Wednesday, December 30, 2015

BiblioTech: Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google by John Palfrey

A call to arms for America’s information institutions
In his 2015 book BiblioTech, John Palfrey responds to those who declare that the coming of the digital age spells the death of libraries. He argues that public libraries, in providing free and equal access to information for all, are essential to the existence of a true democracy. He does agree, however, that libraries are in trouble, and in order to survive, they’re going to have to adapt. The problem is, libraries are currently expected to provide information services through both traditional analog (print) media as well as new digital media, and few institutions have the money or the personnel to do both. To remedy this, Palfrey recommends a two-pronged attack, on the one hand arguing for increased funding for libraries, while on the other hand encouraging libraries to collaborate and consolidate their services, embrace digital technology, and reinvent themselves as “platforms” or on-ramps to extensive networks of digital content. While making this digital transformation, however, libraries must also protect their role as public spaces without devolving into mere community centers. In the present era of information overload, we need librarians more than ever to act as guides through the morass of digital content and to serve as trained, knowledgeable stewards responsible for the preservation of and access to our cultural heritage. In recent years commercial entities like Amazon and Google have attempted to arrest control of information from libraries, and they’re doing a pretty good job of it. If librarians want this trend to stop, they need to act now. This privatization of knowledge, Palfrey contends, undermines the free access to information necessary to a democratic society.

Those presently working or studying in the field of librarianship are likely already familiar with the issues and debates presented here. To that audience, the book offers few surprises, but Palfrey states his case clearly and concisely. As someone who’s currently halfway through an MLS degree program, I think this book would make a great text for an introductory course in library and information science, as a state-of-the-profession overview of the issues facing librarians today. Palfrey means to deliver a much-needed kick in the pants to those Luddite librarians who are falling behind the times, but mostly his arguments are directed at those outside the field—the stakeholders and policymakers who are in a position to assist libraries in their process of change. But how many of those people, outside of librarians themselves, will actually read it? The real value of this book will be the effect it has in stirring debate in the media over the value of libraries. Hopefully, as Palfrey intends, it will influence an increase in public funding for libraries and archives. Sadly, Palfrey makes the depressing observation that even that probably won’t be enough. What libraries really need is a heroic benefactor—a 21st-century Andrew Carnegie—to philanthropically usher them into the digital age, but will anyone step up to the plate?

As a prospective librarian, BiblioTech left me with mixed feelings. On the one hand it inspires optimistic enthusiasm for the digital future of libraries, while on the other it pessimistically questions if we’ll ever make it there. Despite my misgivings, I much prefer Palfrey’s serious and realistic approach to the profession over Marilyn Johnson’s giddy librarian lovefest This Book is Overdue! Anyone who cares about libraries should read Palfrey’s book. Even if the discussion is familiar, his reasoned, well-stated approach will spur your thoughts on the enduring value of libraries, their present precarious position, and how to convey their importance to the public at large.
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