you, but it should help inform choices for libraries. The choices libraries make will increase their value to users or drive users away.
- Connaway, Lynn Silipigni, Timothy J. Dickey, and Marie L. Radford. 2011. 'If It Is Too Inconvenient, I'm Not Going After it:' Convenience as a Critical Factor in Information-Seeking Behaviors. Library and Information Science Research, 33: 179-190. Pre-print available online at: http://www.oclc.org/research/publications/library/2011/connaway-lisr.pdf (.pdf: 275K/46 pp.).
It can be argued that in the not-too-distant past, resources were scarce, and libraries were one of the only sources of trustworthy information. Users were obliged to conform to library practices and standards in order to successfully meet their information needs. Now, users' time and attention are scarce, while resources are abundant with the development of the Internet and Web-based services (blogs, chat, social media sites, etc.) and easily accessed, digitized content. This article provides an overview of findings from two multi-year grant-funded projects. These projects address the questions: "Why do people choose one information source instead of another?" and "What factors contribute to their selection of information sources?" Specifically, the emergence of the concept of convenience as a critical factor in information-seeking choices among a variety of different types of people, across a period of several years, and in a variety of contexts, is explored.
The annual study of the impact of the Internet on Americans conducted by the Center for the Digital Future found that almost half of Internet users age 16 and older -- 48 percent -- are worried about companies checking their actions on the Internet.
Users are more concerned about corporations than governments:
By comparison, the new question for the Digital Future Study found that only 38 percent of Internet users age 16 and older are concerned about the government checking what they do online.
It is not clear from the press release that respondents were asked about any specific activities or behaviors of governments or if they were asked about any specific laws such as the "PATRIOT" Act.
Providing users with privacy and confidentiality when they read is one of the key, long-term values of libraries. As we look to our future, we should invest in our ability to continue to do that by hosting digital content and providing users a way to securely and privately browse and read digital content.
Privacy: "I have nothing to hide"
The Public Library Manifesto, by David Morris, Yes Magazine, (May 06, 2011).
We need a grassroots effort to defend our public libraries, an effort that can and should be part of a growing nationwide and international effort to defend the public sphere itself.