Why I’m going to Harvard to argue that libraries are obsolete and why you should help me do it

You may have seen the announcement that I’m part of a debate at Harvard on the proposition that libraries are obsolete. The twist is (at least it was for me) is that I’m arguing for the proposition – that is that libraries are obsolete.

So why the hell am I doing it? Do I really think that libraries are obsolete? What’s more why should you help me?

First I do not believe that libraries are obsolete. I do, however, believe that it is very worth debating that point. Part of that is my scholarly training. I believe in the Socratic method where you assume opposing sides of an argument (even, as in this case, you don’t agree with the stance) and then argue to the truth. But there is a much more compelling reason I took this on.

We must inhabit the arguments of our detractors if we are to refute them. More than that, to be true to our professional ethos, we must enter this debate with intellectual honesty. If we are here to support conversations, we must support those we agree with and those with which we disagree. Also, if we are to remain relevant we must enter into conversations with the community as whole – whether they agree with us or not.

So that’s why I need your help. What arguments have you encountered against libraries. Why do folks want to eliminate funding, or your library altogether? I promise if you provide them, I’ll make a post (or twelve) doing my best to counter them after my Harvard debate.

Please use the comments below or email me rdlankes@iis.syr.edu.

And in two weeks or so if you see a video of me arguing libraries are obsolete, realize I am doing it out of love.

23 Replies to “Why I’m going to Harvard to argue that libraries are obsolete and why you should help me do it”

  1. I keep hearing that now that print is dead, why would anyone need to check out a physical artifact like a book?
    I also hear you kind find everything you need to know on the Internet. You don’t need librarians anymore to find information.

  2. The two most common arguments I encounter are:

    1. Nobody is using libraries any more

    2. Technology (usually not specified other than ebooks) are replacing libraries

    1. “2. Technology (usually not specified other than ebooks) are replacing libraries”

      Excellent point, though I would add Google as well as ebooks to the parenthetical statement.

  3. I’m going for 10:

    1) All the important information is online now.
    2) Nobody reads books anymore.
    3) Libraries are nice but they’re not necessities with the internet. We can’t afford them anymore.
    4) If you really want it, you should pay for it yourself. Libraries area socialist idea from the last century and this is a capitalist society. (This is the Tea Party argument).
    5) Libraries are inefficient. There are already too many places to go for information. We need to make smarter choices.
    6) Libraries are where the librarians are and no one needs librarians anymore. They’re like teachers. They cost too much and do too little.
    7) Libraries are just clerical centers nowadays. They order stuff and deliver it. Other organizations like the Procurement Office could do that equally well.
    8) Information does not want to be free. it wants to be monetized, and libraries are a barrier to an inevitable evolution toward that end.
    9) Libraries are boring and out of touch in a dynamic digital culture. Youtube is better than any library any day.
    10) If libraries had never existed in the past, no one would invent them today.

  4. Here’s some I’ve run across.

    “Internet piracy makes buying ebooks a quaint idea, especially when you can pirate them for free. And since all important literature I want to read is online and I can pirate it there’s no reason to fund libraries.”

    “E-readers are better than libraries: portable, no late fees, all my library in one place, and instant access to any book I may want.”

    “Other than an archive or museum for the book-as-artifact, books have no place in today’s world much less libraries.”

    “Everything is free on the internet, libraries cost money, anyone with an internet conection doesn’t need a library.”

    “Books can become out of date the moment they’re printed, Wikipedia doesn’t.”

    “Books kill trees.”

  5. The ones I typically hear as I consult include (and some of these have already been stated):

    1. Information available on the Web supplies the overwhelming majority of users information needs.

    2. Libraries are too slow in delivering information and rely too much on physical items and don’t meet the needs of users who want the information delivered right now and at any time of day.

    3. Ebooks and ebook vendors are better at making materials instantly available without requiring people to go to the physical library. For what a library costs to run, you can put ebook readers in a lot of people’s hands.

    4. The majority of people don’t use libraries, so why pay for them?

    5. These are financially difficult times, requiring communities to focus on the essentials, like health and safety. Libraries do not fall into those classifications.

    6. Starbucks/coffee shops have replaced libraries as the place for socialization.

    7. Aggregators serve up articles quicker and more efficiently than libraries. They’re just middlemen. Who needs them?

    8. Information today is more quickly shared using social networking, instant messaging, blogs and email. The Web fosters information sharing.

    9. If you have a laptop and e-readers, you can do research at your desk that previously required libraries. “It’s the way of the future”

    10. My purchasing department can do what the library does.

  6. From @LibSkrat via Twitter:

    “Digital natives know how to do all that information stuff better than their elders anyway.”

    “I haven’t stepped foot in the library for 20 years! Why is it even still there?!”

    More subtle: “Some libraries have digital humanists and data curators and ppl who can help me — but MY LIBRARY doesn’t.”

  7. It’s free to patrons, so no money to be made there….so of course, no intrinsic worth….

  8. 1) Imagine there were no libraries ever in the history of the United States.

    2) Now imagine that a certain politician suggested that instead of having each individual purchase an item for private use, we could pool our resources, buy lots of books/computers/3D printers/games/tools/etc. and check them out to people on a lending model.

    That’s communism! The publisher’s lobby would spend millions of dollars to buy votes in congress to stop libraries from being built. Best selling authors would complain that libraries are “theft” (You wouldn’t steal a car would you? Borrowing a book at your local library is the exact same thing!) The Supreme Court would likely get involved to strike down this attack on freedom.

  9. Are libraries, champion believers in sharing, really even that good at sharing? Look how long the holds lists are, especially for ebook titles. The more people who actively use their library system for books and movies, the more scarce the books and movies become. Compare this to Skillshare or IndieGoGo, or anyone in these collaborative consumption communities organized online but played out in the analog world–shared cars, couches, clothes, meals, etc. (incl. books and movies and games of course)–increased membership increases the richness of the resource. New members draw from the network as well as bring new stuff into the network with them. Libraries desperately want to be seen as hubs or community centers but what kind of hub does all the seeding, while only allowing for leechers and lurkers? That’s not hub behavior in a networked era. That’s the irrelevance of libraries: it’s not that all the information is available online. It’s that online, the experience of connecting with that information is alive. On the open web I’m a peer, I get to be a part of and identify with the the tangle of information creations. Despite the library’s best efforts, it still looks like a fortress with a mote and drawbridge setup by comparison. Look at people’s demeanor at the library when they confess a lost, damaged, or even just an overdue book. Those people are not owners, they are subjects. The shelves of books and CDs do not account for the library’s obsolescence problem; the library’s version of sharing doesn’t feel like sharing. It’s too restrictive and authoritarian. Maybe it’s safe, but it’s just not vibrant enough to compete.

    Also, on the subject of that long holds list? The titles with the highest demand are by James Patterson, Janet Evanovich, Nora Roberts. Are these the crucial pieces of information that equip the public to be “censors of their governors” (Jefferson, 1787, oft-quoted by library folk)? Is this the access to the popular information that is to prevent our democracy from being “a prologue to a farce or a tragedy or both” (Madison, 1822, another favorite quote on the importance of libraries)?

    [that was kind of painful to write]

  10. 1) Libraries don’t have (or cannot collectively use) the purchasing power to demand changes in acquisitions costs.

    2) Students will settle for much less and, historically, have had to settle for much less. Cf. “satisficing”

    3) Since much of the information that students prefer is digital, IT departments could manage resources more efficiently. Even automate it to a better degree than libraries, which often have a paucity of IT staff.

    4) Many libraries, being situated in older buildings, don’t have the infrastructure to support physical changes.

    I do hope this will be recorded and shared online!

  11. The growing movement of open access to scientific research articles eliminates the traditional role of library acquisitions in being the ones to make the literature available to the reader.

  12. 1.) Libraries don’t let me share, just borrow. That’s not the same thing (loved your comment above, Meg).

    2.) Libraries are physical spaces, and information is not longer locked in physical spaces. Librarians can be super helpful, but I have to go visit one between the hours of 10am and 3pm. Why should I do that?

    3.) If I don’t have a kid in pre-K or grade school, why do I need a local library?

    Also want to echo John’s comment about hoping for a livestream or video archive!

    1. Lori, Excellent summarization: libraries let us borrow, not share. Thank you for that.

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