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I gave a talk last week in which I got to develop some ideas I’ve been pondering lately – how the values that underpin libraries could inform where we go with the information technologies that play such a large part in our lives. Libraries are popular and librarians are trusted. That could be simply nostalgia or romanticism at work; people don’t generally know a lot about the work librarians actually do, but it seems significant that an institution that has been around long enough to develop a robust set of values persists when, by all accounts, it doesn’t belong in the modern world.
Where else can you go hang out for hours without having to buy something? Where people from every demographic can share a common space and feel as if they all belong there? How is it that efforts to outsource public library management to the private sector have fallen so flat? A company that started doing this 20 years ago has contracts with 20 library systems today. Twenty out of the 9,000+ public library systems in the country. In an era of austerity, communities think it’s important to keep the “public” in public library. And even if you walk around with a computer in your pocket, able to look stuff up in an instant or download a book in seconds, people still think libraries should continue to exist. Which is kind of remarkable.
My theory, in our information-saturated world, is that it’s the values libraries represent that matter to people. Slogans like “don’t be evil” and “bringing the world closer together” aren’t the values Google and Facebook live by. They could if they wanted, but they have shareholders to please and innovations to develop so they can extend their already immense global power. Maybe they’ve just been too busy extending their reach to develop the kind of values librarians have been developing for over a century. Given that Google has only existed since 1998 and Facebook since 2004, they’ve had other things on their mind, like becoming among the most valuable corporations in the world as they reach an extraordinarily high percentage of the world’s population.
In the next few weeks I'd like to take a look at the core values codified by the American Library Association and speculate about how they could be applied to our wider information landscape. While libraries don’t always live up to their values, their many decades of at least trying to do so might provide some insight into what we could do to fix some of our information technology problems that seem so vexing and intractable. Though the core values are expressed in terms of things librarians should do in libraries, the technologies that increasingly influence our lives could use them for good.
So as an introduction, I’ll say a little bit about these values and the kinds of challenges they might address.
access – it may seem as if there’s no shortage of access to information these days. If anything, there’s too much information coming at us. But abundance is not the same thing as equal access. In the US, it depends on where you live and if you can afford it. In the wider world, you might have “free basics” provided by Facebook, but that mostly gives you … Facebook. That old slogan inscribed above the library door – Free to All – still has value in a world where “free” has come to mean “you’re the product.”
confidentiality/privacy – librarians are pretty knee-jerk about not telling others what you’ve been reading. That seems pretty innocuous these days when data-gathering is ubiquitous and, between facial recognition systems and GPS tracking, there’s no place to hide, but privacy and freedom of thought are connected.
democracy – there’s something democratic about establishing spaces where all are welcome and treated equally, where differences of opinion can live peacefully on the shelf together, where we all pitch in to make sure everyone has a chance to belong. Powerful information technology companies need to think harder about what work they are doing in the world that is not in the interests of democracy.
diversity – it’s not something librarianship is particularly good at given the whiteness of the profession, but we’re at least aware it’s important to recognize bias and work on inclusiveness in our collections, services, and systems. Tech culture has a long way to go in this arena.
education and lifelong learning – closely tied to democracy: an educated populace is a requirement for democracy. Yes, it’s terrific that you can find out how to fix your faucet with a YouTube video, but we’re also experiencing a crisis of confidence in knowledge institutions and a concomitant rise of “alternative facts” fostered by the ways our attention is monetized.
intellectual freedom – this was one of the promises of the internet back in the day. Now it’s not so simple (and it really never was). Libraries have had a lot of practice balancing the right to hold unpopular opinions and the need to create hospitable spaces for all. Tech companies could learn a thing or two.
preservation – how’s that going to work in the future? How will we preserve our culture if it’s kept in the hands of a few giant companies that aren’t especially interested in it? What rights to we have to extract our stuff from the platforms we use? Worth thinking about.
the public good – tech culture has a weird buoyancy: we’re innovating! Improving your life! Making it faster, easier, more efficient! But how often are there unintended but completely predictable consequences that cause real harm? How often is the public good taken seriously?
professionalism – in the library context, this mainly refers to credentialing, but I’m going to reinterpret this broadly to mean taking one’s work seriously, caring about the implications of what you do, and taking responsibility when things go wrong. Moving fast and breaking things has a high cost.
service and social responsibility – I’m combining these because they are so closely related. There’s this false idea that companies have a duty to shareholders and only to shareholders. (Is it worth mentioning that the founders of Google and Facebook have controlling interests in their companies? Their sacred duty is to … themselves?) Given the immense power tech companies wield, I’d like to see them take the needs of the communities that rely on technology more seriously.
Essentially, I have faith that the values developed in libraries over decades could be applied to our current information systems and could make them a great deal better. So when I’m not blogging about other things, I’ll see if I can explore how these values could scale up.