If you listen in on any conversation among friends you are sure to hear one of the following phrases: “Just google it”, “Look it up online”, “Alexia what is…?”, “Hey Siri …”
Well, maybe not the last one.
Even young children know that they can find the answer to any possible question with a quick internet search. But with so much information available at the touch of a button how are libraries relevant anymore? The book BiblioTech by John Palfrey directly addresses this question. Palfey argues that libraries are more essential than ever. Although it would be impossible to recount the entirety of Palfrey’s argument and evidence three main themes emerged that intersected with our readings. Libraries provide access to information to the general public without cost, provide critical programming to their communities, and are uniquely positioned with historical values to address many new issues.
Palfrey opens his book by introducing the Boston Library which opened in 1852 as the first public library open to the public for free. Libraries today still maintain this mission; they provide access to information at no cost. Although it may seem like Google and the internet have replaced this valuable service. But one must have the means to buy both internet access and a device to use the internet. Thus, information is not really accessible for free at all. A pay wall has been erected between some of the most basic services and citizens. More and more information and services required to function in society are only available behind this paywall as job applications, banking, and vital government services like unemployment are being pushed to be done online (Pinsky & Steinhauser, 2018). By providing access to the internet Palfrey (2015, p. 9) states that libraries “function as essential equalizing institutions in our society”. Libraries providing computer access are needed even more in a time where the population is being stratified into two major subclasses, those that have and those that have not. The wealth in the United States has increasingly been concentrated within a smaller segment of the population (Horowitz, Igielnik, & Kochhar, 2020). Thus, information is freely available on the internet but only for those that can both pay for the device and internet service. Libraries will help bridge the divide between these two groups by ensuring “access to our shared culture is not dictated by however much money they have” (Palfrey, 2015, p. 9).
One place Palfrey (2015, p. 134) strongly feels libraries can innovate is in working more like a network of individual node libraries. By focusing on sharing instead of competing with each other libraries can collaborate on solving the burdensome repetitive tasks and instead share ideas and focus on community needs. Palfrey (2015, p. 115) envisions a future where librarians “will be dramatically more networked and interconnected across institutions”. By sharing the work of collection selection, cataloging, and bibliographic duties librarians would shift their focus to “serving people at various stages of their lives” (Palfrey, 2015, p.115). The leadership of the O.C.L.C. is a wonderful example of how libraries are already working toward this type of collaboration (Palfrey, 2015, p. 125).
Working with other libraries to better serve one’s own library community is one of the tenets of the Library 2.0 idea outlined by Casey and Savastinuk. Although they did not envision libraries working together in a vast network like Palfrey suggests, the renewed focus on a library’s community needs and looking to other libraries for ideas was key to the Library 2.0 vision. Casey and Savastinuk (2007, p. 24) stated that libraries needed to “look at what other libraries are doing when thinking about ways to better serve our own library users”. The participatory library model asks libraries to really understand their users by crafting a thoughtful mission statement and using surveys and other devices to gather feedback from patrons (Casey & Savastinuk, 2007, p. 23-25). Stephen Denning (2015), in his Forbes article about the future of libraries, also feels that the best path forward for libraries starts with the question “How can we delight our users and customers?”. The need for libraries to work together and focus on patron needs instead of the cataloging and organizing of objects is clear.
Librarians are uniquely positioned with historical values of free access to information, privacy, and information integrity to help answer many questions in the digital age. We need libraries to be working on innovative solutions and not cede this to for-profit companies; they do not hold the same free access to information values. One obstacle Palfrey is absolutely correct about is that there is not enough money for serious innovation in libraries. For-profit companies pay to have the best minds tackle these problems with money, time, and the freedom to try new solutions and to fail. Libraries are not given that luxury. But it is imperative that information access cannot be controlled by for-profit companies because these companies are profit driven (Palfrey, 2015, p. 104). Google search result return links filtered through Google’s lens of advertising profit. How many of the search results are low quality? We will never know because we cannot examine the algorithm, but we do know that as a publicly traded company, Google is motivated by profit. In her book, “Weapons of Math Destruction”, Cathy O’Neil (2016) argues that all algorithms have bias built in implicitly. Although it was not mentioned in Palfrey’s book specifically it would be interesting for libraries to band together to create a search engine free of this bias. Libraries are also now working as the middleman between eBook distributors and patrons. The issue is that these companies might not have the same privacy values that libraries have championed for years (Palfrey, p. 203). Palfrey also is adamant that libraries work to resolve the standoff with eBook publishers to find an equitable solution for all parties.
Yes, information is available online but libraries are more essential than ever in our society. Libraries are important because they provide access to information free to all patrons, serve their communities with patron responsive programming, and are uniquely positioned with historical values that serve more than profit when solving modern problems.
Casey, M. E., & Savastinuk, L. C. (2007). Library 2.0: A guide to participatory library service. Medford, N.J: Information Today.
Denning, S. (April 28, 2015). Do we really need Libraries? Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/stevedenning/2015/04/28/do-we-need-libraries/?utm_campaign=ForbesTech&utm_source=TWITTER&utm_medium=social&utm_channel=Technology&linkId=13831539#3401ef2c6cd7
Horowitz, J. M., Igielnik, R., Kochhar, R. (January 9, 2020). Most Americans Say There Is Too Much Economic Inequality in the U.S., but Fewer Than Half Call It a Top Priority. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2020/01/09/trends-in-income-and-wealth-inequality/
O’Neil, C. (2016). Weapons of math destruction: how big data increases inequality and threatens democracy (First edition.). Crown.
Palfrey, J. G. (2015). BiblioTech: why libraries matter more than ever in the age of Google. Basic Books, A Member of the Perseus Books Group.
Pinsky, O. & Steinhauser, R. (July 16, 2018). Online government services could change your life. But only if you have access to the internet. World Economic Forum. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/07/government-digital-equal-access-internet-mobile/