Thursday, September 5, 2013

How we killed the public library

Don't know if you've heard, but the public library is dead. Or dying. Or has a really bad cough.

If you don't know if you know how public libraries worked when they were around, but they were places where people could read and borrow books without having to pay any money for the privilege. Lots of other people with money paid so that people without money could spend their days in a comfortable space away from all the places where the people with money went to spend their days. 

And at one time libraries had a noble goal, to educate. And then they had the somewhat less noble goal, to entertain. And now we see libraries without any goals at all, filled with librarians who sigh all day long. Until they can go out and drink all night.

The original primary goal of libraries was probably to find and store copies of all the stuff -- but since that wasn't possible as more stuff was produced, libraries chose to just collect the best stuff. So all these professional associations and publications formed to try to evaluate all the stuff and decide which stuff by which publishers and authors was worth having.

And that worked great for the last 75 years. But then libraries stopped caring so much about the best stuff and began collecting popular stuff, regardless of quality. But at least people borrowed that stuff.

But now we're in a period where we have vendor driven stuff, meaning you get what you get. We had vendor issues in the past with print materials and with CDs and DVDs, but libraries were able to get pretty much anything that was produced. But now we have ebooks available to libraries from one to three vendors and the selection is very limited with some publishers completely opting out from offering any e-content to libraries. And downloadable music has one company that I know of that gets all it music from one publisher. And streaming music and video probably suffers from the same conspiracy of limitations.

And that's where we are now, in a conspiracy of limitations. We get what we get based on any number of intentional or random factors.

So what does this mean in the really bad cough of libraries?

I guess there will be libraries with no books. They will call themselves Conversation Stations, or some other bullshit, and they will feel successful because the seats are filled every day with people streaming movies to their "devices" - whatever the fuck those will be. But there might still be libraries that are still serious about being libraries. And they will have books. (Please, let them have books.)

Ask any library professional to speculate on the future of the public library and as you listen, you will hear a prediction of its death. You will hear about the evolving space and the concept of community and some other incarnation whereby the library is essentially an open-air toilet with some bookmarks left over from a summer reading program in 2006. Services will evolve, they say as if those words are brand new.

But when free wireless is available city-wide, delivered from Google dirigibles or a massive congestion of overlapping signals from McDonald's and Starbucks, what will the library have left to offer?

I read articles where some idiot laments the difficulty with using library resources, catalogs, databases. They want everything to be easier. But tools are not easy to use; you cut your finger on a kitchen knife or smash your thumb with a hammer, but no one stops cutting or hammering. We learn. If tools were easy, we would all fix our own cars. But no, professional mechanics fix your car. Some librarians want to dumb down the profession of librarianship! To what end? Why the fuck would you want to do that? So what if the catalog is difficult to use: teach people to use it. The people who learn will be smart and the other assholes will remain assholes; it's that simple.

The librarians want people to share more with others. Share. More. You know identity theft didn't affect hardly anyone 15 years ago. There was maybe one movie on Lifetime about how "She Stole My Identity and My Daughter." But now everyone, EVERYONE, has received a letter from some company stating that your credit card information may have been included in the 200 million accounts that were stolen from their computers and that you should monitor your credit for $6.95 a month FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE.

So what is the future of the public library when there are no books, everything is in the cloud, wireless access is everywhere and professional librarians are replaced with videos and online tutorials?
No books means no building.
The Cloud means no building.
Online tutorials mean no building.

And no building means no staff.

But wait! The librarians say, We're a Conversation Station! Or a Community Center! Or a Homeless Shelter!

Sure you are. But is that a Library?

You can cheer and say you did your job because everyone has what they want and the mission is served, but the library will be gone.

My idea of the library has always included some form of Quality Control. I went to school to learn what that is. But now we don't seem to care about what content the library offers, just that it circulates.

The librarian used to provide answers. But this new librarian just wants to sit back and let the people converse.
What is the answer? everyone asks.
And the librarian grins, Exactly. Because everyone is talking.

I think librarians feel inadequate compared to the internet. After all, the internet has all the answers. The internet got faster while the librarian just seemed like an unnecessary second step in finding information. So the librarian quit offering to find information. The librarian outsourced more of the answers to the database vendors and told people how to search but not how to find the right answers.

And when the people proved too stupid to find the answers in the databases, the librarians gave up on those and funneled all the money into streaming movies and music. Which is okay because if you look at the library mission, there's always something in there about "community needs." And when your community is too dumb to learn, then give them Adam Sandler flicks.

I don't think about what the library will be like in 2020. Maybe it will be an organ farm, forming body parts in organic 3D printers. I don't give a fuck. I just know that for a library to function, information should be accessible. And that requires three things: information, the information seeker and the librarian.

And moving any part of that equation farther and farther from the library is not how I define accessibility.