BiblioTECH: Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google

In BiblioTECH, Palfrey discusses the role libraries can play in the twenty-first century, where many of us in the first world carry smartphones and are using Siri and Alexa to find information.  From the title, I thought that the book would be an argument for why libraries are better than search engines, why librarians are the navigation and retrieval experts in a world overwhelmed with information, and why we should support libraries and librarians.  Those points are briefly mentioned throughout the book as assumptions, but his ideas are intended for an audience of library managers and librarians rather than the general public. Palfrey’s book is written as a wake-up call to librarians that the world is going to move on without them unless they evolve and create new kinds of libraries to serve modern users.

People concentrating on phones

Denning (2015) concludes that “there is a need to rethink what services are possible with the new technology, as well as what is no longer needed.”  Palfrey and Denning are talking about the Library 2.0 model (Casey & Savastinuk, 2007), which “seeks to improve services to current library users while also reaching out to potential library users” (p. 5).  While Denning (2015) and Casey and Savastinuk (2007) redirect the library’s focus to the users, Palfrey turns his attention to the specific institutional challenges libraries face.

Palfrey writes that “the classic public library is long overdue for an update” (p. 3) and that people now have more choices in the information economy to choose from, and the library needs to adapt to stay relevant.  The author discusses the challenges libraries face as we transition from an analog world to a digital one. He proposes ten steps to a path forward for libraries and librarians (pp. 226-229):

  1. Recast libraries as platforms
  2. Libraries must network with other institutions
  3. Libraries must align with their community’s values
  4. Libraries must account for physical spaces (the “third space”) and analog formats
  5. Libraries should only do what needs to be done and create services based on public interest
  6. Librarians should seek common ground with authors, agents, editors, and publishers
  7. Some library spaces should function like labs and encourage co-production and innovation
  8. Librarians should adopt “hacker culture” to create a shared, open digital infrastructure
  9. Preservation needs to be more collaborative
  10. We need to pay for libraries to transition to this digital future

His last step seems to be the only one really directed to the general public.  He argues that libraries need serious investment from the government and donations from philanthropists like those of the early twentieth century to help libraries carry out these steps.

A former Harvard Law Library director, Palfrey brings his experience managing the largest academic law library to his discussion of the issues of digitization and access, copyright laws, and privacy.  He explores the advantages and challenges to digitization of materials and how copyright laws and privacy are impacted by moving to an electronic library. He discusses at length the differences between book lending and ebook lending and how those differences affect the library’s ability to provide access to users (see this WSJ article for more about the battle between publishers and libraries).

Besides increasing access to information by digitizing what we already have and addressing the ebook problems, Palfrey doesn’t have much to contribute to how libraries can become more participatory and hyperlinked.  He mentions labs and collaboration, but not how those innovations and actions can affect current library users and bring in new ones. He stops short of talking about other ways libraries can help users, outside of book lending and digitization; there is no mention of other services that can bring users in and keep current users, as discussed in the Hyperlinked Library model.

Palfrey believes that we are in a transition from an analog world to a digital world, and that libraries will need to straddle these worlds for a little longer but the digital future is coming, and libraries need to be prepared for it.  If they aren’t, then the private sector will lead the way in providing information services and libraries will be left behind. He argues that “libraries can offer important alternatives to the services provided by the corporate sector, which will always have incentives to offer biased, limited, and costly access to knowledge” (p. 128).  He stresses that libraries need to embrace the changes coming instead of living in the past. As Buckland (1992) states, “Library services have two bases: the role of library service is to facilitate access to documents; and the mission of a library is to support the mission of the institution or the interests of the population served” (“Foundations of Library Service”).  Palfrey echoes this statement and emphasizes the need for digitization, and outlines how library services can move from the analog to the electronic library that Buckland proposed.


Buckland, M. (1992). Redesigning library services: A manifesto.  Chicago, IL: American Library Association

Casey, M.E., & Savastinuk, L.C. (2007). Library 2.0: A guide to participatory library service. Medford, New Jersey: Information Today.

Denning, S. (2015, April 28).  Do we need libraries? Forbes. Retrieved from

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

Posted on September 16, 2019, in Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. HI Nikki,
    Great summary, and I am going to see if I can find this book because I see so many of these issues and discussions happening around me. The notion that libraries will be places where people go to get “information” really does need to be revisited because there are just too many other options. It seems that what people want more and more from libraries is social encounters, opportunities to engage with other people in the community, and there are very few public spaces where this can happen anymore, especially for those on a budget. In rural areas, where there are no Starbucks or places like that, it really is the library where people go to work on projects, meet friends, etc. Thanks for the book review!

    • Hi Cristin,
      Thanks for your comment. I would love to know what you think of this book, as you’ve been working in libraries and I have not. The author is the founding chairman of the Digital Public Library of America, which I had never heard of, but he makes a big push for it in this book.
      And I agree, people definitely want more social encounters, more interaction, more engagement- even in a “big” city like Portland!

  2. Hi Nikki,
    I was debating between reading this book for the assignment or another one (Palaces for the People) and opted for the other one. But based on your post, I think I’m going to read this one too. I like that it is a warning to librarians–it sounds like an important and relevant read. Also, hi from Southern Oregon! (I live in the Ashland area).

    • Hi Jacqueline!
      Thanks for your comment. I had actually selected this book because I had saved it in my endless “read later” stack and when I saw it on the list for this class I decided to go for it. It was fine, but I think that the author goes more into what libraries should do (digitize) rather than why libraries and librarians are important.
      And hello back from Portland! 🙂 I was in Southern Oregon just before classes started, on a road trip with my family to Umpqua Hot Springs, Toketee Falls, and Crater Lake. So beautiful down there!

  3. Hi Nikki, thank you for summarizing Palfrey’s book for us. It sounds like it’s one we should all pick up. While I agree with most of Palfrey’s steps to a path forward, I paused on #5: “Libraries should only do what needs to be done and create services based on public interest.” I get what he’s saying here, and agree with the second half of this, but I’m not sure I agree with “libraries should only do what needs to be done”. To pinpoint it further, my problem is with “only”. Only doing what needs to be done is the bare minimum. It’s not going out and finding what needs to be done. I think Palfrey would benefit from phrasing it as “Libraries should do what needs to be done and create services based on public interest”. Yes, I like that much better.

    • Hi Jeff,
      I agree with you about #5; Palfrey feels strongly that libraries “must resist becoming just community centers” (p. 80). I get his point, but it feels like a very “stay in your lane” type of caution. I don’t like it, either. Libraries can address community needs in so many ways; it does seem odd for him to recommend an unnecessary boundary in their scope.

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