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

Cover image for Bibliotech by John Palfrey by John Palfrey

ISBN 9780465042999

“We do not know what form libraries and the web itself will take over the next ten to twenty years—whether they will move towards an increasingly commercial, locked-down, profit-oriented set of systems or toward a balanced ecosystem that includes compelling public options. The better future is one in which we value both economic incentives and the strong public interest in freedom of information and information privacy.”

In Bibliotech, former head of the Harvard Law School Library and Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) co-founder John Palfrey sets out to make the case for the continued relevance of libraries in the digital era, and sets out his vision for how libraries must evolve in order to survive the transition. Palfrey may not be a librarian by education, but he has significant experience in the field, and it appears that his core values—open access to information, intellectual freedom, individual privacy, and freedom of express—align with librarians, even if not everyone in the field shares his vision for the future.

In his introduction, Palfrey hits on many of the key arguments for why libraries are still relevant in the information age. Notably, libraries are among “the last physical, public spaces that are not devoted to commercial pursuits.” As such, libraries “function as essential equalizing institutions in our society,” because without them, “the world of the haves and the have-nots will grow further and further apart.” In a world awash in information, libraries are important not because they provide access to a scarce resource, but because they can help people navigate the flood, and discern reliable, authoritative information. Also crucial is the library’s public service motive; while a for-profit company will have a natural interest in directing users to their own resources, the mission of the library is to connect a user with the best available information, regardless of the source. And a library will do all that while also doing battle to protect your privacy and intellectual freedom, instead of selling your personal information to advertisers.

After making an initial, and passionate, case for the continuing necessity of libraries, Palfrey goes on to articulate a clear explanation of why this is a difficult time for these institutions. In addition to providing access to paper books, libraries are now also expected to provide access to that same book as an e-book (Kindle and ePub), an audiobook, and an mp3, while also growing a collection of music CDs, movies, and online databases, and they are expected to do all this on frozen or shrinking acquisition budgets, and without any additional staff hours. The budgetary crisis is such that Palfrey laments of ever finding enough resources, short of a new philanthropist emerging to become the Andrew Carnegie of the digital era. At the same time, libraries must figure out how to preserve access to all the new digital resources as formats shift every few years, and the hardware and software necessary to access old files becomes increasingly unavailable. The information in these first two sections is clear and well-articulated, and should do a good job of convincing most readers why libraries are still important, but also at a crucial crossroads.

Early in Bibliotech, Palfrey states openly that his target audience is the public, “all those who do not work in libraries and who should be taking a greater interest in the fate of these essential knowledge institutions.” He aims to make clear to these folks why libraries are still important, and how they need to evolve. However, he sometimes loses sight of this stated purpose, since many subsequent sections are more internal in nature, and clearly directed at a professional library audience. For example, he writes that “if the DPLA is successfully built and the public never knows about it but comes to love their local libraries even more, then the DPLA movement will have been an enormous success.” In addition to a lack of clarity about his intended audience, this statement also shows a misunderstanding of a deeper problem, namely that lack of knowledge about the resources and services the library provides is a tremendous issue that contributes to the persistent idea that libraries are becoming obsolete or irrelevant. We do need digital platforms, but more than that, we need platforms that are known and valued by more people than librarians and school teachers in order to ensure their continued support.

While our physical libraries need to be highly individualistic spaces tailored to serve the needs of the community in which they reside, Palfrey argues that our future digital endeavours must be much more collaborative, harnessing the numbers and power of the library community. As we continue to digitize our existing works, while also archiving the massive amounts of data that are now born digital, we need to link these efforts together into systems that avoid multiple institutions redoing the same labour. What Palfrey does not touch on here is the fact that while libraries certainly need to collaborate rather than compete, each institution must also inevitably have an eye on preserving its own sufficiency if another member of the network should fail. However, he does spend a chapter on how the existing copyright statutes complicate such efforts, though he does not seem optimistic about the chances of reforming them.

Like libraries in analog-to-digital era, this book straddles an awkward divide, sometimes addressing the public, sometimes librarians. The breadth is possibly more than most members of the public will be interested in reading, and the depth is insufficient for those already well-versed in the issues. Bibliotech is worth reading for an articulate description of why libraries still matter, and the challenges they face, but the map to the road forward is general rather than specific, and Palfrey basically rules out making progress through additional public funding for libraries, or democratic reform of copyright laws. This likely stems from a desire to give libraries a way to move forward without a change in external conditions, but while we must continue to do the best we can with what we have, nor should we give up on needed reforms simply because the political environment is difficult.

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