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Library of the Future

Library of the Future

In the digital age, the library is becoming a graveyard. That may not be a bad thing.


What is a public library for?

First, how we got here:

Before Gutenberg, a book cost about as much as a small house. As a result, only kings and bishops could afford to own a book of their own.

This naturally led to the creation of shared books, of libraries where scholars (everyone else was too busy not starving) could come to read books that they didn't have to own. The library as warehouse for books worth sharing.

Only after that did we invent the librarian.

The librarian isn't a clerk who happens to work at a library. A librarian is a data hound, a guide, a sherpa and a teacher. The librarian is the interface between reams of data and the untrained but motivated user.

The library is a warehouse to store reams of data.

After Gutenberg, books got a lot cheaper. More individuals built their own collections. At the same time, though, the number of titles exploded, and the demand for libraries did as well. We definitely needed a warehouse to store all this bounty, and more than ever we needed a librarian to help us find what we needed. The library is a house for the librarian.

Industrialists (particularly Andrew Carnegie) funded the modern American library. The idea was that in a pre-electronic media age, the working man needed to be both entertained and slightly educated. Work all day and become a more civilized member of society by reading at night.

And your kids? Your kids need a place with shared encyclopedias and plenty of fun books, hopefully inculcating a lifelong love of reading, because reading makes all of us more thoughtful, better informed and more productive members of a civil society.

Digital Age

Which was all great, until now.

Want to watch a movie? Netflix is a better librarian, with a better library, than any library in the country. The Netflix librarian knows about every movie, knows what you've seen and what you're likely to want to see. If the goal is to connect viewers with movies, Netflix wins.

This goes further than a mere sideline that most librarians resented anyway. Wikipedia and the huge databanks of information have basically eliminated the library as the best resource for anyone doing amateur research (grade school, middle school, even undergrad). Is there any doubt that online resources will get better and cheaper as the years go by? Kids don't shlep to the library to use an out of date encyclopedia to do a report on FDR. You might want them to, but they won't unless coerced.

They need a librarian more than ever (to figure out creative ways to find and use data). They need a library not at all.

When kids go to the mall instead of the library, it's not that the mall won, it's that the library lost.

And then we need to consider the rise of the Kindle. An ebook costs about $1.60 in 1962 dollars. A thousand ebooks can fit on one device, easily. Easy to store, easy to sort, easy to hand to your neighbor. Five years from now, readers will be as expensive as Gillette razors, and ebooks will cost less than the blades.

Librarians that are arguing and lobbying for clever ebook lending solutions are completely missing the point. They are defending library as warehouse as opposed to fighting for the future, which is librarian as producer, concierge, connector, teacher and impresario.

Post-Gutenberg, books are finally abundant, hardly scarce, hardly expensive, hardly worth warehousing. Post-Gutenberg, the scarce resource is knowledge and insight, not access to data.

World of Data

The library is no longer a warehouse for dead books. Just in time for the information economy, the library ought to be the local nerve center for information. (Please don't say I'm anti-book! I think through my actions and career choices, I've demonstrated my pro-book chops. I'm not saying I want paper to go away, I'm merely describing what's inevitably occurring.) We all love the vision of the underprivileged kid bootstrapping himself out of poverty with books, but now, (most of the time) the insight and leverage is going to come from being and fast and smart with online resources, not from hiding in the stacks.

The next library is a place, still. A place where people come together to do co-working and coordinate and invent projects worth working on together. Aided by a librarian who understands the Mesh, a librarian who can bring domain knowledge and people knowledge and access to information to bear.

Librarians should turn every kid into a first-rate data shark.

The next library is a house for the librarian with the guts to invite kids in to teach them how to get better grades while doing less grunt work. And to teach them how to use a soldering iron or take apart something with no user servicable parts inside. And even to challenge them to teach classes on their passions, merely because it's fun. This librarian takes responsibility/blame for any kid who manages to graduate from school without being a first-rate data shark.

The next library is filled with so many web terminals there's always at least one empty. And the people who run this library don't view the combination of access to data and connections to peers as a sidelight – it's the entire point.

Wouldn't you want to live and work and pay taxes in a town that had a library like that? The vibe of the best Brooklyn coffee shop combined with a passionate raconteur of information? There are one thousands things that could be done in a place like this, all built around one mission: take the world of data, combine it with the people in this community and create value.

We need librarians more than we ever did. What we don't need are mere clerks who guard dead paper. Librarians are too important to be a dwindling voice in our culture. For the right librarian, this is the chance of a lifetime.

This article originally appeared on Seth Godin’s Blog

June 11, 2011

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Visitor Comments: 12

(12) Aviva Adler, July 19, 2011 7:49 PM

In defense of libraries and librarians

Who pays for the materials in a print or virtual library? Who determines the authoritativeness, accuracy, and currency of the material in the virtual library? Who prepares subject citation indices? Who organizes the information, providing subject headings or tags, so relevant material is collocated or comes up together in an electronic search? Who provides filters so that search engines don't produce millions of irrelevant hits? Who assigns and monitors multiple access points: author names, pseudonyms, titles, subtitles, subject headings, keywords, index terms, tags? Public libraries are governed by boards of directors drawn from the community served, and mission statements address collection scope and policies governing content, access, legal challenges to the materials; without libraries, who serves these functions? Who serves the non-connected? Who weeds out the inaccurate or no longer current material? Accredited academic libraries must meet or exceed core collection standards in various disciplines – who determines core collection standards and ensures their availability? Who authors, edits, updates, and monitors Wikipedia to make it the equivalent of an authoritative encyclopedia, with signed articles written by acknowledged subject experts? Who manages domain names, URLs, broken or dead links, fee-based subscription services, copyright issues, data sharing agreements? Who will determine comprehensive, authoritative subject headings with cross-references so that searching “Afro-American” not “African-American” will still get good hits? Who keeps politics out of organizing and accessing material, making information on birth control or abortion searchable using those terms rather than “animal – human – reproductive life cycle.” Who will teach searchers how to formulate online search strategies using logical operators, variable keywords, and other advanced tools to produce comprehensive, relevant, current, and authoritative hits?

(11) Anonymous, June 15, 2011 4:15 AM

Government control

This morning I heard that the government is considering any form of internet breach to be an act of war. More and more restrictions are being placed on the internet. Internet providers are being selective about what we are being able to see. The search algorithm is a secret so that if I entered "anti-Semitism" into Google I have no idea what the parameters are that Google has used to come up with the websites that will be presented to me. I might come up with the ones that are of no value. I do not know. Also, there are now some internet providers that are looking at moving the internet traffic based on certain fees. Thus, we do not know if "anti-Semitism" will end up being at the bottom of the list. Compare this to having books in the library on the subject. It does not take long to note that I am much better off with a library. From a Jewish point of view I am afraid of a virtual library. To me this is a step in the wrong direction. Let us make sure that we always have a hard copy of everything. Thankfully we still have great scholars but imagine if learning deteriorates and imagine how easily someone can play with the programming of anything on the computer. Why would they not? Worse things have been done to us? Would that not be the best way to attack us? Why would anyone want to be at the mercy of any power knowing that programming and an energy source is all it takes to set you back to the Medieval Ages.

(10) Anonymous, June 15, 2011 3:53 AM

Mr. Godin, please read Jane Jacobs

Her book, Systems of Survival is a treasure and I would recommend it if you have not read it. Briefly, there are two types of organizations: public and private. One should not mix the two. The public organization is one such as a library, school, government, army, shul, Private organization would be something like a big business. The two should never be mixed together. In other words, one should not be taking business principles and using them to run a classroom. One should not be running a government the same way that one runs a business. It just will not work. You can try it but it will not work according to Jane Jacobs. Why? Because these organizations have different value systems and they operate on different premises. If this is applied to our library system and to our school system we would stop playing with both and we would allow them to be what they are and we just might get much better results. Instead, we are trying to infiltrate them with different computers, software, drinks, etc., and we have the results that we do. Of course we blame teachers and now the push is on to rid the world of libraries and librarians. I forgot: we no longer have them but we will still use the names.

(9) Anonymous, June 15, 2011 3:39 AM

Data - too much data

Mr. Godin keeps talking about data as if we need more data. His new teachers (former librarians- the ones retrained or fired) will be dispensing data. That is one thing we need less of. What we need is knowledge and wisdom. I am not sure but being Jewish should alert one to the difference. That is one reason that we love books and libraries. Data is chaos whereas knowledge is data organized around a central problem, challenge or question. We gather data in order to get to knowledge. We do not want data. We want knowledge. As Jews, we wish to go further and attain wisdom. So, we move beyond knowledge. We do not do this by sitting in a coffee shop with our kindle and listening to a librarian. So, hopefully this will open up some doors so that Mr. Godin can proceed to truth if he so wishes.

(8) Anonymous, June 15, 2011 3:25 AM

Where do I begin?

Let us start with definitions. Mr. Godin defines a library as a house for the librarian. No, a library is not a house for the librarian. A library is a depository used to house books and other items. It is a place that people use for studying, reading, research. It is not a school. It is a library. Librarian can be a teacher but not necessarily and a teacher can be a librarian. Libraries have been around for at least 2,000 years. (What we would recognize as libraries.) In the United States, Carnegie was responsible for funding many libraries (close to 2,000) but that was in the late 1800's and early 1900's. By that time the library system was well established. The oldest libraries were established back in the 1600's by men such as Harvard (yes, that one) and Bray. Hundred years later it was Franklin who introduced the idea of a free public library. If you wish to change the job title of a librarian that is fine but somehow many teachers might object. But, since this might be all about marketing and since there is a big push to get rid of libraries, in North America, I suppose that Mr. Godin is really doing the Jewish community a favor. Maybe we can stand up for the library system because getting rid of books is something that has haunting memories for Jews.

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