Sunday, November 21, 2010

Whither Libraries?

The convergence of planning, budgetary constraints and the prospects of another portentous fiscal year in 2011-2012 (see the recent New London Day article “Norwich Budget Picture is Grim”) has heightened my awareness of the challenges and options confronting public libraries. The challenges, fiscal matters aside, reflect several factors, not the least of them being the expectations of four generations of customers spanning those, to employ a convenient metaphor, raised on the card catalog to 60 million Millennials whose world is fully digitized and who may find no need for traditional library services. We are reminded that our traditional users and the service models designed for their needs are both on the wane, that circulation of analog materials (think books and other hard copy formats) has declined annually since about 1997, and that even notoriously sclerotic bureaucracies at the state and federal level are abandoning their paperwork bulwarks for new entrenchments based on digital forms and correspondence. M.I.T.’s Nicholas Negroponte forecasts the demise of the analogue book in five years, and, one might reasonably extrapolate the disappearance of print repositories not many years hence.
On the other hand, warnings abound about the pernicious results of the decline of print and the ensuing retreat of literacy. Two of my favorite jeremiads are taken from Chris Hedges book “Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle” and Thomas Frank’s essay “Bright Frenetic Mills” in the December 2010 edition of Harper’s Magazine. Hedges book is deeply discomforting, but I share his concerns and recommend it to those who are disillusioned by the apotheosis of spectacle and other mechanisms that divert us from confronting the economic, environmental, political and moral collapse. A particularly resonant comment for those of us raised in an analog world appears towards the end of the book, “The more we distance ourselves from a literate, print-based world, a world of complexity and nuance, a world of ideas, for one informed by comforting, reassuring images, fantasies, celebrities, and a lust for violence, the more we are destined to implode.” I do not believe that the evolution of digital formats portends the end of the world as we know it, but I do worry over the tangible evidence of a growing preference for the “comfort, reassurance and beauty of illusion.”
Frank is more directly concerned with the decline in quality journalism in its traditional forms, replaced by news gathering motivated by two factors, “what people are searching for on Google and what advertisers might pay to associate themselves with a given topic.” More specifically he fears that “professional news gathering organizations can no longer be supported by the for-profit system.” The digital replacements, the proliferation of tweets and blog posts and general techno-optimism, he opines, obscures what is actually happening in the world:
“So powerful is our desire to believe in the benevolent divinity of the technology that it cancels out our caution…We have trouble grasping that the Internet might not bring only good; that an unparalleled tool for enlightenment and research and transparency might also bring unprecedented down-dumbing; that something that empowers the individual might also wreck the structures that have protected the individual for decades.”
What of the public library’s role in addressing the challenges posed by this tumultuous, fractious environment and competing perspectives?
First, to cite Dr. Steve Matthews, Library Specialist, Utah State Library (USL), Salt Lake City "[p]ublic libraries have NOT figured out that the 21st Century patron does not need 20th Century library services. Unless we want to see brick & mortar libraries go the way of the rotary dial telephone, the transistor radio, and the cathode ray tube, we need to understand the “new” library patron and adapt library services to meet their interests, because they do not appear to have library service “needs” and will not seek services from public libraries!” This rings true, although it does not mean the jettisoning of our traditional formats and patron services. The requests for print materials remains strong, and despite its slow devolution into a hackneyed cliché, there is considerable truth in the observation “everything is not on the Internet.” Neither is it in digital format, and it is certainly not accessible without a degree of literacy and acquired research skills. We cannot assume that the critical thinking skills necessary to separate good information from bad are an integral part of school curricula.

Equally salient, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation released a sweeping report titled “Informing Communities — Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age.” which concludes the health of America’s democracy and communities rests on plugging troubling gaps between the nation’s information haves and have-nots. Access to broadband Internet, for example, is a luxury for most low-income households. And that access gap leaves many on the political, social and economic sidelines. To that might be added access to information regardless of format, at no or minimal cost.

These are not definitive answers to my initial query, “Whither Libraries?” and both perceived threats and opportunities are clear. At the moment, there are no simple answers, certainly no one source of information, or one service model supplanting the general commitment to high quality. As our planning continues, and we assess the perspectives offered by Hedges, Negroponte, Frank, Matthews, our patrons, staff and board I look forward to presenting more reports on what we discover and how it informs our thinking.