Beyond the Bullet Points: Libraries are Obsolete

 Wp-Content Uploads 2010 10 Obsolete
As promised, here is the argument and my own rebuttal from the Harvard event. Special thanks to Meg Backus, Jill Hurst-Wahl and all the great librarians who helped me put this together. I am putting this up in a sort of drafty form because I am interested in how the argument and counter-argument can be made better.

Libraries are Obsolete

There are few of us who can know the exact moment their career ended. However when a professor of library science argues libraries are obsolete against a Harvard law school professor and the head of the lead funding agency in the field I think that moment has arrived. This was where I found myself April 18th when I took part in an Oxford-style debate as part of Harvard Library Strategic Conversations. The idea was to mix humor with serious debate on the proposition that “Libraries are Obsolete.” I was asked to argue for the proposition.Now this is a rather odd position to be in since I have spent my career arguing exactly the opposite, but in the spirit of playing devil’s advocate, and the fact that I have tenure, I jumped in. After all, if we don’t honestly debate the point, how can we truly be sure we are not headed towards obsolescence [more on my rational see this post].

In looking at most of the cases against libraries many are focused on one type of library. For example, some argue against public libraries because they do not feel it is a wise use of tax dollars. Other arguments that fall apart in the face of evidence such as the editorial from the News Leader (Florida’s oldest weekly newspaper) where Mike Thompson opines:

“While local taxpayers pick up the biggest tab for America’s libraries, most librarians are little more than unionized pawns for the social-activist bosses of the American Library Association (ALA)…Today…ALA controls 62,000 members and, through its czarist accreditation program of many libraries, largely dictates what books are available for the most impressionable members of U.S. society, our children.”

This might be a valid argument is ALA did in fact accredit libraries, or if ALA had any supervisory power in libraries’ workforces – and you know, if Mike wasn’t nuts.

Other arguments have merit, but only from a given political view: libraries are a socialist attempt that interferes in the free market. Tax dollars would be better spent in other ways – namely giving it back to the taxpayers. If libraries are so valuable they should charge for their services and operate like businesses. These arguments are difficult to counter, because you often have to refute a basic tenant of ideology that is not likely to yield to evidence.

So frankly in preparing for the debate I was both relieved that I couldn’t find an argument worthy of Harvard, and dismayed that I was about to stand up before a crowd and have to half-heartedly make these weak arguments. Until I came upon an argument that scared the hell out of me. A very compelling argument that spans library types and ideology.

Libraries are obsolete because they act as institutions of remediation. Libraries were either created to fill some deficit in existing institutions, or over the years have adopted the role of remedying some deficit in the community. While this deficit model of libraries made sense at one point, today many of these deficiencies either no longer exist, or libraries now divert precious resources we should use to solve the underlying problem and/or institutions.

What scared me (and still does) is that the predominant message libraries use to justify their budgets (and continued existence) is as a sort of societal band-aid ministering only to what ails our communities. As with any argument about libraries in the abstract, the argument lacks nuance and parts are easy to refute, but I ask you to look to the core of the argument. This deficit model thinking has big implications for library advocacy, and even the evolution of the institution.

Community Deficiency: Access

So how do libraries present themselves as remediating institutions, and why is that a problem? Take the idea of libraries as sharing institutions. Many public and university libraries were created to pool and share information resources of a community (in the form of manuscripts, books, letters and so on). These libraries filled a need in the community to increase access to a commodity that was rare and expensive. The library, in this case, was a remediation for a larger problem of access.

Today this function is obsolete for two reasons. The first is obvious to anyone who has ever been on the web. There are plenty of sites that let you share resources. From sites like LibraryThing and Goodreads for books; to Flickr (and Instagram, and Facebook) for photos; to YouTube for video there are ample alternative, and arguably better ways to share ideas and resources. The second reason this deficiency argument no longer works is that libraries that began as sharing institutions have become lending organizations.

When Benjamin Franklin and his buddies put together their subscription library in Philadelphia in the 1700’s more members joining increased access and the resources available. As more joined, they brought in more books, so there was more to go around. Today libraries don’t share, they lend from a finite collection owned by the library. As more people join the library (use their services), they add demand, but not more resources. So when four people used the library, there were plenty of copies of Harry Potter to go around. Yet as hundreds of people use the library, demand increases, resources don’t, so Harry Potter becomes more scarce – access is actually decreased.

One clear way to see the difference between library as lending versus sharing comes from a story Eli Neiburger told me. Eli, Associate Director for IT and Production at the Ann Arbor District Library had a member of the library ask “if the catalog can keep track of books for lending at multiple locations (branches), can’t it also include books at my house? I’d be glad to share them as well.” This idea makes perfect sense in a sharing model, it makes no sense in a lending model.

A deficit approach to collections is to say the community doesn’t have access to information, so we’ll fix the community by making stuff available. A sharing model says the community is full of information assets (books, letters, photos, ideas, expertise, stories, music) let’s build a platform to allow the community to easily share with each other. Lending will lead libraries to obsolescence as demand increases, information resources costs escalate, and the library’s collections look more and more like everywhere else instead of like the community itself.

Community Deficiency: Democracy

When Carnegie wrote that “there is not such a cradle of democracy upon the earth as the Free Public Library” he was right. Public and academic libraries had minimal fiction collections, and were one of the few places you could track the workings of government. The advent of the depository library program made up for a deficit in the public’s access to the workings of the federal government.

However today with the advent of the web, the government is often by-passing the depository program and publishing this material directly to the public. Before you say that we can’t we trust the government to be transparent I ask you how housing microfiche of government produced materials is equivalent to advocating for transparency? If anything it is a dodge of the true issues. If indeed public libraries are meant to bring to the masses information that can be used to promote and further democracy, why then do our fiche cabinets full of government documents sit unused as the holds for romance novels and spy fiction grow longer?

Community Deficiency: Internet Access

The focus libraries have on remediation continues in the area of Internet access. The argument is made that libraries of all sorts provide Internet access to the disadvantaged and disconnected. To be sure this is a real problem that needs a solution. Yet rather than divert funding to rural libraries to provide Internet access, why not follow the model of rural electrification and take it to the home where it can be used? Imagine in the days of the Tennessee Valley Authority if they ran a power line to the library and told rural citizens that if they needed light at night or to listen to the radio they needed to go to the library.

The money we spend on libraries would be better spent buying the underprivileged a tablet and expanding eRate to include monthly allowances to buy quality information. Already states and universities are licensing databases for public use…is there something so special about libraries that acquisition of resources can’t be done by existing procurement procedures at these institutions?

Community Deficiency: Literacy

This argument hinges on the belief that our public and school libraries are necessary to promote reading. That might have made sense when universal public education wasn’t so universal. When the color of skin and gender were barriers to accessing education. Libraries were the people’s university. In essence we need libraries to provide remedial reading education to fix our communities.

Today, while racial and gender discrimination are far from gone, the world has changed. Women now constitute the majority population in our college and universities. In terms of race, rather than creating a separate system of education for minorities, affirmative action, minority scholarships, and other mechanisms are integrating minorities into the same high performing educational institutions as white males. Separate, but equal was discarded long ago.

The answer to increasing literacy rates is to improve the performance, and lower the barriers of access to education. The money and time spent on libraries would be better spent on our schools and teachers. Instead of working around a test-driven K-12 schools in the nebulous world of informal education, we should focus our time and talents on getting a “No Child Left Behind” system that actually works. Instead of believing that librarians that have little formal training in reading instruction (and math instruction, and science instruction) can somehow solve the education gap through a do-it-yourself-here-are-the-books model, we should be focusing on enabling teachers to teach.

Community Deficiency: Information Seeking

What about the deficit in people’s ability to find information? We need libraries to make sense of the glut of information now coming at our students and citizens. It is no wonder our reference statistics drop. Who needs a librarian to use a search engines that can traverse billions of pages in milliseconds when we can now do it for ourselves. Has Google become like a new Dialog, where we must have patrons line up to our gatekeeping search abilities? Rather than use librarians as band-aids to bad search tools, let’s fix the search tools.

Community Deficiency: Embedded Librarians

There was one thing that all the speakers agreed upon at the debate – even if libraries are obsolete, librarians aren’t. Rather than dividing our time and effort on compensating for an inadequate educational system, or inequalities in the market place, we should free up our brilliant librarians to work within these organizations to make the institutions better. Why take amazing information professionals and saddle them with leaky roofs, security at the door, and maintaining physical artifacts in often duplicative collections just waiting to be digitized? We see this at the Cushing Academy, a boarding school in Massachusetts that made the press when they significantly downsized the physical collection of the library. They did so at the same time they hired more librarians. Close the library and hire more librarians.

Real Danger of the Deficit Model of Libraries

If libraries continue to be remedial organizations, focused solely on the problems and deficits of our communities the communities themselves will find libraries obsolete. How long will our communities tolerate being told how they are broken? How long will we be welcome if all we do is highlight what doesn’t work and add little value beyond filling in the gaps of other organizations?

Rebutting the Easy Reactions

Now, if you are anything like me you have been mustering your counter arguments as you have read this. For example, there is a big assumption in here that all information will be digital. And you would be right. But we must be careful of the rebuttals to this argument as well. They often feed right into the deficit model argument.

Fixing organizations is a great idea, but it’s not realistic

So our big argument here would be that life sucks, get used to it (great replacement for the READ posters)? This is also very reminiscent of the arguments that not all information would be available digitally. Then Google started scanning books by the literal truck full. The perception on what is available digitally and what in physical form has shifted in those we serve. More than that, you are still saying the reason for the library is to care take stuff not important enough to be digitized yet, or that we are a temporary organization until the technology catches up.

Supporting democracy is more than just government documents

Being informed in a democracy is more than simply keeping up with the information and documents that government produce. It involves reading newspapers, treatises, even keeping up with pop culture. This is true…have you seen the Internet lately? Where once libraries filled the gap of providing a rich and diverse corpus to enrich our communities’ thinking the Internet now represents a richer and more diverse corpus of thought.

Fostering a love of reading

Literacy is more than just reading you say. Libraries foster a habit of reading and a love of reading. What exactly is it about four walls and stacks that does this better than say a living room? You can read anywhere, and with digital delivery to ebooks you could argue that people are better able to follow their passions with instant delivery.

But use of libraries is increasing

This fact, if arguing a deficit model, only points out that there is need for remediation – not the form of the remediation. For example, in the unprecedented economic downturn over the past years the number of soup kitchens and beds in shelters have probably also increased. I think we can all agree that instead of building more soup kitchens and shelters, we should fix the economy.

You callous careless bastard

First, remember that I am playing devil’s advocate here (and give me another paragraph until I talk about how libraries aren’t obsolete). Second, assuming that wasn’t just an ad hominem attack, this is about the idea that a deficit model isn’t a bad one, because there will always be a role for a safety net. The deficit argument isn’t against the social safety net, but rather that we can fix the net through mechanisms other than libraries.

The Real Rebuttal

The real retort to the deficit argument that libraries are obsolete is not to find new and bigger problems, but to focus on (or at the VERY least include) aspirational arguments for libraries. Now before I dive into this, let me say that most of these approaches are already in full effect, my point is to highlight them and support them.

For example, let us take the deficits and show how libraries add value and have positive effects on communities (rather than mitigating the negative effects):

  • Internet access: the library uses the Internet to push the passions and possibilities of our communities to the whole world. Yes folks can use the Internet connection to check mail and apply for jobs, but they can also use it to create businesses, and start global conversations.
  • Literacy and Reading: the library allows you to explore the great thoughts and imaginations of the world throughout time, and add to that pool. Come to the library, get inspired, and add your great ideas.
  • Democracy: did you know your government came with an owner’s manual? It’s at the library. Help shape the direction of your town, your state, your country – the library can help you learn how.

Like I said, these approaches are hardly unique to me. But there is one point of the deficit model that takes more than just sloganeering – the shift of libraries from places of sharing to lending organizations. To me, this is the real damning argument against libraries. If libraries continue to see themselves as focused on things that can be borrowed or consumed, and continue to build collections for the community not of the community, there is real danger.

Libraries must become true platforms of the community. Want an example? I have been working with Polaris on a community portal to be added to their ILS. With it librarians can add information about community organizations (locations, services, events) directly to the catalog. So now you can search for materials on first aid, and the Red Cross will show up beside the results.

However, the system is built to allow community organizations to add and maintain their own information. Very small organizations or even individual community members (if the library choses) can add their information and get a landing page on the net that they may not have had before. For organizations with their own web sites already, they embed library and community information in their own websites easily. So now the Red Cross can embed books about first aid on their web site.

This is taken one step further, because the same mechanism that allows this embedding can be used by other software and platforms. For example a doc student here in Syracuse is building an iPad app to mount on local busses. At any stop a passenger can find out what events and services are available community wide at within a given distance.

This is library as community platform. The iPad app is not built or owned by the library. The information being presented is not owned by the library. Yet the library is indispensable in making this happen. The library is a platform that helps the community do something new, innovative, and helpful. The most powerful arguments for libraries, aside from the brilliance of librarians, are around the theme of community platform for improvement and advancement.

The people’s university (when presented as a place of knowledge acquisition, not as a bandage to other educational institutions), the agora, the creation space, idea factory, all of these metaphors present a compelling and positive vision of the library that communities can take pride in. Now rather than being associated with the library out of charity, or desperate straights, they are part of an exciting and progressive organization. Rather than trying to fix the community, or bring everyone up to some sort of norm, libraries are foundations for individual advancement.

Let me be clear, I believe both in the necessity and importance of libraries and the social safety net. I know our communities face terrible problems, and our service mission is necessary. However, if you lift someone out of hell and don’t tell them about heaven, how much hope have you given them? Libraries are not obsolete. They serve a vital and important mission in today’s society, and in tomorrow’s society. That mission that has driven libraries for the past 3,000 years is in service of a better tomorrow. That mission is hope through knowledge and the empowerment of the individual.

Libraries as band aids may be obsolete, but that is not why we need libraries. We need libraries so we can fix our education system, so we can fix our economy, so we can fix our democracies yes. But we need libraries even more to discover new knowledge not found in any textbook. We need libraries to create whole new opportunities for innovation. We need libraries to give our communities a voice and power in the working of government. Libraries will never be obsolete so long as our communities dream, and strive, and work to ensure a world of insurmountable opportunities.

21 Replies to “Beyond the Bullet Points: Libraries are Obsolete”

  1. –>the social-activist bosses of the ALA
    I’m picturing the mug I hope to be able to give to Barbara Stripling soon…

  2. First off, loved this presentation live — I thought you & Tracy had the superior rhetoric & reasoning both (though clearly the room did not agree with me, and perhaps this is a compliment you would rather not have!).

    That said, here’s the point I’d like to see teased out about the deficiency model, which is this: operating on one puts libraries in a poor place politically. Because, even if you grant that lots of people continue to have deficiencies in terms of information access, internet access, etc. — and I think that point is worth granting — there are huge class and lifestyle differences in *who*. For a lot of people, access to the internet, books, etc. without need for a library is not only an unquestioned part of their lives, but an unquestioned part of the lives of pretty much everyone they know. For these people, libraries whose service models, or public image, is based on the deficit model *are* libraries that are obsolete, and what do they need such things for?

    These people aren’t everyone — but they’re a lot of people — and I think they’re the people most likely to have their voices heard in the media, to influence public policy, et cetera, because of the class divide.

    In short, libraries based on the deficiency model are in a poor *rhetorical* position, regardless of the obsolescence-or-lack-thereof of the actual model.

    “Aspirational”‘s a good word.

    1. I agree completely. I think the deficiencies are real and the role of the library in meeting them is important (couldn’t say that in the debate). However, the political and advocacy angle are very weak.

      1. As an aside, I LOVE the idea…let me know if there is nothing I can do to help out.

        1. Thanks! Will keep that in mind…keep an eye out for us to launch with real campaigns very soon! In the meantime, if there’s any books you think we should be pursuing (something useful for your syllabus? favorite book ever?) add it to your wishlist on and give us a heads-up and we’ll add it to the list of things to look into 🙂 (Or if YOU have electronic rights to the Atlas and want to unglue that, we’d love to talk…)

  3. Prof. Lankes, have you read Main Street Public Library (2011) by Wayne Wiegand? Wiegand argues that the small public libraries from the 1880s to 1950s which he studied promoted social harmony more so than intellectual freedom, democracy, or economic prosperity. Wiegand says this role is still essential to communities, but it is significantly different from how professional librarians have usually articulated the value of libraries. Weigand says “librarians might profit by spending less time looking at ‘the user in the life of the library,’ and more time looking at the library in the life of the user.” See What do you think?

    1. I love Weigand’s work (though I have yet to get my hands on the Main Street book). In an email exchange about the Atlas he suggested I throw in a few “let’s try this idea…again.” He always ties me back to the history of innovation and service and reminds me that good ideas don’t come with an expiration date.

      I love the idea of library in the life of the user, through I am not a big fan of the term user these days.

      I’ll have to think on the library faith issue, but much of what he talks about with social harmony I see as part of developing a social compact with the community.

      I fear I don’t have much to add here other than to say thank you for the pointer.

  4. Prof. Lankes,

    This blog post and the Oxford-style debate seem to only be focused on public libraries. I did not attend the debate, but I am a Harvard Library employee and very much interested in these issues. Would your arguments, pro or con, be different if applied to academic and research libraries? The grandest and most unsettling changes are now happening in academic and research libraries, such as the transformation of the library of Cushing Academy that your debate partner Jim Tracy presided over, and also now at Harvard and the NYPL (considered a research library as well as public). Is there or is there not a place on secondary school and college campuses for a “library” and is it worthwhile to still acquire and include print materials?

    1. I think the dangers of the deficit model apply equally to all types of libraries. In particular the continuation of being a lending institution versus being a sharing institution (more on that can be seen here ). If an academic library focuses on a collections solely of external material, and continues to assume the population of the academy (faculty, students, staff) live in an information scarce environment, they will in fact become obsolete.

      The question isn’t “is there a place for printed materials,” rather “does the library provide a platform for the community to discover and innovate. If your community needs the print to do so – provide the print. The worst thing that can be done is to start with what a library has and see if it can still be relevant. The best thing is to see what the community needs, and provide it.

  5. I wish I found the pro-library rebuttal more compelling. I think the case for obsolescence is stronger, and I don’t see how your rebuttal trumps the prior arguments. Are any of the inspiring-sounding ideas you list being successfully implemented somewhere (as in, there is some measurable positive impact occurring)? And is the implementation really sustainable, or is the public under constant “encouragement” to participate?

    As far as I can tell, all three of your bullet points can be, and are being, accomplished via internet access at home (or a coffee shop for that matter). If it all just comes down to providing access for people who can’t afford wifi, lots of places have free wifi now — and in a cafe, no one gets yelled at for talking, or eating/drinking. I actually wrote my entire dissertation in a coffee shop, including reading the hundreds professional articles I needed and finding contacts all over the globe. The cafe environment had another HUGE benefit, in that it gave me countless opportunities to discuss my work with other people who were not academics. Being in a more social setting while I worked catalyzed so many “bigger picture” discussions that I think I learned more about my own research in that coffee shop than anywhere else. A library would’ve been stifling.

    What I am seeing in our rural area–I have been on the library’s steering committee–is that kids who come in to use the computers are generally using their allowed half hour (or whatever the time limit is) to play games and download music. Perhaps you’ll say there is some great value in that, but the thought of not having libraries around is significantly less scary to me than about a thousand other changes that are also likely to occur in the next 100 years. And I’m not that scared about those other thousand things, either.

    1. You got your dissertation done in a coffee shop because the space and atmosphere worked for you, and there apparently was no other suitable space in your neck of the woods. I think you’re lumping all types of libraries together and not differentiating them according to the communities they serve and the features they have. Being in a traditional library for your research purposes may have been “stifling” but for someone else it might not be.

      The public library in your community, of which you were on the steering committee, probably needs more funds or should find better ways to adapt to the “digital” needs of the community. Why is it less appealing to you than a coffee shop? Does it not offer wi-fi? Is the space not suitable for spending hours at a time doing your research? A coffee bar is a private enterprise. It may be a cool place to hang out for several hours and do your work, but as a private enterprise they could decide to put a limit on how long you use a table for, or how long you use their wi-fi for. Many people who want to get out of the house and work in public may not want to sit in a coffee bar because they can’t find a seat, or don’t like being around food all day. A public library is required to allow you to stay as long as you like, no restrictions. In a public library you don’t have to listen to music or look at products being marketed, such as in certain coffee bars. You’re not required to buy anything in a public library to stay at a table.

      The argument that Dr. Lankes and others are espousing (for the sake of the debate) that “Libraries are obsolete because they act as institutions of remediation” doesn’t hold water. If that is true, why are public (I’ll stick to public because I can’t get into the complexities of academic and special libraries now) libraries in affluent communities not only thriving, but being renovated and expanded? Just look at the architecture issue of American Libraries each year. In Massachusetts, where I live, the Newton, Concord, Lexington, and Weston public libraries are doing quite well, and since I often see Mercedes and BMW SUV’s in their parking lots, I have doubts that the patrons who use these libraries are suffering from a deficiency of internet access, or can’t afford to splurge on books at a bookstore, if they can still find one. The Cambridge Public Library, in a more economically diverse city, is extremely popular in it’s striking new building. Even in my neighborhood, Dorchester, which many consider to be the inner-city, our local branch library has people of all ages who seem to be using it for enjoyment. That’s not a scientific observation, but a personal one, since I spend a lot of time there, taking my son to story hour in the children’s section. It should be obvious to anyone that public libraries, as a physical space and a resource, serve the public in more ways than as “institutions of remediation”.

      From what I know of the history of public libraries, remediation was only one aspect of their justification. The motto on our BPL says something about the “diffusion of public knowledge”. Public libraries, like all libraries, are simply evolving, changing, and simply need to get creative (and work with publishers and providers) in providing digital resources to the public.

      Btw, Dr. Lankes, I watched the debate finally and thoroughly enjoyed it. Good show.

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