BiblioTech: Why libraries matter more than ever in the age of Google,
by John Palfrey
Are libraries still relevant? Will they serve a purpose in the digital age? These seem to be the most axiomatic questions that those in the information business are confronted with today. In his book, Palfrey (2015) addresses the issues behind the question, and discloses why the answers are definitely “Yes!”, provided that libraries adapt to the ever-changing environment in which they find themselves. Clinging to a nostalgic perception of libraries is not enough to preserve their existence in a contemporary world. Information professionals must establish an unequivocal and positive case for the part that libraries will play in dynamic modern society.
Palfrey encourages librarians to be innovative and creative in transitioning libraries from being merely warehouses of information to places where knowledge is created and shared, without losing the connection between virtual and physical spaces. Library space needs to be maintained as places to collaborate, innovate, meet and work. Stephens (2011) states that the Library 2.0 model “encompasses both physical and virtual space”. The librarians that will most prosper in the system of participatory service are those who are adept at bridging the divide between the traditional library landscape and the ever-evolving technological landscape. They are forward-thinking trendspotters, networked to other information professionals with technical skills and digital know-how. Critical analysis skills and media production skills will be necessary to providing service in modern libraries.
Popular (but inaccurate) thought alleges that with global corporations such as Google and Amazon available around-the-clock, the library’s mission of providing access to information is being usurped. This brings up the question of whether or not for-profit companies can be trusted to provide free and unbiased information, and whether the safeguarding of complete and open access is something they are in a position to dispense. Libraries can address the things that Google and Amazon cannot provide: face-to-face interaction, collaboration, spaces and places for innovation, and expert assistance in determining accuracy and relevancy in a sea of random material put forth during a basic Google search.
According to Palfrey, libraries should “shape, rather than merely react to, the digital revolution”. He challenges librarians to be creative risk-takers, and to be well versed in new technologies and resources, and know how to apply them effectively. Today’s libraries, especially public libraries, serve a diverse array of customers, with diverse needs, and provide an expanding number of diverse services. The information ecosystem will continue to shift toward the digital. Within this ecosystem, preservation of materials, both digital and analog, is becoming more difficult, in part due to new and revolutionary formats, and the concept of “data rot”, where information is stored in formats that may become obsolete.
Palfrey concludes with ten steps to assuring the legitimacy of libraries present and future. These steps include redefining libraries for the digital era, becoming networked with other institutions, and creating a digital infrastructure to build on. He recommends acquiring feedback from library customers, collaborating and cooperating with similar educational organizations, and investing in library research and development to bolster innovation. These directives will ensure that libraries retain their esteemed place in the rapidly changing information terrain.
Palfrey, J. (2015). BiblioTech: Why libraries matter more than ever in the age of Google. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Stephens, M. (2011). The hyperlinked library.
John Palfrey at the “Google Era Librarians” Conference – Milan, 17/18 March 2016