John Palfrey ponders the future of libraries and sees them as key players within contemporary society across America in his relevant and must-read book, Biblio Tech: Why Libraries Matter More than Ever in the Age of Google. According to Palfrey, as institutions, libraries are in an enviable position to connect specific segments of society, improve children’s lives, and provide immigrants and incoming populations with resources to citizenship. The digital divide between those who have money and access to technology frames many conversations within the book. Teachers are stretched to capacity and Palfrey suggests an opening for librarians in filling the continual need for digital literacy and digital education, pointing out that “since schoolchildren are already coming to libraries in large numbers to use free Wi-Fi (and check out the occasional book), librarians have an important chance to help” (p. 56-57). Librarians can provide guidance and research skills or just basic information to begin thinking on a subject as a service, and assist young people in succinctly navigating through the myriad of information pathways.
Libraries provide a physical space within communities but have competition. Starbucks and McDonalds also offer free Wi-Fi, which provide incentive for young people to walk-in and use, (along with consuming caloric and in some cases expensive beverages) in place of libraries. Libraries are increasingly under budget constraints and cuts, and as a result, not always open at convenient hours, or as prevalent as these ubiquitous institutions. Palfrey contends that libraries face significant competition from profit driven companies that have an abundance of money and resources for innovation. Amazon, Apple, and Google are poised to provide access to all digital information in the form of recordings, video, movies, and books. Moreover, these companies are often the gateways that many people (especially young) begin an inquiry for information and discovery. By aggressively and successfully innovating and targeting digital information, these companies are making large profits and potentially eclipsing libraries.
Palfrey counters this warning with an urgent plea for the future of libraries – to consider as he terms, the “public option.” Whereas the for-profit companies offer a model for libraries to follow that is customer focused and impressive with new ideas, the underlying mission of these companies is to make money off of people. Once again, libraries offer a bridge to provide the public and those economically and socially disadvantaged, with information and knowledge that is free to all and easily accessible. Palfrey posits that libraries and librarians must glean ideas from these smart technological advancements, pioneered and demonstrated through these big companies of the 21st century. Palfrey implores that libraries model these new methods for the public good and as the public option. The public options that Palfrey suggests involves modeling the Cloud Computing option that is popular and widely used across all age groups and to incorporate them into libraries through partnerships and new collaborations. (pp. 88-95)
Google has risen to the top of its field for its Search engine, and Amazon is widely used and admired for its suggestions on books based on previous purchases and reading history. While demonstrating ingenuity through technology, these companies are also narrowing the options of what we read and how we obtain information. The public is getting less. Libraries, through their diverse and skilled librarians and vast systems that span across the country, offer a wider array of information and knowledge that needs to be harnessed to compete in this current time and in future environments. Libraries have the potential to offer more.
Palfrey writes that libraries need to move away from the old model of being the physical storehouse for information, to one that is a platform for information and knowledge. Palfrey concedes that this shift in thinking moves away from the traditional model that libraries house physical objects to be retrieved for future use, to one that relies on collaboration and partnerships with other libraries and businesses. However, Palfrey feels that libraries and their users will greatly benefit with this future model, that is already in practice across the country with the use of iPhones, iPads, Apple watches, and laptops that retrieve and store information in the Cloud. By leveraging the most current technology and looking towards emerging technology to serve the public, libraries can meet their stakeholders’ needs and remain relevant for the next century. Finally, Palfrey ends the book with a focus on copyright and privacy laws for citizens and the need for librarians to actively lead and join the conversation, with a warning to not cede this area to corporations or, to depend on a slow-acting and moving Congress.
The author, John Palfrey in his own words on YouTube:
Palfrey, J. (2015). BiblioTech: Why libraries matter more than ever in the age of Google.
New York: Basic Books.