Jul 30, 2011

The Library of Yore No More

A couple friends of mine are pursuing a Master’s in Library Sciences. To be honest, I can’t quite grasp why you need a master’s degree to be a librarian, but in fairness I will simply plead ignorance of what skills/knowledge is required for the job.

Best of luck to the both of them, in all seriousness. I hope they find it an enjoyable and lucrative career, I really do.

But I think they are entering into a dying field, propped up on crutches by the government’s monopoly on libraries and their IV trickle of money.  The very concept of a library is quickly becoming deprecated.

In a short time our lives have moved toward favoring access to media and information over tangible ownership or physical interaction. What do I mean? You can see this progression in so much of our lives:

  • We need theaters less and less as TV, then cable, and now the internet find better and better ways to bring us news, movies, and entertainment
  • We no longer need a home encyclopedia set from Britannica, because the internet brings the sum of human knowledge (or close to it) right into our homes whenever we need it
  • We need physical books less and less as newspapers, magazines, and novels become digital

Electronic book readers like the Kindle and Nook reduce what could be bookcases and bookcases into a tiny hand-held device. The internet provides answers and news and everything else. There is less and less reason to leave the house to get the information or media we want. So why do we still build and maintain expensive places to house vast collections of books?

Less and less do we favor owning things and more about simply having access to them when we want. You don’t need to own the DVDs if Netflix is always there to beam it to your screen when you feel like watching something.

Now, I’m not going to go into whether this shift is good or bad; right now I point it out because it is a reality and it explains the shift away from the idea of libraries. I’m not the only one to notice, either.

Requisite to-be-sures:

  • I’m NOT saying libraries are completely useless
  • I’m NOT saying that libraries weren’t once perfectly suited to how we lived
  • I’m NOT saying that anyone interested in or pursuing working at one is foolish, far from it

What I am saying is that this shift is going to require the idea of a library to radically change with the times. Fewer and fewer people will want or need to drive to a building to rent a book. Some libraries are already trying to embrace this shift by doing more online, and that’s good. But I fear it won’t be enough or soon enough.

Libraries are almost exclusively government run, owned, operated, and, most importantly, funded. This means their incentives are screwed as they have no desire to increase quality to increase revenue (as the two are not tied together as in a traditional business) and that it is difficult for them to change. Even if library folks are receptive or enthusiastic about trying new things to better reach a modern digital audience, they will be stymied every step of the way by the bureaucratic mess of rules and regulations. Government is always the slowest to adapt, by nature, and so its rigorous adhesion to policy and standards will block a lot of the creativity that some library administrators might have.

I don’t wish to see libraries made extinct: in fact, I hope to see them morph into something appropriate for our times.

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