Godin and Gee on the future of libraries and books

This started as one point of a three-point response to Godin’s piece. When I finished with this piece, it seemed to stand on its own and it worked better to put Godin and Gee directly into conversation about the future and use of reading/books/literacies. It may be a less balanced or complete than my original 3 point outline, but I suppose it is better to leave some unsaid than to drone on at tedious length. Plus, the other two points: Don’t Confuse the Container for the Goods Contained and The Medium is the Massage seem to rather directly contradict each other.

Seth Godin’s look at the future of libraries has become the topic du jour. My initial response was along the lines of “Well, clearly, this may be news to non-librarians, but those of us in the business have been preparing for this change for years.” There have been some articulate counter-arguments, but these don’t seem to dispute Godin’s main point (the future of libraries is not to warehouse books); they just point out that the future hasn’t arrived yet and/or it has already arrived and we’re already doing what he predicts is going to happen.

I am not a public librarian, and this conversation is about public libraries, so I want to take great care not to set myself up as knowing what is good for public libraries more than the talented and experienced professionals who do this for a living. I want to restrict myself to musing about future of libraries. These are just this academic librarian’s thoughts on how we can work to create the best future for libraries without sacrificing the needs of our present patrons along the way.

Reading Godin’s post, I think it can be distilled down to one essential statement about unskilled (general public and grade school through college undergraduate students) researchers. They still need the services of skilled librarians, but they do not need library collections. In his words: “They need a librarian more than ever (to figure out creative ways to find and use data). They need a library not at all.” By “library” I assume he means “library collection”. I agree with this statement. Other than certain specialized collections and archives and certain specialized researchers who need primary sources, the print library collection as a repository of our cultures’ collected knowledge has been, is being, and will be replaced by digital collections kept “in the cloud” or some other buzzword that means “not held locally”. Libraries, according to Godin, aren’t about books. Taking this a step further, I think it is better to say that libraries, aren’t about content, regardless of medium. I take this as good news, since I’m one of those who sees the end of books coming and would rather not see the end of libraries coming with it. In the meantime, however; libraries, librarians, and library patrons have to find a path between here and there.

Books are good for what books are good for

We should not forget (how could we?) that books are still good for what books are good for. This section heading isn’t just to prove I’m a card-carrying member of tautology club. Rather, it is a reminder that despite all the new technological wonders, toys, and gizmos, books still do all of the things that made us love them. The existence of personal tablets that can store an entire library collection, digital distribution, and indie/self publishing platforms do not take anything away from books. They just take away from the book’s monopoly on archiving and sharing written information. For librarians, this means that we need to be intentional about medium. When books are called for, use books. When post-book digital information products can get the job done better, let’s leave our prejudices out of it and do what’s best for the patron. It isn’t (or shouldn’t) be a competition between using establish and familiar technology that we understand thoroughly versus using emerging new technology with lots of promise but we haven’t mastered yet. Instead it should be a matter of dispassionately diagnosing individual information needs and prescribing appropriate solutions.

James Paul Gee is a scholar who understands both traditional literacy and emerging media. His recent blog post: 10 Truths About Books and What They Have to Do With Video Games captures the spirit of this. Books aren’t magic. Books aren’t “smart” and other media like video, games, or trans-media projects aren’t “dumb” or “lazy”. One of his points gets right at the heart of this and I think librarians should pay attention. I know I should, at least.

10.  Books tend to make the “rich” richer and the poor “poorer” (those who read more in the right way get to be better and better readers and get more and more out of reading; those who don’t, get to be poorer and poorer readers and get less and less out of reading. The former get more successful, the latter, less). This is called “the Matthew Principle.”

Books and libraries ARE paths for development and growth that are available across the economic classes. However, we do our patrons a huge disservice to think that we can provide the environment for this development and growth simply by providing content. Books are good for what books are good for, but in order for libraries to be good for what libraries are good for, we have to be about more than simply putting content into our patrons hands. This is what, I think, Godin was getting at in his entry. Content is everywhere, but content isn’t knowlege or understanding. It holds just as true for digital archives as it does for book warehouses. I don’t think Godin is saying anything that good librarians didn’t already know, it’s only a surprise for people who don’t understand what we do. That said, he’s still right when he says we need: “a librarian who can bring domain knowledge and people knowledge and access to information to bear.” THAT is what will lead to better reading, better interacting, better playing, better what-have-you, and THAT is what the library can offer. The media or format of the content these interactions take place with, that could be incidental to the process.

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