Do We Still Need Libraries?

John Palfrey 2012-12-31

The New York Times is running one of its Room for Debate series on the future of libraries.  The four debaters (so far) are Luis Herrera, director of the San Francisco Public Library (and a board member of the Digital Public Library of America); Susan Crawford, visiting professor at Harvard Law School; Buffy J. Hamilton, a school librarian at Creekview High School in Canton, Georgia; and Berkman fellow Matthew Battles.  All four of their essays are excellent. And each of them answers the “debate” question in the affirmative: yes, we do still need libraries.  Of course, they are right.

It is worth backing up and asking why this question even applies.  What would lead us to question the library as an institution?  After all, as the authors point out, they are more popular than ever by many metrics, including how many people still walk through their doors.  Why is this even a “debate”?

It’s a debate because too many people think that we don’t need libraries when we have the Internet.  That logic couldn’t be more faulty.  We actually need libraries more (as Luis Herrera points out) now that we have the Internet, not less.  But we have to craft a clear and affirmative argument to make that case to those who don’t work in libraries or focus deeply on their operations.  Librarians have to make a political and public case, which is too rarely being made effectively today.

These days, in most towns in America, the same debate recurs each year when budget time rolls around: what’s the purpose of a library in a digital age?  Put more harshly: why should we spend tax dollars, in tough economic times, on a library when our readers can get much of what they need and want from the Internet?  In the era of Google and Amazon, the pressure is on libraries.  Every year, as more and more library users become e-book readers, the debate rages a bit more fiercely.

The annual conversation about libraries and money is hard in the context of academic institutions, too.  Libraries have long stood at the core of great schools and universities.  In many fields, the library is in fact the laboratory for the scholars, whether in the humanities or in law.  The texts, images, and recordings in these libraries are the raw materials out of which scholars and their students make new knowledge.  But increasingly, scholars are turning to digital sources – databases, commercial online journals, Google Scholar – to do their work.  Does every university and every school need to invest millions of dollars each in buying the same texts and bringing them to their campus?

The future of libraries is in peril.  Librarians and those of us who love libraries need to make an affirmative argument for investments in the services, materials, and physical spaces that libraries comprise.  This argument must be grounded in the needs of library users, today and in the future.  The argument needs to move past nostalgia and toward a bright and compelling future for libraries as institutions, for librarians as professionals, and for the role that libraries play in vibrant democracies.

Many libraries are making this argument, implicitly, through their good and promising works.  You need go no further than a visit to Luis’s San Francisco Public Library to see how exciting libraries can be today.  The Chicago Public Library, under new director Brian Bannon, is doing many promising things, including the MacArthur Foundation-funded YouMedia.  The public libraries in New York — I’m most familiar with NYPL and the Queens Borough libraries — have extraordinary things underway.  So does Amy Ryan at the Boston Public Library.  There are cool things happening in Chattanooga, by all accounts.  And these are just big public libraries.  Many academic libraries and small public, county, school, and special libraries are busily charting a new and positive future.  We need to get the stories of these leaders to be the narrative about libraries today.

We can establish a bright future for libraries.  I think it can be done by working together to take ten steps:

  1. We must redefine libraries for a digital-plus era.  By digital-plus, I mean that materials are born digital and then rendered in a variety of formats, some print (traditional books and hard-copies of images) and some digital (e-books, interactive games, image files, audio and visual works in digital format).
  2. The basis of this redefinition must be demand-driven, firmly grounded in what people need from libraries today and in the future.
  3. In this process of redefinition, we must account for both the physical and the analog.  Both have a place in libraries of the future.
  4. Libraries must become networked institutions.  There’s much to be learned from how networked organizations function that will help libraries (and librarians as professionals) to thrive.  Library schools and i-schools have a big role to play, as do funders and organizations that focus on professional development for librarians.
  5. Librarians should only seek to do those things that need doing and where libraries have comparative advantage in serving the public interest.
  6. Librarians should seek common cause with authors, agents, editors, and publishers, but if that fails, libraries may need to take on new functions.
  7. Librarians should seek common cause with technologists, inside and outside of libraries, in the public and private sectors — and develop strong technical (coding, information architecture, design, etc.) skills across the board within the library profession.
  8. Library spaces should function more like labs, where people interact with information and make new knowledge.
  9. Librarians should work together, along with private- and public-sector technologists, to create a common digital infrastructure and build from there.  We should draw upon hacker culture and the lessons of the creation of the Internet in order to do so.  (I have in mind the DPLA as a big part of the way forward on this front.)
  10. Libraries should maintain physical spaces but use them for lots of things other than the storage of physical materials, as the Room for Debate essayists make plain.

The argument that libraries are obsolete in a digital era is faulty.  But those of us who love libraries need to make the case for why that’s so.  This case has everything to do with libraries finding compelling ways to support education, helping people to learn, thrive, and be the best civic actors we can be.  We have to recreate the sense of wonder and importance of libraries, as public spaces, as research labs, as maker-spaces, and as core democratic institutions for the digital age.