This article by Mark Hirschey appeared in the Oct. 2, 2006 issue of the Lawrence Journal-World. The title "Libraries Are Limited, Obsolete" describes it pretty effectively, but I think it’s worth reading, even if you don’t agree with it. Perhaps especially if you don’t agree with it, since I’m not convinced that Hirschey’s point of view is all that uncommon.
And, I’ll be honest, my first instinct is to dismiss this guy out of hand. My second instinct is to get royally pissed off, and my third instinct tells me to take a deep breath, actually read what he wrote and consider it. Think about it. Write about it. So I did. My response to Hirschey’s point of view is behind the edit.
Some librarians will read that last sentence and imagine that I’m selling out by lowering myself to his level to respond. I don’t think that’s the case. Like it or not, libraries are service organizations. Some make money from more specialized activities than others and most are supported by at least some public and private funds. If the day comes that we are unable to defend our livelihoods to those who write those checks, then those checks will cease to be written. If we cannot convince people to actually come in and use the resources we have available, then we’ll have failed to serve those potential patrons in any meaningful way.
So with that in mind, I’ll point out that while Hirschey’s argument is far from iron-clad, it’s not entirely uniformed. He’s right to point out that huge portion of our patrons come in to use our electronic resources rather than the printed volumes. And he’s also right to point out that $70 million–a number I pulled from the comments beneath the article–is an enormous amount of public money to be spent on any kind of project (if it’s correct). And let’s face the ugly fact that at least some larger libraries might do well to occasionally rethink who they are serving and how.
At any rate, I think that dismissing Hirschey and those who believe as he does is a mistake. Let’s try to convince them that we’re worth keeping around.
Libraries are limited, obsolete
By Mark Hirschey
Monday, October 2, 2006
As a long-time resident of Lawrence, and one who has devoted his
entire life to education, I have followed the debate concerning a new
library for Lawrence with great interest. As a parent of three
students, two in college and one teenager at Southwest Junior High, I
have witnessed a stunning transformation in the way kids access and use
information technology. All that I see as a parent reinforces what I
see at work every day:
1. Libraries are inefficient. Like me, kids seek fast, convenient
access to up-to-date information. That’s available on the Internet. In
this new information age, libraries are an obsolete place to store and
disseminate information. Rather than speed access to reliable,
up-to-date information, libraries provide only remote, slow and
inconvenient access to limited and often outdated information.
Go to any library. The stacks are empty; it’s the computers that are
busy. Then ask yourself if it makes sense to locate those computers in
one central and remote location, like a downtown library, or instead locate the computers where kids, seniors, and everyone else wants to use them.
This argument could have been helped a lot by his pointing out which libraries have outdated equipment, which is what I assume he meant by "slow and
inconvenient access to limited and often outdated information". Granted, he might be pointing to older copies of monographs and serials as well, but he doesn’t say that–he may not know there’s a difference. He may not care. Or he might be assuming that everyone who goes to libraries (all of them apparently) feels as he does. At any rate, the problem is that he doesn’t differentiate "information" from "information technology" which limits my ability to discuss it. (Maybe that was what he intended–who knows?) Now, if he’s talking merely about the latest equipment and current books, then maybe he needs to realize that all those things cost money, which few libraries are brimming with. They also have existing collections, into which those items somehow need to mesh in as coherent a fashion as possible. I’m all for weeding collections on a yearly basis, be they print, or electronic, but the name of the game is, as always, "What can we afford to do this year with the budget we have?" More money means better libraries–less money means worse libraries. If Hirschey is not willing to pony up the cash, he shouldn’t complain. The least he can do is begin a dialogue with his local library planning organization. I’m reasonably sure they’ll listen to what he has to say.
The next paragraph seems more ideological than fact-based. First of all, between walk-in traffic and Docline requests (not to mention ILL needs and requests by corporate clients) our stacks are hopping any day of the week, and so are the stacks of the libraries I deal with locally (mostly university libraries, but a few branches of the Queens Public Library as well). There are some days when the stacks are empty and people are crowding each other to get to the computers. And as someone who works with computer networks for a living I can say that there are only so many ways to design a LAN; one big server connected to the Internet can support as many smaller remote access PCs as one has bandwidth to distribute and money to purchase equipment with. It doesn’t make much sense to install each remote PC with its own ISP connection. The reason is again, one of cost. New equipment is expensive to buy, install and maintain, and broadband is still relatively expensive.
I’m not sure what he means by "locate the computers where kids, seniors, and everyone else wants to use them." Where do kids, seniors and everybody else go to use computers these days? If I had to guess I’d say school, libraries, and their homes and their friends’ houses, and places of work. Guess where PCs are commonly found these days? That’s right: schools, libraries, places of work and people’s houses. If you’re not obsessed by speed, an Internet connection can be had for a monthly expense that’s less than that of a family outing at Burger King. (If you are obsessed by speed, you’re probably an on-line gamer and that’s not the sort of thing libraries provide to their patrons.) This is not an either-or proposition. Everyone in Lawrence can have their personal on-line connections and also have access to a major league library.
2. Libraries are limited. Everybody wants access to reliable
information. The Internet is a gateway to unlimited data and
information about government, business, and the community. Multiple
information providers on the Internet make fact checking easy and
reliable. No single person, such as a librarian, can or should be
relied upon to verify accuracy. Single sources for information
verification are inefficient and potentially dangerous.
He’s absolutely right–the Internet is a "gateway to unlimited data and
information about government, business, and the community." And he’s correct to point that relying on any single source of information can bite you in the keester pretty harshly. But he’s wrong about the idea that it’s the librarian who is the gatekeeper of all that information. We’re not like the guards who stand at the gates of Fort Knox. Anybody can come in and use the print or online resources in a library in any way, shape, or form he or she chooses. We don’t particularly care what you research–we care that you research. (I’m the first to admit there are folks out there who don’t share this ethic of service.)
Back to the Internet. One thing that few people in the general public seem to realize is that computers are not magic black boxes that somehow read your mind and spit out answers to any questions you might have. They are not Wishing Machines. They are (in the context of library equipment) access points to a complex system of rules and regulations (so to speak) that can help you seek out relevant material assuming that you know what you’re looking for. Students, for example, often make the mistake of looking for too much material, then get flustered when a Google search turns up 34 million hits on a general phrase like "gun violence". One thing that librarians are trained to do is to mitigate those kinds of situations. A fast reference interview with our student might turn up the fact that she’s looking to do a 10-page report on the effects of prolonged combat on national reserve members. Together, they build a new search strategy which turns up three thousand results, which is a much more manageable amount.
Also, who’s to say that Google (or Yahoo! or Answers.com) is the end-all-and-be-all of federated search engines? The results they give you aren’t exactly objective. They sell ads and prioritize search results according to how much you’ve paid them. Not the most reliable source of information on the planet despite its well-deserved popularity. Wikipedia, which I personally love, is literally feuding with itself over dozens of contentious topics. But that’s the nature of a wiki. No one expert can know everything about a subject, but get a few thousand of them together and you’ll get one heck of a complete entry. The trouble with this beast is that experts often disagree on the details, and in an environment where anyone can make an editorial change at will . . . again, not entirely reliable. But still very useful and extremely popular.
So much for reliability. If there’s a lesson here, it’s that "take everything you hear with a grain of salt" is a universal concept in the world of information science. If it applies to government documents, independent researchers, corporate think tanks, and librarians, it must also apply to the Internet. On to the next point.
3. Libraries are obsolete. Modern information technology involves
two-way communication between providers and users of information
technology. With instant messaging, blogs, message boards, and email,
the Internet fosters information sharing among virtually unlimited
numbers of information providers. Computers are communication devices
that bring communities together.
I’ve heard the "libraries are obsolete" line before. I submit that the sheer number of people who visit them on a daily basis make the argument at best premature. About ten years ago the pundits were crowing about the mass marketing of PCs would bring about the "paperless office". Well, fine. It’s been a decade. Walk into any office on this planet. You will see lots and lots of paper. Libraries might be made obsolete by something some time soon, but it’ll take some system of information searching, retrieval, and storage that’s more reliable and easier to use than a printed book with numbered pages, table of contents and index. If you want to insist that the Internet has made libraries obsolete, fine, but I’ll just suggest that it hasn’t passed that test. Not yet. When people stop visiting libraries because something genuinely better has emerged, I’ll happily look for another job.
By the way, the reference to "two-way communication" is a red herring. You’re supposed to read that and infer that only the internet can provide such a thing, but he’s wrong. A phone call is two-way communication. So is the act of reading a book, magazine article, web page, or even a street sign. His insistence that "instant messaging, blogs, message boards, and email,
the Internet fosters information sharing among virtually unlimited
numbers of information providers" may be technically true, but it also fosters a tremendous amount of noise that’s at best distracting and at worst irrelevant to the reason one generally goes into a library–research of some type. As a Digital Resource Librarian, take it from me: more internet is not necessarily better Internet.
Rather than build an expensive new library downtown in the mistaken
belief that such a monument to 19th century information technology will
bring the community together, the city of Lawrence needs to consider
the real advantages to bringing our entire community’s information
infrastructure into the 21st century.
We need to embark on an aggressive plan to bring broadband access to
the doorstep of each and every home in Lawrence. There is no need to do
anything in west Lawrence, the private sector has already done that in
the newer part of town. It’s east Lawrence, the older part of town,
that desperately needs access to new information technology.
I actually think a 19th century styled library would be quite nifty (which is why I work in one). But I agree completely with his idea of bringing broadband to every home in Lawrence (or anywhere else) that can be wired for it. Of course, he doesn’t say how much this will cost or why private enterprise can’t be trusted to provide those services (give the ISPs a per-unit tax break to wire low income homes, that’ll get them moving, it usually does). Anyway, good idea. Bravo. But now that I’ve said that . . . who teaches all the poor kids how to use the internet? It’s a learned skill that not everyone picks up on hir own. Plenty of libraries hold information literacy classes regularly. Just saying . . .
Don’t expect kids, seniors, and everyone else to trudge downtown for
the convenience of librarians. Put information technology at the
fingertips of every kid, and every senior in Lawrence. Because low
incomes limit the ability of some to connect to high-speed access, even
when it’s brought to their door, the city might give low-income
families computers on a needs basis. Otherwise, offer reliable Internet
access at small 24/7 City of Lawrence Free Internet Cafes (“libraries”)
that are broadly distributed for easy walking access by kids and
Before the City of Lawrence commits to wasting millions of dollars
on a new downtown library, ask yourself a few questions. When was the
last time you were at the library? When was the last time you logged
on? Why is that?
Trudging downtown for the convenience of librarians? That’s a new one to me. Libraries aren’t located where they are because the librarians requested the locations–we hop on trains or buses, or into our cars or walk to work because that’s where our jobs are. (I commute 50 minutes each way by subway). Location has more to do with building codes, city zoning laws, and the cost and availability of labor and materials than anything else except perhaps the mayor’s social calendar. Anyway, Hirschey is still assuming this is an either-or situation, and it’s not as far as I can tell. You can have widespread broadband connections and also have a new library if you’re willing to pay for it. If the building site is in a depressed part of town, he should be telling his city planners to locate a few older unused buildings than can be bought by the city and brought up to local codes–which would very likely be faster and less expensive than designing a new structure.
One thing that I don’t understand is why he hates the concept of a big building with lots of broadband-capable PCs and loves the idea of many small buildings with few broad-capable PCs. Why is an Internet Cafe open 24/7 a better deal than a well staffed library? Depending on who owns and operates it (or them) an Internet Cafe could staffed by almost anyone, but there might be problems with that arrangement. An IT guy would get you connected and keep you that way but he might not be the best person to ask for help in researching a term paper. By the same token, a lot of very clever and well educated librarians I know are technically challenged and shouldn’t be allowed to do IT work even if they want to. And then, who would run them? If it’s a for profit business, they’ll have to charge for connect times and limit use of the equipment somehow, and pay some kind of attendant some of of decent wage to handle problems on site as they occur. Which is fine, as far as it goes, but again, why pays for it? The city? If it’s the city, then one has to ask why Internet Cafes are better investments than a library since the funding source is the same.
This sounds like simple anti-library prejudice to me. If it’s not, I’d love to hear some kind of analysis that proves me wrong. I suppose the real question to ask is this: if a slew of ‘open all night’ Internet Cafes is such a great unfilled business niche, why hasn’t some entrepreneur built a business to fill it? Could it be because libraries fill that niche rather nicely already?