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Where Libraries Went Wrong
December 2, 2011 1:04 AM   Subscribe

Where Libraries Went Wrong; a great blog post / article diving deep into some of the issues that face public libraries today. It's centred on UK libraries, but deals with issues facing public knowledge bases everywhere.
posted by ChrisR (28 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite

 
Although it mentions the UK, it's actually focused on Australian and New Zealand libraries - it's a speech that was delivered to the national and state librarians of Australia and NZ. The author's a New Zealander who lived for about a decade in the US (among other things, he runs Kiwi Foo Camp). [I've met him a few times, coincidentally the last time a few of us ended up talking about Metafilter].

Some good points, not sure I agree with everything and might have been worth mentioning Koha (the open source library management software designed in a small New Zealand library) - he also mentions Kete as an example of something that could be accessed through libraries, without mentioning that it was developed by the same small NZ library.

Still, it's probably good to have an "outsider" pull these things together and explain them to senior librarians, it might have more impact coming from him than coming from their younger staff members. And the bit about people not being able to find or access libraries' digital collections is definitely an important point.
posted by Infinite Jest at 1:49 AM on December 2, 2011


Libraries are the homes of critical thought, of long-term cultural preservation, and of democratic access to knowledge. This can’t end with the Internet.
There's a few dynamics operating in the background. Previously, libraries held periodicals and books, both physical objects. The library either received or purchased copies of each, at which point it owned those physical objects for lending out.

The subtext seems to be that the internet is shifting the role of libraries from that of owning physical objects to providing information access services. Previously, both were interwoven. The library owned the objects and operated the lending service.

Now that they are separate, libraries are moving from depositories operating lending services, to locations that offer internet access services, perhaps will the value-add of access to premium databases and expert librarian research services.

Thinking from the consumer side, in the previous model, the substitute for a library was holding one's own book collection. Thus, substitution of the library's role was quite expensive. Now that I can access the same information from my home internet connection or from a library internet connection, it seems as if libraries are less in competition with Blackwell's than they are with BT or Virgin Media.

If that's the first point, then the second point is that if libraries are now an information access point, they have moved from purchasing products (single payment) to purchasing services (recurring payment). If there's one thing the internet has been great at, it's implementing greater degrees of price discrimination. Whilst Google is digitising the world's libraries 'for free', they are changing for access to that content -- through their ad model at least.

That is a tremendous shift in the business model, and something that libraries are going to have to sort out.

The other paradigm shift is that in the previous economy, content was expensive and attention was cheap. Meaning, there were more people than copies of a book, thus content existed at the premium. With the advent of 'cheap bits', content is now cheap and it is attention that is expensive. Thus the google model of making money for bringing eyeballs to your content via ads.

Not sure what the total implications are for the library system, but safe to say,
1. The internet has broken the relationship between books and words.
2. The library was designed as a product business, when information is now a service business.
3. Content is being consistently devalued as it becomes more accessible.

And perhaps the most important point:

4. Libraries were/are a fundamental underpinning of democracy (democratic access to knowledge). Thus if we begin shifting one of the fundamental underpinnings of democracy, democracy itself will be affected. I'm not a luddite in that one cannot expect access to knowledge to remain the same over time, however, there must be steps taken to ensure that knowledge remains accessible.
posted by nickrussell at 2:01 AM on December 2, 2011 [4 favorites]


What I really could use in any library is one guy/girl that has spent months reading books on one subject, that can point me to the -really amazingly good books-.

Guess they could be hired at universities for part time jobs, no computer can do that (and I wouldn't trust the programmers either).
posted by elpapacito at 2:40 AM on December 2, 2011


I can't help thinking that he is missing stuff about the availability of, say, comfortable chairs, good coffee, people to flirt with, performances by local artists and all the other ephemera traditionalists associate with 'dumbing down'. The British Library and Amsterdam's Openbare Bibliotheek (look at the video tour) do have different aims but it is really interesting to compare the experience of entering the two buildings. The Dutch library is wide open to everybody: bring in your computer to do some research, browse through magazines in their fine café, try out some sheet music on one of their pianos, look at the view, stay late. This kind of design to support comfortable conviviality and serendipitous exploration seems to me to be the way forward. By contrast the British Library, basically, greets me with this barrier -I can come in and use the library only if I can convince the librarians that I have a specific topic that I need to research.
posted by rongorongo at 2:47 AM on December 2, 2011


nickrussell: Thinking from the consumer side, in the previous model, the substitute for a library was holding one's own book collection. Thus, substitution of the library's role was quite expensive. Now that I can access the same information from my home internet connection or from a library internet connection, it seems as if libraries are less in competition with Blackwell's than they are with BT or Virgin Media.

You make some really good points in general, but I think it's worth mentioning that the original speech was aimed at national/state libraries, and a key issue for them is making their unique collections available and accessible to an audience that's using Google. (I do 100% agree with your line about the library being a service business; I used a very similar quote to my boss a few years back when trying to justify a greater online focus).
posted by Infinite Jest at 3:12 AM on December 2, 2011


that's good clarification. In that respect, it will be interesting to see how collections are made available. I guess the thought then is that in a product-centred environment, libraries have many vendors to choose from, and thus can invest small amounts over many, many products. Many vendors, fewer libraries.

In the Google model, some kind of a subscription or revenue model would see a reversal of that relationship, one Google, many libraries. Then, there is the potential for reciprocal impact on libraries selection of content.

I suppose it is possible that advertising is the new utopian revenue stream that funds access to the great collections of the world, free of charge to host libraries, and global consumers, and a healthy margin to Google.
posted by nickrussell at 3:25 AM on December 2, 2011


Why do libraries have to remain as physical places?
posted by devnull at 4:23 AM on December 2, 2011


Silicon snake oil.
posted by MartinWisse at 4:27 AM on December 2, 2011


Why do libraries have to remain as physical places?

Either we believe that physical, public lending libraries are a basic component of a functioning democratic society, or we don't. The changing media landscape presents difficulties and challenges, for sure, but if the question ever becomes "Why do we need libraries at all?", then we've lost something very important.

Permitting content-creators to lock up information for longer and longer periods and allowing the internet to supplant physical libraries' role in society are both anti-democratic, I think. A lot of these "problems" are just goalpost shifting.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 5:29 AM on December 2, 2011 [3 favorites]


In my opinion, libraries became obsolete the second that publishing companies decided to offer all eBooks for free, and everything could really be found on the internet, and it was all free.

oh, wait, that didn't happen. Carry on.
posted by bradth27 at 6:30 AM on December 2, 2011 [5 favorites]


Why do libraries have to remain as physical places?

For public libraries: because access to computers and materials requires a physical presence. Not everyone can afford an Internet connection and a computer. Also, libraries offer a space for study and community (both activities, and the act of just being around other people) that is non-commercial and doesn't have barriers to entry.

This particular speech, as mentioned before, is aimed at a different type of library.
posted by codacorolla at 7:27 AM on December 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


Why do libraries have to remain as physical places?

I don't know the stats for the UK/AUS, but in the US public libraries are the only place where almost all the public [97%] has free access to the internet. And this is in a country where 35% of Americans don't have broadband at home and 19-20% have no internet at home at all. 70-ish percent of public libraries say that they are the ONLY place where the public has free access to computers and the internet. So, among other reasons [there is value in having public shared spaces available to any person] one is that this internet dream only works if you actually have or can get the internet and that's not the dream we are living in the US>
posted by jessamyn at 7:30 AM on December 2, 2011 [7 favorites]


The question of making collections accessible is a very interesting one, that has been around for over a decade and is still not yet really solved. I think the real problem is making unique collections accessible and discoverable and useful, which is much harder. A lot of places do put their stuff online, but the interfaces can be hard to use, metadata is of poor quality, copyright/IP issues, and so on. Not that folks are doing a poor job - they are doing the best they can - but somehow, how to actually do this in a useful way is often not really understood very well.

If you want to check out a version in the US, look at the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), still at the planning stage: http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/dpla/Main_Page

Why do libraries have to remain as physical places?

First, all the reasons just above.

Second, to paraphrase Willie Sutton, "Because that's where the librarians are"; Librarians help you to find what you want.

Third, because they are de facto community centers. Go to your local public library. Look around. While there are some people checking out/reading books, there's many other activities going on.
posted by carter at 7:42 AM on December 2, 2011


Why do libraries have to remain as physical places?

I don't know the stats for the UK/AUS, but in the US public libraries are the only place where almost all the public [97%] has free access to the internet. And this is in a country where 35% of Americans don't have broadband at home and 19-20% have no internet at home at all.


To me the fact that communities provide Internet access does not intrinsically imply that the access has to be physically located in a building, and in fact I think that's a huge negative to the ways public libraries are moving. As someone who already pays for both home broadband Internet access and mobile smartphone Internet access, the fact that the local public library also provides Internet access provides virtually no benefits to me. And I am not bringing that up to complain or anything, I'm bringing it up because when a community provides services that are only useful to the subset of people who can't afford better private versions of those services, the public services are almost always underfunded and substandard. It's the same with public schools, if a community provides public education but no one who can afford private education actually uses it, that public education is going to be vastly inferior to one that is used by the whole community.

It's fine to say that 97% of the public has access to the Internet in a library, but if only 20% actually depends on that access and that 20% is also the most marginalized economic group of the community, then the other 80% are not going to care if that Internet access is shoddy or if the whole library gets shut down. If a community instead decides to put up a big WiFi tower that provides Internet access to the whole community or comes up with some other way to provide public services that actually out-compete private alternatives, the same way that traditional libraries out-competed book stores, I think it could be a better long-term strategy. Sticking to the traditional concept of a public library when the traditional expectations and benefits of a public library are changing risks making the library irrelevant to most of the community, and if most of the community decides that their public library is irrelevant then it's not going to exist anymore.
posted by burnmp3s at 8:01 AM on December 2, 2011 [1 favorite]



Either we believe that physical, public lending libraries are a basic component of a functioning democratic society, or we don't. The changing media landscape presents difficulties and challenges, for sure, but if the question ever becomes "Why do we need libraries at all?", then we've lost something very important.

Permitting content-creators to lock up information for longer and longer periods and allowing the internet to supplant physical libraries' role in society are both anti-democratic, I think. A lot of these "problems" are just goalpost shifting.


Well put. I think that conversations around how to save libraries are entirely missing the point when they focus around changing their model, or updating them, or adapting to the internet.

There's nothing wrong with adapting to new media, but the real challenge facing libraries is nothing new, and nothing unique to them. The defunding and/or privatizing of formerly public resources is a pretty much across the board thing.

We didn't move from public fountains to bottled water because bottles are a better medium for dispensing water.
posted by Stagger Lee at 8:08 AM on December 2, 2011 [2 favorites]


Sticking to the traditional concept of a public library when the traditional expectations and benefits of a public library are changing risks making the library irrelevant to most of the community, and if most of the community decides that their public library is irrelevant then it's not going to exist anymore.

This would make sense if all the library did was provide a warm space for people to be in, and clean bathrooms and internet/computer access, but it's totally not. Giant Wifi towers don't solve the problem of helping out fill out your Home Depot job application and they don't give you a computer to do it with. Libraries are often sneeringly referred to as places that only poor people go to and/or use, but my assertion is that those people haven't been to a public library lately, or possibly their library sucks. And it's a values thing too.

I see it as more of a social safety net situation. You either believe that everyone in your country deserves access, publicly funded access, to computers, books and other information to help them solve their problems, and a safe clean place to interact with one another that belongs to everyone, or you don't. I know there's an argument for lessening funding for public accommodations generally [schools, roads, fire departments, libraries] and I do think it's up to libraries to show that they are still relevant to all Americans, not just ones who can't buy their own computers. That said, the reason we have libraries, one of them, is that we believe that in order to be a democracy you need to have an educated populace. And in order to do that you need both public schooling and public access to free information, unbiased and uncensored information, that is usable by everyone.

The more the world shifts to delivering content electronically, the more it's important that people understand the complicated word of digital information. And the free market has a very vested interest in NOT helping you understand it. I know that not everyone thinks that public space and public services are important, but I don't think it's true at all -- and the numbers don't support -- that people who patronize and support libraries are people without other options. I agree that libraries need to step up to the new paradigms we're dealing with. I disagree that having a physical location is one of the things that should go by the wayside.

The digital content marketplace is, to a large degree, all about scalability. You can make more money selling the same files over and over and over again. The same is not as true for books, for example, where selling two books is more costly than selling one in terms of resources used, etc. However, once you buy a book, it belongs to you. You're not licensing it. You don't need a device to read it. You can do whatever you want with or to it. Public library systems don't scale in quite the same way. They're local. They contain local as well as digital/internet content. They have a sense of place and of history. Sure, this is not everyone's cup of tea, but I think you can make a pretty strong argument that it's a necessary part of community and of society and I think we allow these institutions to fade at our peril.
posted by jessamyn at 8:22 AM on December 2, 2011 [11 favorites]


I recently accessed my local University library, it was interesting. I had been searching for an article for many years, I only remembered a few keywords. I googled it occasionally, but nothing ever turned up. Recently I tried the search on Google again, I got a hit. The New Yorker put its index online, it was an article from 1976. But the article itself was behind a paywall. So I went to the University Library. I found the stacks with bound copies of the New Yorker from 1976, and made a couple of photocopies.

I was pretty astonished at what the library could access. The online catalogs spanned many new digital collections with thousands of PDF reprints I could just download. But what astonished me the most was how the room that used to hold the massive card catalog now had a computer facility. It was constantly packed with students using the Library computers, as well as their own laptops. Oh man, they have an overhead camera scanner/photocopier, like the cameras they scan Google Books with, but you can use it yourself for 25 cents a page. But the most significant thing I noticed was what the students in the computer lab were doing. I walked through the lab and looked over all the screens in use, every single one was displaying Facebook.
posted by charlie don't surf at 8:24 AM on December 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


This would make sense if all the library did was provide a warm space for people to be in, and clean bathrooms and internet/computer access, but it's totally not. Giant Wifi towers don't solve the problem of helping out fill out your Home Depot job application and they don't give you a computer to do it with.

It's not my intention to imply that WiFi towers could somehow replace all of a library's services, or that all of the benefits of a library can be done without a physical location. But Internet access specifically is not a good argument in my opinion that libraries have to be in a physical location. Internet access that is constrained to a physical public location is inherently not as useful as Internet access that exists in the home or that exists everywhere. When the choice for reading a book is to drive to the book store and pay to buy it, or drive to the library and borrow the book for free, the fact that the library is at a physical location doesn't have any disadvantages. When the choice is to pay for broadband in your own home or depend on driving to the library for Internet access, obviously the library choice has significant disadvantages. Add to that the fact that the Internet is perceived as fulfilling many of the needs of a traditional library in terms of access to information and published material, and that's a large part of why libraries seem less relevant to a lot of people.

I see it as more of a social safety net situation. You either believe that everyone in your country deserves access, publicly funded access, to computers, books and other information to help them solve their problems, and a safe clean place to interact with one another that belongs to everyone, or you don't.

I guess my main point is that at least right now in the US, there aren't enough people who feel that way about virtually anything to support public services. Too many people who don't have school-aged children feel like they should vote down the referendum for public school improvements so they can save on taxes, too many people who have health insurance don't care about about universal health insurance if it doesn't personally make their own health care better, etc. People support public services that are in their own best interests. So a politician is going to have a hard time convincing someone who receives Social Security benefits that shutting down Social Security is a good idea, but convincing someone who doesn't use public transportation that funding for public transportation should be cut is much easier. If libraries are counting on people who don't actually need or use their services to support them because of the fact that everyone deserves the services they provide, then libraries in their current form are doomed.
posted by burnmp3s at 9:18 AM on December 2, 2011


If libraries are counting on people who don't actually need or use their services to support them because of the fact that everyone deserves the services they provide, then libraries in their current form are doomed.

If that's the growing rationale for cutting any public services that are in the common interest (and I'm not disagreeing that it is), it's clear that it's more than libraries that are doomed. It's not a matter of "deserving" or "not deserving," it's a matter of what we value as a functioning society. If we want to fund no public services, then we're pretty much throwing up our hands and conceding that we're going down the tubes, except for the elite few who can afford their own schools, their own health care, their own retirement, and whatever else comes under the umbrella of public services.
posted by blucevalo at 9:48 AM on December 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


elpapacito: "Guess they could be hired at universities for part time jobs, no computer can do that (and I wouldn't trust the programmers either)."

Eh, books with proper bibliographies can be used as input to pagerank, which was proposed by librarians before computers and programmers came into the equation.
posted by pwnguin at 12:03 PM on December 2, 2011


You're in some place with your friends, relaxing a bit; you would like to tell them about something you have red, and would like them to read them. You pop up your tablet and share the electronic paper in a few clicks, with video, images and all. You all are having a fine time talking about that paper, the video, what have you.

It so happens that, by chance, a DRM (Digital Rights Management) program running on your tablet think you have shared that paper one time too many and issues a "remove" order to all your friends' tablets, but yours. All the the other tables comply to the order, as they also harbor the DRM program, and so remove the shared files. Actually the program is wrong, it's a glitch, it's a bug, you haven't cut'n'pasted too many lines from that electronic book you have bought online.

Bah, buggy shit. The evening has been carried of its tracks, but it's late so you head home and forget about it, shit happens.

The following morning you power up the tablet and access your library..just to find out that something is amiss. Apparently, the DRM software thinks you are a copyright offender and has locked you out of your epaper library.

Damn piece of junk! I just wanted to read that important piece of info I needed, I'm not a criminal! @# bloody piece of junk!#

You try to catch your friends on the phone, but it so happens that none of them has that epaper you need..goddamit what was the paper name again? You google for it, find it again and download it....."Sorry, your google book account has been locked for infringment of Section 2, para 8 of the User Agreement you so obviously have forgot to read. Please contact youresofucked@google.com".

Then a brilliant idea! I could head for the library...except there is no library with dumb terminals or paper copies that could have helped you at least READ that paper.
posted by elpapacito at 12:41 PM on December 2, 2011


Libraries do the physical well, so how about becoming a repository of useful physical capital? 3D printers, CnC milling machines, JTAG units, oscilloscopes, microscopes, lathes, mass spectrometers. All of this stuff is too expensive for any one person to own but between members of a community it makes more sense.
posted by Joe Chip at 12:56 PM on December 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


so how about becoming a repository of useful physical capital?
Yup shared workshops would be great. I am not aware of any at the moment, but maybe you can find some by visiting www.instructables.com.
posted by elpapacito at 12:58 PM on December 2, 2011


All of this stuff is too expensive for any one person to own but between members of a community it makes more sense.

Sounds like a hackspace.
posted by burnmp3s at 1:15 PM on December 2, 2011


how about becoming a repository of useful physical capital?

I'd read this, then this. We are very seriously working on this.
posted by jessamyn at 3:01 PM on December 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


(I wrote the original article) I'm honoured and delighted by your thoughtful comments. As folks have noted, I was writing for a specific audience. There are different types of libraries, each with different purposes. The term "library" is like "app": it covers a multitude of virtues.

As I see it, every library serves a mixture of functions. The three main ones are:
  • Heritage: We collect and preserve the documentary heritage of a particular area/topic for future generations.
  • Research: We provide services and materials for scholarship, sometimes we even do the research ourselves.
  • Public: We provide democratic access to information for the public.
National Libraries are the Heritage libraries: they, aided by the mechanism of legal deposit, preserve the nation's literary output (and often maps, manuscripts, newspapers, etc. too) for future generations. The documentary heritage is how we research our ancestors and develop a sense of national identity. Originally it was about nationalism (look at the size of our collective literary penis!) and users were elites (academic scholars) but now the rise of genealogy means the national library has just as important a role in connecting people to their identity as to a national identity.

Research is when all this knowledge and information is used. Scholars access information in the reading room or, in lending libraries, take the information away with them. Universities have strong research libraries, just as national libraries are often heavily used by scholars. I'm trying to draw a distinction here between preservation ("we gather everything about Milton") and use ("Use of the comma splice in Milton", Journal of The Milton Library 3ed, pp14-15), but also between collecting for theoretical users ("we archive everything because we don't know what will be useful in the future") and for actual users ("we must offer this journal because the Chemistry department says it is the canon in the field").

The critical democratic role of libraries, though, is in serving the public. At one level, yes, they provide books for people to borrow without cost. But behind that important function lies the service level of library: they provide Internet access; librarians help members of the public with critical analysis of search and search results). They're a critical part of lifelong learning for the parts of society who can't afford education if it is a luxury. They're a backtop for literacy. Libraries are a public space for minds, the equivalent of a public park.

I didn't articulate this breakdown for the National and State Librarians of Australasia. I've come to it over the last few years, and I think it's useful for thinking about and justifying what libraries do now as well as for thinking about what libraries might do. I hope to write all this up in a week or two for a followup post.

In particular, though, I think my emphasis on "access" was blurry and not particularly helpful. Simply being able to search and view online, or even download, is the 0th level of access. It's the sine qua non. But to be great, to do what libraries do best, you have to step into the world of research: you go beyond simple viewing to adding the context. Context is what libraries are great at: what's the context for the 2nd World War? What was the world like when my grandparents were kids? What's the context for the convict settlers of Australia? This is where you, on the web, integrate data from disparate sources, write search apps that guide instead of abandon, etc.
posted by ntorkington at 3:21 PM on December 2, 2011 [8 favorites]


The following morning you power up the tablet and access your library..just to find out that something is amiss. Apparently, the DRM software thinks you are a copyright offender and has locked you out of your epaper library.


Sadly, that's a little too close to reality. The browser-based ebook system used at my university's library has a policy that a user can only view one copy of one book at a time. Fine. But---heaven forbid---if you close the browser window, or temporarily lose your wifi connection, or your computer crashes, everything goes to hell. The ebook server refuses to let you open another copy, thinking you're still viewing it in the closed browser window. It eventually resets after around six hours, and there's nothing the librarians can do about it. You can try to print the books to PDF in 60-page chunks (the max allowable), but they get watermarked in a way that completely mangles the formatting and makes them nearly unreadable.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 3:56 PM on December 2, 2011


Libraries have been one of the great positives in my life, ever since I was five.

They are what I think of when I need to Find Out. They are what democracy FEELs like. Seriously, they are needed for as long as the world needs a LIE-BURY.

They are the nation I belong to, their citizenry I trust, and I pledge my allegiance to them.
posted by Twang at 12:40 AM on December 3, 2011


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