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Bibliotech: Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google by John Palfrey

Bibliotech by John Palfrey cover
Book cover

The subtitle of this book is essentially what this book is about; Palfrey explains why libraries still matter and will continue to matter in the “dreaded” Digital Age. (I only use “dreaded” here to describe the adversity to change most people feel when new technology appears). Palfrey reviews what libraries do well, what they need to do better, what the dangers are, why libraries are still important and still relevant, and is, overall, a call to action for librarians. Bibliotech was published in 2015 and written by a non-librarian. Palfrey uses the term “feral” to describe someone in a library position without a librarian degree and, by doing this, describes himself; Palfrey was a law professor before becoming Harvard’s library director and chairman of the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA). Despite this (or maybe because of this), Bibliotech espouses some of the components of participatory service and the Hyperlinked Library. However, Palfrey doesn’t go as far as to include the user and making the user an active participant in developing services for the users. In this sense, though the work encourages the librarian to ditch “nostalgia,” he latches on to everything being on the librarian’s end.

 Palfrey (2015) states that one of the primary problems librarians face is the “hybrid nature of today’s information” in both digital and analog forms (p. 28). He goes on “libraries are in crisis not only because it is impossible to collect and catalog the vast quantities of printed and digital material that are being published every year, but also because it is prohibitively expensive to even attempt it” (p. 27). With budgets being slashed, this undertaking is more difficult. He calls for libraries to collaborate in acquiring and preserving materials. Networking and collaborating is essential to doing things better. Along with this, libraries need to collaborate in developing technologies and services “that will make them relevant for the near-future” (p. 38). Another point he makes regarding librarians themselves is that the ones who are thriving are those that work with other libraries and librarians and are “agents of change,” embodying the future rather than reacting to it (p. 134). Research and development and professional development are two areas where librarians could do better. Risk-taking, he also states, is a missing feature of today’s libraries. As one librarian, Kari Lämsä, puts it:

Libraries are not so serious places. We should not be too afraid of mistakes. We are not hospitals we cannot kill people here. We can make mistakes and nobody will die. We can try and test and try and test all the time.

(p. 214)

This quote really stood out to me and reminded me that taking risks is a part of participatory service. Risk-taking, along with research and development, is an important part of moving things forward. The focus remains on redefining the library to be “demand-driven, firmly grounded in what people and communities need from libraries today and in the future” (p.227).

These ideas of collaboration, embracing change, R&D, risk-taking, and redefinition to become more customer- and community-driven are surface-level ideas of the Hyperlinked Library. A somewhat similar idea to participatory services that Palfrey advocates is “hacking libraries,” meaning to reconceptualize libraries towards a people- and services-focus over materials (p.114-15). However, Palfrey’s idea is solely on the end of the librarian and other professionals in improving services. He calls on librarians to work with graphic designers and user experience experts, business consultants, and “those who love libraries and seek to serve the public interest” (p. 128). The user is left out. There isn’t an emphasis on encouraging the user to participate, be engaged, and evaluate. He believes some aspects of the library should function like labs, where people create new knowledge using existing knowledge the library provides (and that there should be systems in place to accurately archive these works); however, real participatory service encourages library users to work with librarians to add, plan, and evaluate new services. Users are experts in what they need.

Inside the Walter W. Stiern Library in Bakersfield, California. Credit: Vincent Gutierrez
Moving forward. Credit: Vincent Gutierrez

Towards the end, Bibliotech outlines a ten-step plan for moving libraries forward. These are insights into how libraries can move into the future. Most of these also align with the very basic concepts of the Hyperlinked Library. Bibliotech does an effective job of emphasizing that libraries have an important place in the Digital Age, though Palfrey does leave out a key component: the library user.


Palfrey, J. (2015). Bibliotech: Why libraries matter more than ever in the Age of Google. New York, NY: Basic Books.

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