Are libraries really about books?
No – at least not to the extent that people generally think.
But it’s a good question – and questions are what the discussion should be about. However, mention digital and libraries in the same sentence and you can be sure that the conversation will immediately turn to the decline of books and thus the imminent obsolescence of libraries.
It’s just not true.
Interestingly, this conversation seems to be primarily the domain of the older demographic as they struggle to assimilate their historical view of libraries with a general discomfort with the rate of technology change taking place around them.
Kids, on the other hand, seem to get it. This is perhaps because digital generations haven’t grown up thinking that libraries are just about books.
It’s an easy mistake to make. For generations, libraries have become synonymous with books – to the extent that there is a temptation to think that the two are the same thing. The reality it is that books are simply a transport mechanism (albeit a very beautiful and successful one) for knowledge and ideas. Books just happen to have been the dominant transport medium for the past few thousand years.
Libraries have always played a longer game; and have always taken a wider view.
The error lies in thinking that the medium is the message. To question the relevance of libraries based on the alleged decline of the book is similar to heralding the end of music on the basis of decline in the popularity of vinyl records. Those who point to the commodification of music at this point should bear in mind that the truth of music (like art generally) is subjective and personal. The truth value of information should be somewhat more objective.
For this reason, libraries do more than just deliver a commodity. Sure, libraries have always played a role as information enablers. For centuries, libraries have provided the equality of access popularised by the vision of Larry Page and Sergey Brin. It’s a noble idea – but it’s not a new one.
But the important point is that this is not all that libraries do. Public libraries in particular have always been about service and added value. It is the intermediate, curative, trusted role provided by libraries and librarians that is often missed by those seeking to draw Chicken Little comparisons between libraries and search engines like Google.
For those heralding the end of days, it is worth considering this aspect of what libraries provide. As the quantum of information available online expands, so too does the need for libraries – and for genuine, authoritative guidance.
In a world where the veneer of expertise is only an $8 domain name registration and wordpress theme away, specialist advice and human guidance in some form is vital for those who lack the confidence to navigate the increasingly turgid online waters alone.
Good librarians gauge a range of factors about a person that allow them to tailor the person’s journey of discovery and make it worthwhile and rewarding. This is the real, perpetual value of libraries – online or off. Underpinning the sharing of knowledge is a core mission of all libraries to develop the natural desire to explore – to nurture curiosity, lead the searcher to look over the shoulder of immediate answer and to ask the next question.
Certainly, Ray Kurzweil’s Google of 2040 may be very different to the search engine of today, but this doesn’t alter the core value that libraries provide. Currently, and I would argue for the foreseeable future, libraries and search engines are fellow travellers – not adversaries, and the emergence of one does not affect the value of the other. As Kevin Kelly, cofounder of Wired magazine says…
“(in) the world that Google is constructing – a world of cheap and free answers – having answers is not going to be very significant or important. Having a really good question will be where all the value is”.
Make no mistake, libraries can and should change – and libraries will undoubtedly continue to evolve as they have done for centuries. From a technology perspective though, the question is less about the need for the core nature of libraries to change and more about exploring the ways in which libraries can leverage technology to deliver those services in new and innovative ways play their existing role on a vastly larger global stage.
(This article was first published on the State Library Victoria blog. Read more here)