Saturday, March 14, 2009

When n=Libraries

Before I went to bed on Friday night, I was reading an article from the Saturday Washington Post ... (does that sentence strike you as odd? Is it like the opening line to Orwell's 1984 - "It was a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen" - the words are right, but something is just off a bit) ...

So, on Friday I was reading - online of course - the Saturday WPost story about the further consolidation of the print edition (Book World gone, Sunday Source, gone but not lamented). Now, it's the Business section (and even more comics, including Zippy the Pinhead). The editor had lots of comforting words to say, but in reality, how long can the traditional print newspaper model really survive? A few weeks ago in conversation (probably when Book World folded), I was saying two years. Now, I'm not so sure ... so as I went to bed I started thinking about this blog post, but when I woke up, there on the Twitter feed was Carl Malamud tweeting Clay Shirky's latest blog post, Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable.

Reading the post on my mobile device, I was all "gosh darn it" he's said it all. He hit all the points (Elizabeth Eisenstein, music industry, trying hard, embracing technology, etc.). So, while I'm still thinking about it on my morning walk, I was playing around with Shirky's arguments, in his equation, n=newspapers.

But what about the rest of us? What about the same general arguments where n=x (and x=travel agents, x=airline check in staff, x=stock brokers, x=x)? Well, a lot of those professions have already seen the future.

So, what if n=libraries?

For the past 15 years libraries have been putting up a good fight against the forces that are hitting newspapers, the rest of the publishing industry, book stores, etc. Forces of change in the library profession are trying mightily to move the profession to a safe haven that will keep it away from the forces battering much of the world of media and retail.

It's a hard fight. Many in the profession still like to hide behind the surveys of users that show "we love you". And I agree, they say they love us, but do they know where we are? But as The Shirelles asked, "will you still love me tomorrow?".

Like many radical changes, I fear that the future of libraries will not be decided on a path that follows a long slow curve (up or down - put your money down, I won't offer a suggestion here), but rather one rather be asymptotic. Things are going to look much the same as they have for the past few years and then there will be a tipping point. Things will change. Fast. In a Blink. (yes, I've read Malcolm Gladwell!).

And yes, I still go to the library everyday. And hope for the best ... and yes, I do look at the print edition that comes thumping to my door at 5:30 am each morning, but more often, it's used to catch cat vomit or put under wax paper when making cookies (yes, I use different sections, but with the consolidation, that's going to get harder and harder!).

Last thoughts, from Mr. Yeats:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

and so ...

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Discuss among yourselves, and the last one to leave should turn out the lights


arhutch said...

I wonder the same sorts of things.

Particularly regarding user praise of librarians. I would bet that the majority of this comes from that ever-shrinking community of people who don't realize that they can help themselves to so much of the literature they want to read.

I suspect that this group will, as you say in the "wink of an eye" suddenly realize how empowered they actually are and how little they need help in finding any information--professional or leisure.

But even larger thoughts (since you tagged this entry as Misc. thoughts) lead me to question the basis of the wealth of much of the U.S. Clearly in the last 25-30 years we've been trading not in manufactured goods but services. And these have been services based largely on ideas, information and other intellectual property. I'm talking about education, finance and business services.

And if adequate protection or respect for intellectual property continues going the way it's been going, what's going to happen to people (like movie studios, musicians, publishers etc.) whose primary product isn't made of steel or concrete or even integrated circuits?

The books I'm reading now (Digital Consumers . . .) has sentence that lumps librarians with journalists and publishers. That's scary.

How are those for thoughts? Pretty miscellaneous, huh?

giltay said...

This is provocative stuff for librarians like me who are struggling to exist simultaneously in the brick/mortar and digital worlds.

I'm a fan of local (now TV) writer David Simon, who graduated from my alma mater, the U of MD, around the same time as me. Two weeks ago he had a great opinion piece in the Sunday Post (I read it in the dead tree version) about what can happen when a grand old institution in journalism is changed and decimated by the digital world:

Simon's next to last line is terrific, about how he feels like "an emissary from some lost and utterly alien world." As Shirky suggests in his “Newspapers…” piece, there is still a need in society for good journalism – and I think – a need for good libraries. We shouldn’t feel like we’re aliens in this world. Yet, I have days when the pace of digital change seems too much.

And come to think of it, that's the same frustration I felt as an English major struggling with the alien schizoid world of Yeats' contemporary, Ezra Pound ;-)

We’ll get through it somehow.

Martin said...

As Giltay notes, it's very very hard to live in times when you have to deal with both the past and the present at the same time.

And as Shirky noted, living in times of revolution - which is probably what we are in at the moment, the "information revolution" being now much more than just a cliche - is especially difficult because if you choose the wrong side, you end up like Charles I, Marat, Trotsky, or the Stanley Steamer Motor Car Co.!

It'll be a new world when all the dust settles!

ep said...

All the talk about service, when maybe the focus should shift to curatorial duties? The old things don't completely disappear - my daughter can view a typewriter and a telephone with a dial in the museum.

I don't think books will completely disappear - there is a comfort and convenience to reading and holding a paperback that a Kindle can't replace. But for research libraries and librarians - it's going to be a whole new world, baby, I agree, especially when everyone realizes that they can get their information in other ways than coming to a library or asking a librarian.