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Let's not defend ourselves into a corner, okay?

This blew up all over twitter a few months ago and one of my favourite public intellectuals (Cory Doctorow) helped chop this guy down in what, at first, seems like a very satisfying manner, but, underneath all that,  my contrarian worry-wart makes me start to ask questions about how the library-world responds to this kind of criticism. I have a "don't shoot the messenger" kind of worry. That is: we don't need entitled white guys deciding whether libraries are still of any use to anyone, but we also don't want to defend ourselves into a corner by pointing out all the useful things that an entitled white guy never needs until our funders (who can often be other entitled white guys, alas) start to think of us as a useful service for other "less fortunate" people but don't think of libraries having any use for them. I want us to be like a public school district: we serve everyone and, in the process, we have specialized services for those who can't make use of or need more than what we offer for "most people". If we let our defensiveness against these entitled white guys push us into a corner by arguing only that the stuff they don't need is all-important, then we're in danger of becoming a  kind of welfare service, and that isn't a good place for libraries to be. 
 
I think we need to consider this more carefully: yes, libraries are really busy and sometimes full. Yes, some of the services are heavily subscribed to (eg: public access computing or childrens' story times) but we were founded to look after our community's store of knowledge and information. That isn't really something we look after, anymore. It's all already out there on the web, for the most part, and the stuff that we have that no one else has is not really essential to the life of the average citizen. And much of that stuff we do have, while it seems (very) expensive for what we get,  doesn't really cost us that much in the overall scheme of what our communities are paying for their library. As much as 90% (or more) of a public library budget is labour. Unfortunately, even when the building is full of people using our wifi and our excellent physical space, it doesn't mean they are using the full value of all those people who work there. I would make an (educated) guess that the majority of labour costs are incurred in all the activities around the provision of the library collection. A significant chunk, possibly even a majority, of the people-power that's used for physical collection is for popular, mass-media. In other words: feature-film DVD's. What ever you might think of the value of a lending service for DVD's, they are not the storehouse of human knowledge that the founders of the great public library tradition had in mind.  Many of the people in that library budget (librarians and lib techs) have highly developed skills and are self-selected with aptitudes that respond to traditional library training. I wonder, though, are we doing stuff that a broad range of community requires to look after their daily/weekly knowledge requirements and move themselves forward, or are we doing things just to keep ourselves busy using that training and aptitude? 
 
Here's the key paragraph in that TechCrunch post: 
"The internet has replaced the importance of libraries as a repository for knowledge. And digital distribution has replaced the role of a library as a central hub for obtaining the containers of such knowledge: books. And digital bits have replaced the need to cut down trees to make paper and waste ink to create those books. This is evolution, not devolution." 
 
The critical problem for me is that libraries were invented to enable people to have access to information: useful, utilitarian information, that was to help them solve whatever problem they were trying to solve right now. I know all sorts of off-shoots and niches were created pretty quickly: workingmen's improvement societies, and private schientific discovery socities, and so on. This is exactly what I mean by the school-district analogy: it served everybody and had all sorts of niches for all these specialities. I think, without him really knowing it, this is what the entitled white guy at TechCrunch s pointing out: the broad-based, information to solve everybody's daily information needs is just not what the library has for many communities, and the communities for whom it does have that function are niche communities. They deserve good library service that they can use. So does everyone else, and that's what I get worried about when we gang-up and shout-down the entitlted white guy just because he's insensitive to anyone else's needs. 
 
Here's another critical sentence from techcrunch article:  "These theoretical places are not libraries in the ways that any of us currently think of libraries." -- Exactly, and the further they get from how we think of libraries, the more risk there is that someone else will run this service for their community. This ties in to the feeling I have  that many public institutions are nervous about their future, are genuinely in danger of losing their mandate, and are looking for new services to offer. Just as libraries are starting to do new things in the field of informal public education, why wouldn't education institutions, for example, get more involved in storing, curating, and transmitting their community's knowledge? The threat of institutions taking over library services (which is a threat to librarians but, let's face it, not necessarily a threat to the communities themselves since they don't have to care where good knowledge services come from) is in my view tied to the rise of purely digital generations (see this post about youth and mobile ) who I think may start to view informally-networked knowledge as the *only* knowledge they need or want, and they may just succeed in making their way through their lives without the formally-curated or -intermediated knowledge that libraries have offered. As I've said before, once that starts to happen, libraries and other knowledge-based institutions (aka Education Institutions) are facing the end of their 500 year reign in western civilization. Since the civilization itself is at least 1000 years old (and longer, I suppose (I'm not a historian)), that may be much less of a tragedy than we think it is. The real challenge for those of us who call ourselves librarians, is whether we can continue to use our aptitudes and capabilities (the things that drive our professional skills) in a way that is of value of our communities. So, I've been talking about this with colleagues. One thing that's for sure is that there may be several right answers but no one seems to have them all. I want to know what you all think. 

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@Phall715

phall715
All about knowledge and information and digital tools. Lots of new ideas. Some are even good ones.
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phall715
phall715 @sios Ahhh... But not all books are equal. How about 2 long books? Or one reeeallly haaaard book? :-)

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phall715 @BRintoul Well I'm hoping now that they're digitized, further conversions are easier. But that may be foolish optimism :-)

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Video: Are we Irrelevant, yet?

Are We Irrelevant Yet at VPL, December 2013.