Bibliotech: Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google, by John Palfrey

I'd heard great things about this book and I was excited to read it!  John not a librarian, but he does a bunch of librarian-type things, including chairing the Digital Public Library of America.  And in this book, he lays out the case not only for keeping public libraries in a digital age, but expanding their funding so that libraries can continue and expand their mission of enabling access to information for everyone.

It is a good book, and I'd recommend that you read it if you're interested in libraries, the digital future, and such-like issues.  It's got solid ideas.  The only tricky bit for me is that as a librarian, these are not surprising or new ideas to me; they're what we mostly all think, and he's trying to share them with a wider audience.  I'm already in the choir, so to speak.

The point of public libraries has always been to offer equal access to information to all.  Today, you should be able to go to your friendly neighborhood public library and do research for school (or just on your own), look for a job, find out how to deal with your landlord, check out what your local government is up to, take your children to storytime and bring a pile of read-alouds home, and a zillion other things--including just spending time in a public space that is open to all.  Some people can afford to do these things by paying for them; many cannot.  Therefore, a library serves as a great equalizer, offering help, information, and a bit of guidance through the labyrinths of the Internet to all.  

Today, as information grows exponentially, so does the need for help with determining the accuracy and reliability of that information.  Think, for example, of how very difficult it can be to find reliable medical information online, as pseudo-science swamps the results of your simple Google search.  Charlatans find it easy to spread misinformation and shout down actual medical practitioners.  Judging reliability is one of the skills that I try to teach as a librarian, and it's not an easy one.  

I used to do field trips for schools visiting the library, and I would try to impress upon the kids two ideas:
1. Libraries are for everyone. It doesn't matter what kind of person you are; you ought to be able to find the information you need to know.
2. Libraries should be free (as much as possible*). No one should have to pay to find out the things they need to know.
I still think those are the two primary points about a public library, and they are, if anything, ever more important in a competitive world that believes in doing everything digitally.  Palfrey offers some good ideas about how to do that, and also makes the point that somebody needs to be paying attention to archiving all this digital stuff that is constantly going out of date.  He sums up with:
When it comes to the knowledge and information on which our system of democracy depends, we should not rely on the market exclusively to meet the needs of our communities.  The private sector has been wildly successful in digital innovation, and in some areas, such as the supply of corporate email systems, it has been just fine for the private sector to lead.  When it comes to the cultural, historical, political, and scientific record of a society, however, the public sector needs to play a leading role.  In the near term, that role involves providing unbiased, even-handed, universal access to the knowledge needed to be a good citizen and to thrive in an increasingly information-based economy.  In the long term, that role involves preserving the record against the inevitable ravages of time...
 I do have a problem with his casual statement that, pretty soon, "the public will have to accept slower delivery times for print-related materials to come back from efficient shared storage facilities."  That's fine for weird obscure books (it's called ILL, in fact!) but I can't see most library patrons agreeing to wait patiently to get most of the books they want Right Now.  That just strikes me as unrealistic.

Anyway, an interesting read, and probably more interesting if you're not already at work trying to actually do the things he's talking about.

*Yes, I know, taxes.  What I mean is, if you want to find out what your government is up to, there shouldn't be an entrance fee.

Edited because my husband made an excellent suggestion on one point.  Thanks!


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