[Web4lib] Shouldn't Libraries be Technology Hubs, instead?
Steven E. Patamia, Ph.D.
patamia at gmail.com
Sun Oct 31 00:39:22 EDT 2010
Please consider the following personal essay inspired by this thread.
I like to discover the core of difficult issues and problems through the
mechanism of carefully restating the obvious. If you have no taste for that
kind of analysis, press delete now. If you do read on and find at the end
you already reached similar conclusions or had already seen the issues and
problems in the same way, then please forgive me. After all, there are many
very well educated and obviously thoughtful souls who subscribe to this
mailing list. I accept the risk of boring or even offending some of them.
Having followed postings on web4lib for several year, there is no more
perplexing nor important a topic than than what constitutes a library --
abstractly and in practice.
Questions about what a library "should be" are intrinsically more
speculative, but in practice always seem to involve concepts of what the
essence of a library is, coupled to a concern about how to adapt the forms
they took in the past to the realities of current and evolving technology.
All these discussions have tended to reveal a quite realistic concern
about whether libraries can remain relevant in a future in which recorded
information of all kinds can be accessed using electronic devices --
especially those amenable to personal ownership. Embedded in these
discussions, I detect a deep personal concern among participants about
whether "librarian" is a job description with a future.
The good news is that a lot of participants are aggressively expanding
their skill sets to insure they will not be rendered irrelevant. The bad
news is that publishers are adopting strategies and embracing (and
influencing) the evolution of legal protections which continue to promote
the notion that information is owned by individuals and private entities in
ways that disregard or openly corrode free public access. In fact, my
personal take on things is that the battle to preserve mechanisms of free
public access to information is a decisive battle in a larger war between
what's left of public interest and the overwhelmingly stronger bastions of
Libraries, for centuries, were guardians of the principle that the
recorded work product of humanity was, in some sense, owned by humanity
collectively even when (later) recorded copies had a reproducible physical
form which was conducive to individual material ownership. As long as
libraries were slightly inconvenient, they did not threaten publishers and
authors and even supported their private interests by providing a sampling
venue for published works. It did not threaten a publisher or author if
some subset of the population was content to compete among themselves for
temporary custody of a copy of something. Now that the same content can be
electronically stored and it becomes possible to distribute it massively
with little difficulty, the publishers and authors perceive a genuine
threat to actual sales. And so it is, that whether it is stated openly or
not, the real existential threat to libraries is that they themselves
threaten the marketing model of those who profit from the distribution of
electronically recorded content.
Turning now to the ostensibly narrow question of whether libraries
"should be technology hubs," I worry that this is a mildly interesting
question which nevertheless attempts to reframe a crucial problem by
deflecting attention to an almost trivial side question. In point of fact,
I find it impossible to imagine that whatever libraries of the present
evolve into next, that they would not necessarily constitute "technology
hubs" irrespective of roles they play in society. While physical
collections remain important for a time, digitization will guarantee that
the curator function of libraries will become increasingly divorced from
their information delivery and access functions and the latter will be
totally technology driven.
We already live in a world in which every distributor of electronically
recorded information is able to create their own internet- accessible
gateway to the content they want to distribute. Every website is or could
be a kind of library of the content they offer. It could thus be argued
that traditional libraries as we know them -- even the ones automating
themselves aggressively and even the ones aggregating technical expertise on
the ever growing number of software interfaces to electronically recorded
content -- are being inexorably replaced by literally millions of
commercial and private competitors. Of course public libraries exist to make
information available without charge to their patrons and private libraries
offer information freely within their host organizations. Of those millions
of privately owned, but publicly accessible, sources, some offer content for
free, some sell it, and some are financially supported by advertising or
politically motivated sponsorship.
Again, what's new and different is that there is a competition between
purely public interest and private interests involving access to content.
The quintessential question in the minds of authors and publishes is now:
do we benefit from the existence of public libraries? If
the consensus answer to this question becomes "no" then, absent changes in
the laws of nations, public libraries could all be demoted to archives in a
very brief time. What we now call "special libraries" might remain viable,
but only to the extent that they aggregated subscriptions to private sources
and organize in-house proprietary information. It is the "public" libraries
that face a dire existential threat -- at least to the extent that they
serve as publicly financed gateways to "information."
This is not to say that public libraries could not or should not
continue to serve important constituencies or remain guardians of literacy
in a profound cultural sense. And besides, there is a lot to be said for
ambiance and the impact of "place." To abide in a place that venerates
scholarship and provides an atmosphere of high respect for personal research
and intensity of intellectual pursuit still beats the pants off of working
at the kitchen table. Its also at least possible that some technologies
will never scale down to my kitchen table or home study desk. Maybe
something like a holodeck will become a reality one day -- and it will not
fit neatly into most people's homes. Why do people benefit from adventure
travel or even just going on vacations? Perhaps the answers to those kinds
of questions will inspire ideas about what a "library" of the future, as a
physical place, could look like. The problem, however, is that adventure
travel and exotic vacations are an indulgence paid for by the traveler. Even
a homeless person can now walk into a public library and access all the
information content it provides.
And lastly, if we do not, as a society, provide ways to equalize access
to information and study environments regardless of personal wealth, do we
not undermine democracy itself? The answer to this last question will
probably depend on how ingrained your veneration of private interest is and
to what degree you believe that public interest and "the commons" of society
are worthy ideals. I'd be curious to know whether there is a consensus
among librarians on the answer to this last ,somewhat politically charged,
On Sat, Oct 30, 2010 at 6:55 PM, Ruschau <ruschau at aol.com> wrote:
> Libraries should offer access to information in new technologies, but at
> the same time not ignore information in older formats, ie. books.
> Web4lib mailing list
> Web4lib at webjunction.org
Steven E. Patamia, Ph.D., J.D.
Personal Cell: (352) 219-6592
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