It’s not about the book

If you want to have game rooms and pingpong tables and God knows what — poker parties — fine, do it, but don’t pretend it has anything to do with libraries” – Michael Gorman

The L.A. Times recently published a story about the future of libraries. It contained the sorts of things you would expect to find. A comment about the relevance of libraries in the age of Google? Check. Discussion about the relevance of libraries after information goes digital? Check. Michael Gorman antagonizing his fellow librarians by using his status as a former president of the American Library Association to advance a narrow and anachronistic definition of what a library is? Check. So what is new here? Is it really worth re-hashing the Blog People incident all over again? At first, I had a hard time finding the energy to care. Library bloggers at 8-Bit Library and Agnostic, Maybe offered up spirited defenses of the place of games in library collections, does more really need to be said? This is a blog, so of course something more is going to be said, whether it needs to or no.

Are libraries about books?

In the original blog people discussion, Michael Gorman took a position on the Google Books project. He found it lacking because he saw Google Books as a competitor with libraries in the grand project of universal bibliographic control.

In the eyes of bloggers, my sin lay in suggesting that Google is OK at giving access to random bits of information but would be terrible at giving access to the recorded knowledge that is the substance of scholarly books. (Library Journal, 02-15-2005)

If we ignore the fact that Google’s PageRank algorithm was based largely on academic citation analysis, this doesn’t seem to be a terrible idea. Librarians are about organizing & providing access to information and Google Books doesn’t (or at least didn’t, it is improving) do that as well as our well-established methods of organizing printed information. If the sole mission of the library is to provide access to the world’s body of printed literature, this is a valid criticism of digitization efforts.

In the recent Los Angeles Times article, Gorman says:

“If you want to have game rooms and pingpong tables and God knows what — poker parties — fine, do it, but don’t pretend it has anything to do with libraries,” said Michael Gorman, a former president of the American Library Assn. “The argument that all these young people would turn up to play video games and think, ‘Oh by the way, I must borrow that book by Dostoyevsky’ — it seems ludicrous to me.” (LA Times, 10-12-2010)

Again, I think we see the same assumption guiding Gorman’s comments: the library exists to preserve, organize, and provide access to printed information. In a time of decreasing funding for libraries, libraries are forced to prioritize what they do. Gorman assumes that libraries are about books and thus, any non-book activities fall outside of library’s core competencies.

We can read more of his justifications for this in a series of posts he wrote for the Encyclopedia Brittanica blog:  Web 2.0 and the sleep of reason (part 1part 2).  Briefly summarized, these posts find fault with the interactive web because they circumvent the well-established editorial process that is a part of how books get printed. Blogs, wikis, and user-generated content are not subject to peer-review or formal editorial process and thus are inferior to information sources that are filtered by experts and authorities.

The arguments appear to be rooted in the same core assumptions: libraries exist as a part of the print information architecture. Anything that that is outside that print information architecture is to be viewed with extreme skepticism. If that was as far as it went, I can’t say that is a horrible assumption. We’ve had hundreds of years in the post-Gutenberg era to get comfortable with printed information. We’re good at it. The problem is, the print information architecture has been superseded by a number of digital, computational, and networked technologies. So a new question emerges, do we keep doing what we are good at and risk increasing irrelevance, or do we move on to something more technologically and culturally appropriate but we don’t know how to do very well?

Games are not books.

Video games are not books. This presents all sorts of problems for people who try to fit them in to existing structures. Roger Ebert, someone I have enormous respect for, found himself in a bit of an unpopular position for trying to apply existing methods of media criticism to video games. Ebert, in an informal essay, wrote of his doubts that video games could ever be an art form. This skepticism was met with an angry, Internet, “blog people” response. Many gamers felt outraged and compelled to defend their favorite media. Eventually, and to his credit, Ebert changed his view from “video games can never be art” to “I’m not willing to play a video game to find that out“. It wasn’t much, as far as position changes go, but it added to the enormous respect I have for Mr. Ebert. It also makes me wish that I knew of more voices like his in the library world. Ebert can speak out in favor of rigor, of tradition, of formalized standards of evaluation and his reputation is such that his voice is a counter-balance to the irrational enthusiasm and uncritical love that fans have for their media of choice. This is a *good thing*. The critical discourse surrounding video games is improved by Mr. Ebert’s skepticism. (Even if I, personally, don’t share it.) When Michael Gorman attempts to do something similar, and I honestly think that is the role he is trying to fill, he falls short. His dismissive attitude and the scorn with which he addressed his audience carried much more weight, ultimately,  than did his more mannerly and better reasoned arguments for Universal Bibliographic Control and against keyword-relevance searching.

Games are not books and as we librarians learn how to deal with these and other non-book items, I think we need a diversity of opinion. We need a creative tension to help us figure out what our boundary of services are. We need to figure out how games are different from our traditional collections and to figure out how we should change and how we should stay the same. I find myself wishing that video game librarians had a better foil as we try to figure out how interactive media entertainments change our jobs. From what I can tell, Michael Gorman’s point in the L.A. Times piece is that video games are not books and books are the real business of the library. Perhaps, on first blush, the reaction of video game librarians was to recoil at the second assertion. It makes sense, I think it is demonstrably false and an anachronism. That leaves us with the first observation: video games aren’t like the other things that we collect. eBooks and readers aren’t like the other things that we collect. Digital audio downloads and streaming video content aren’t like the others things we collect. Libraries are good at acquiring texts from publishers and lending them to our users. This is as simple and basic definition of a library that I can write. What happens when the content our users want stops being texts and the people creating that content aren’t recognizable publishers? What happens when there isn’t a practical distinction between borrowing and owning an item?

The Library of Babel:

I want to say a very public thank you to video game librarians out there who are experimenting and looking for approaches that work. the ALA’s national gaming day is November 15th. If you are a librarian running a service or an event at your library, you have my thanks. If you are collecting, lending, programming, discussing, or blogging about video games in libraries, thank you. I believe that video games belong in libraries and librarians are very well placed people to figure out how to deal with emerging media. It isn’t easy building a new kind of service from scratch.

At some point, however, this experimental approach is going to need to transition into a new established practice. We are probably on the last generation of video games distributed using physical media. When physical media go away, librarians are going to have much more difficult questions to answer than “should we collect games?” Physical media, like books, CDs, DVDs, game disks, etc. are last link to the traditional view of libraries as organizations that collect things and loan them to our users. If distribution technology and the shift to digital content make our borrower-lender relationships obsolete, how will we define library services? (Put another way, what happens when borrower and lender become metaphors instead of concrete descriptions of roles?)

The work that video game librarians have been doing up to now: building new services and redefining old services based on new relationships between media, library, and patron is preparing the way for more challenging changes to come. As libraries become less and less about books and more and more about, well, whatever it is we are about, we are going to need innovative problem solvers who can deal with disruptive technologies. We are also going to need critics and experienced voices with a rich understanding of our traditions. If libraries are going to be more than books, if libraries are going to be more than texts, if libraries are going to be more than places that lend works published in physical formats, we are going to need to be able to define what we are. Michael Gorman is really doing us a service by reminding us what libraries used to be about.

“The argument that all these young people would turn up to play video games and think, ‘Oh by the way, I must borrow that book by Dostoyevsky’ — it seems ludicrous to me.”” – Michael Gorman

The question is, if we are no longer just about books, what the hell are we about now? If we are just as happy lending a copy of Bioshock as we are a copy of Notes from the Underground, (as I believe we are) how do we justify that? Information abundance is changing libraries. Libraries once were a solution to the problems of information being rare, expensive, and difficult to acquire. Once, we were just about books. Now that disruptive technological change is making information abundant, cheap, and everywhere, what does that mean for libraries? Libraries and books used to have a monopoly on Dostoyevsky. Now, people don’t really need us if they want to read Dostoyevsky. Gorman reminds us that our roles used to be much, much more clearly defined and understood. When print was the dominant information technology, libraries were the dominant information technology service. Now that print is one option among many in a competitive information market, what does that make us?

5 thoughts on “It’s not about the book

  1. nice points, and thanks to aaron for tweeting it, otherwise is would not have seen it until monday feed-reading.

    i feel strongly that books, music, film, comics, art, and yes, games, are all part of our cultural milieu, and thus are all worth libraries collecting.

    i’m not sure that libraries ever solved the scarcity problem or that we’re threatened by abundance; i think what we provide is the freedom to participate in our own culture without the trappings of consumerism. no buying/licensing. no going to a special space where you are chastised for bringing your own snacks. no paying 25c per game.

    ok, this might be just what *i* love about the library, but it puts us closer to a unified field theory for collection development as well.

    so gorman’s right: we’re not out there hustling games so we can hustle books. we’re hustling games because they’re a part of our culture dammit.

  2. Very thoughtful post. It is easy to get distracted by Gorman’s extremism and miss the questions he is asking (or would be asking if he hadn’t made up his mind lo these many years ago).

    For many years libraries have offered services other than materials lending and research help. We do have to ask, if these two roles are greatly diminished, is “other” enough to sustain us, at least at the level of support we’ve enjoyed? This isn’t an anti-gaming comment–gaming in libraries, wonderful, etc. etc. It’s back to your broader musing about the future of libraries, period.

  3. Karen,

    Those are great questions. Gaming librarians such as myself can be a touch sensitive about the question “do games belong in libraries” but if we are to be part of the larger conversation about the future of libraries, we do need to have better answers ready.

    Rather than dividing up library collections into “books” and “other”, I prefer to ask “why do libraries collect books?” A very simplified answer to that is “libraries collect books to make the artifacts of our culture available to the public.”

    Then, I would argue that video games are also artifacts of our culture and libraries serve the public good by making them available to the public. This is a difficult argument to support, especially to an audience who is not already comfortable with emerging media or the idea that print technology no longer monopolizes information communication or storage. Still, it is an argument that needs to be made.

    The danger to the future of libraries is to have an unreflective definition of our mission based on print technology and texts. If our cultural record is starting to be kept using other means, libraries need to collect them. Otherwise, without intending any change, libraries risk shifting our mission from making the cultural record available to public to curating niche collections of printed items.

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