Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Future for the Library is Fucked.

We make many assumptions when it comes to civilization. At the top is the assumption that it's here to stay. But the truth is that civilization is fragile. One hiccup in our supply chain and we're all squatting in open air toilets. But at least we'll have iPads.

But one simple mention on LISNews tells me how fucked we are. Someone wrote that their library in New York has had to turn off the A/C on some summer days to avoid crashing the power grid and causing a brown-out in the city.

And therein lies our fuckededness.

We need electricity. We need wired and wireless networks. We need hardware. All these things erode the foundation of the future of libraries. But mostly, all these things need money.

Compare this to the guy who lends books from the back of a donkey to see why modern libraries are destined to fail.

Our supply chain for moving information is weak. When it works, it's magically fast. But it's fragile as hell. I'm not talking books because books are stable. But the future isn't about books.

There are many who feel that libraries can't survive without ebooks and streaming media. Not only do I disagree with that thought, I feel it's the library's mission to survive without them. I'm not opposed to digital content, but I think my library shouldn't devote more than 12% of our energies to providing access to it.

We also have the closing of bookstores.
And Amazon's ability to avoid collecting sales tax.
And the privatization of public libraries.
And the closing of some libraries.
And the cyclical devaluation and revaluation of school librarians and media specialists.
And mobile communications patent disputes.
And streaming media.
And library futurists.

Add all these things and the future for all libraries looks pretty crappy.

But the real reason libraries are fucked is that I've discovered how to run any and all libraries for practically nothing. And if I've figured that out then it won't be long before someone with evil designs figures it out, too. I won't go into details, but the bottom line is that you seal up the bathrooms.

To run a proper library, you have to serve people with people. I don't know what the ratio should be, but one librarian for each 100 people who visit the library is probably okay. We usually have around 150 people sitting around here so we have 2 librarians. And I don't need to tell you that this other guy isn't really pulling his weight when he says that I have to handle the first 100 and he'll handle the rest.

But the library of the future is just going to be about delivering content, not about people. So when all the librarians are fired, except for that one guy who said he had your back but was secretly negotiating to keep his job, you'll look back on these days and think of how the fuck you didn't see it coming.

If I have a digital library, then why would I need a library building? And without a library building, why would I need staff to keep it running properly, to keep things in order and to keep it clean? I wouldn't.

All I would need is wireless internet located at inconvenient, dangerous-after-dark locations around the city. I could run my whole library system, from 2 to 50 branches, with a grand total of 2 or 3 librarians. My patrons would need some sort of portable wireless device and our app. And I would push content to them, as needed, whether it's prerecorded storytimes or ebooks or movies or live help or Q&A or whatever. And when their batteries ran down, they'd go home.

But, you might say, what about all the people who don't have these devices or don't know how to use the internet? Well, they'd better step up. Right now, your library is filled with books and there are people in your service area who don't know how to read them; what the fuck are you doing about that? So screw anyone who can't figure it out. Because the digital library, by definition, isn't about people.

And gadgets are getting cheaper. I can get a cheap tablet for $129 that will let me do almost anything that is worth doing. And haven't you been saying that If you're not on the internet, you might as well be a dog?

So in the digital future, I don't see that any librarian will have a job. Unless you are amazingly awesome or a brown-nosing motherfucker. And since I know my boss takes her coffee with two sugars, you can guess which side I fall on.

But I oppose all of this. I don't want to see my library become all digital all the time. Because then, why would you need us? The internet isn't successful because it has millions of people greasing gears and shoveling coal to keep it running. It's success exactly because it doesn't. So if the public library is meant for people, why would you do something that eliminates people from the service side of the people equation?

We know that some people don't really need other people. Facebook and Twitter and MMORPGs prove we don't really need to meet people to feel like we have friends. We only want a reasonable facsimile of a person and any reasonably competent AI program will satisfy most people's needs for human interaction. Or we could video conference. But we don't really need a physical person to make us feel human.

If left to their own choices, would any of these people choose to support the library? Probably not. So why give them that power? Why give them everything they could ever need through their computers and devices? Because these people don't need us.

Each choice leads us toward different paths. Yet some paths will make it impossible to go back to choose another. The path toward a 100% digital library is one that may not destroy libraries all together, but one that I think will destroy librarianship as a profession.

So check your corners. The role of the library building is much more important than you can imagine. Sure you can have a digital presence, but keep it small. Focus on your relationships with the people who visit the physical library because those people will scream and be heard when that library is threatened. By comparison, I don't think many people scream when our digital library is down for a day or two. They might tweet, but they don't scream.

I would rather die a noble death serving people than live a thousand lifetimes serving machines.

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