16 May 2011

The Future of Libraries and How Seth Godin Proves He's Never Been In a Library

So honestly, I’m kind of shocked that this is my second non-book post in the last week, but this blog post ticked me smooth off (as my friend MattFrye would say).  Clearly, Seth Godin has not actually visited a public or school library recently, or had a conversation with a librarian.
One of the biggest pains of my job is explaining constantly what I do.  I understand the necessity of explaining myself because the role of librarians has morphed completely in the last decade.  Also, I find that I have to explain my job to people who either don’t use libraries or don’t have school aged children.  People who visit the public library know what my job entails, and so do parents.

So here’s why I take issue with what Godin said.

First, I’m appalled at Godin’s definition of the librarian of the future, not because of what he’s asking of us, but because we already do all that stuff.  We teach people how to use the information they find to create new and innovative products, ideas, you name it.  We teach people how to critically think and how to be information literate – which is a term that means they know how to identify, locate and use the information they need to complete any task.  Again, it is clear to me that Godin has not visited a public or school library recently.

The next library is ...a place where people come together to do co-working and coordinate and invent projects worth working on together. Aided by a librarian who understands the Mesh, a librarian who can bring domain knowledge and people knowledge and access to information to bear.

That’s what I do each and every day, and if you walk into the Mesa County Public Library, you’ll see the same thing.  Just look at their list of events and classes offered, and you'll see that the library is a place where people and information come together to form ideas.  Libraries and librarians bring information and people together constantly.  All. The. Time.  And they do it with a smile on their face and more patience than Mother Teresa (ok, maybe that’s a stretch, but they have lots).
Second, Godin’s reasoning behind not needing a library for research is…well, you decide.

Wikipedia and the huge databanks of information have basically eliminated the library as the best resource for anyone doing amateur research (grade school, middle school, even undergrad). Is there any doubt that online resources will get better and cheaper as the years go by? Kids don't shlep to the library to use an out of date encyclopedia to do a report on FDR. You might want them to, but they won't unless coerced.

 There’s a part of me that doesn’t feel the need to respond to this statement because it’s clearly...uh…uninformed (he must have gotten his information from Wikipedia…).  Wikipedia has eliminated the library as the best resource for research?  Ha.  Double Ha.  In fact, I actually have to fight to get teachers to allow their students to even use Wikipedia as a starting point.  Wikipedia is not considered a valid or reliable resource by most (though it's proving to be more reliable than it used to be) and no one doing any sort of research – amateur or otherwise – should use it as their only source of information.  While he is correct in that most students won’t come to the library to use an out of date encyclopedia, they will come to the library to use an online one, or any other of our many online databases, or to use a web-based tool to present their information (like Glogster, Prezi, Animoto, VoiceThread or Xtranormal – any of those tools ring a bell sir?  No?  Go ask your local librarian, he or she will know).  Unfortunately, many of the free online resources are being overrun with advertising, and other quality online resources – like databases – aren’t getting cheaper.  School districts are being forced to purchase fewer and fewer.  Thank goodness the public library still purchases enough so that patrons can conduct meaningful research.  Also, I’d like to extend a friendly challenge to Mr. Godin.  I’d like for him to come in and teach one of my classes how to use Ebsco or another database.  It’s not that easy.  So the truth of the matter is, using Google or Wikipedia might be easier but definitely not better.

Truth be told, I wonder if Mr. Godin’s opinion would be the same if he made less money.  I know that sounds a little harsh, but I wonder if it’s true.  Let me put it to you this way.  I read about 2 books per week, that’s 100 books a year (at least).  Many of these books are new releases, so they’re still hardback.  But in order to make a conservative estimate, let’s say I only read paperbacks.  Books alone would cost me about $1000 a year.  I watch fewer movies – about 1 a week.  But at $12 a pop, movies would cost me about $625 a year.  That’s $1600 a year that I save by going to the public library.  That’s about $130 a month I save, and I’m single and childless.  Imagine how much money a family of four would save.

Godin also talks about the Kindle and ebooks.  Quite frankly, this goes back to my thoughts that he’d be singing a different tune if he lived paycheck to paycheck. “An ebook costs about $1.60 in 1962 dollars.”  Uh, $1.60 was a LOT in 1962 – a gallon of regular gas cost a mere $0.31, so an ebook would have cost you the equivalent to 5 gallons of gas.  If I re-figured the amount of money I save by visiting the public library based on this figure (each book would cost me approximately $20), I’d spend over $1900 on books alone.  Now I know lots of people who buy books for $20, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.  My whole point in making the comparison is the simple fact that in these economic times not everyone can afford to buy books, ebooks or DVDs.  I feel like the tone of Godin’s article was a little condescending to people who struggle financially.  Luckily for everyone (Mr. Godin included) libraries provide equal access and librarians provide information, assistance and guidance to everyone regardless of the size of your pocketbook.

I know that not all libraries are created equal, and some libraries might not be doing all these things, and some librarians still might be nothing more than shushing book pushers.  So maybe the truth is that I'm offended that Godin didn't research things a bit more.  His library of the future is here - it may not be every library everywhere, but it is here and librarians are already doing all the things he claims we should be doing in the future.  So maybe I feel snubbed that he (and LOADS of others) haven't noticed the advances that we're making in Library Land.  How do we fix that?  We advocate, we keep defending ourselves and show what a benefit we are to students and the community.  And we encourage people who write uninformed blogs that they should come visit us so they can see that the "future" is already here.

Here’s his actual blog post The Future of the Library.  It is very possible that I went on the defensive and missed his point.  I encourage you to read the post, visit your local library and decide for yourselves.

Here are some other reactions to his blog as well

Phil Bradley (the swank UK search guru whose image I borrowed above...)

The Unquiet Librarian (Buffy Hamilton - I'd really like to be her when I grow up)

Happy Reading!

Image above provided by Phil Bradley's Photostream via Flickr
(see what I did just there?  That's called attribution.  Something a librarian can teach you to do in about 3 easy steps...)

1 comment:

  1. Good calls Suzanne. I found it a real mixture of a post from him. Surprised at a lot of what he said, agreed with some, and didn't think that he went far enough with other stuff. I responded on my own blog at http://philbradley.typepad.com/phil_bradleys_weblog/2011/05/seths-blog-the-future-of-the-library.html #libraries #librarians and you and I are pretty much on a par with this one I think. :)


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