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BiblioTech: A Review

John Palfrey has written a book about why libraries matter. If you're not a librarian, it may be for you. 

May 7, 2015
 

I was delighted to get a copy of John Palfrey’s new book, BiblioTech: Why Libraries Matter More than Ever, from the publisher, Basic Books. Generally, I find Basic Books’ list full of interesting and valuable titles and I have enjoyed reading other works by John Palfrey. He has a way of making complex things simple, as he and Urs Gasser did in their book, Interop: The Promise and Perils of Highly Interconnected Systems. I admire the ability to write clearly and advocate for practical solutions to pressing problems – something Bruce Schneier did so well in his masterful Data and Goliath.

While BiblioTech is enormously readable, if not always deeply compelling (perhaps it’s simply harder to make a case for libraries than for the need to throttle back the out-of-control surveillance engine that took over and now drives so much of the internet), it frequently frustrated me. I suspect that is because I am not the audience for this book. As the author explains it in his introduction, he is writing for “all those who do not work in libraries and who should be taking a greater interest in the fate of these essential knowledge institutions on which we rely more than we seem to realize.” He’s writing for people who might care about what libraries could be but are not caught up in nostalgia about what they used to be. He also predicts (accurately enough, in my case) that librarians may chafe at his recommendations and feel they don’t get sufficient credit for work they are already doing. That’s not to say he doesn’t make compelling points that are worth librarians’ attention.

The book covers quite a lot of ground, going for breadth over depth. Chapters cover the user experience (though Palfrey uses the unfortunate word “customer” in the chapter title), rethinking library spaces, school libraries, the library’s role in preservation, copyright and privacy (tossed together, though they are not intrinsically related issues other than that librarians have been activists about both), and two chapters on technology – specifically rethinking libraries as platforms rather than geographical locations and the need for librarians to collaborate on open, distributed systems. To be perfectly honest, librarians (who are not the target audience) may do well to jump to the final chapter, which was where I stopped writing cranky notes in the margins and began to nod.

What led to cranky marginalia included his claim that libraries are in crisis because they are caught between a pervasive belief that they are no longer needed and the need for librarians to meet growing expectations in a digital era. “Much turns on how well we manage this transition from an analog to a digital world,” he writes, “and the fate of libraries hangs in the balance.” Well, we’ve been in in this transition for decades, managing it on a daily basis for better or worse.  Yes, this isn’t easy in an era of austerity, but throwing money at libraries is an unlikely option just now. After all, libraries may have a vital role to play in a democracy, but so does education, which is also facing a toxic combination of budget cuts for personnel and expensive technology that disempowers teachers while promising benefits it can’t deliver.  As fervently as Palfrey believes in the value of equal public access to knowledge, he fails to explain why it matters. He simply says it does, alongside undocumented statements such as “it’s no surprise that students are turning to libraries less and less  frequently to librarians for support.” I know there are recent studies that find students don’t turn to librarians first for their information needs, nor as often as we would like, but I’m not aware of any time series data that says they once did, or any data from the past that also controls for factors like the increased ability to find simple factual information or the closure of school libraries and reassignment of school librarians to other duties. It's a crisis narrative that doesn't do much to document the conditions that would stir readers to action. 

He concludes the book with some good ideas, including a list of ten goals – many of which are already happening, though not in all libraries. They are easy to agree with (though the "how" is harder.) He pokes us to action with lines such as "In a word association game, 'innovation' and 'libraries' do not often come together naturally" and (quoting someone else) "'cooperation is an unnatural act' for libraries and librarians." Ouch. I would like libraries to be more active in promoting our values and supportive of open source library systems rather than outsourcing the technology we need to companies that we then complain about. I would love to see us play an active role in creating and supporting platforms for open access scholarship. I think we need to do more to grow our own tech skills. I’ve heard too many stories of people with those skills leaving the field because they are discouraged from building new things or because they’re asked to do all the new things without enough time or authority. That needs to change. It would be helpful if we had more concrete suggestions about how to make that change.

In the final analysis, Palfrey offers two big ideas. First, he thinks libraries need to get serious about collaborating to do big things – primarily, build the significant innovation in information management and develop digital (and print) preservation strategies together. I think he’s absolutely on target, here, though I am not so convinced of his second big idea which would make it possible. He thinks the country needs to invest dramatically in library R&D on a scale similar to Carnegie’s nationwide drive to establish both public library buildings across the country and a local commitment to continued funding. I support that, too, of course – but given other crises we face I’m not sure it’s realistic or even should be our first priority. Reading this book hasn’t convinced me it should be. But then again, it wasn’t written for me.  

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