If we view the coming decade as a period of realignment for the American public, what are the right questions to ask about the role of its public libraries? Two recent articles and a reflection on a beloved, bygone organization are illuminating.
Kim Leeder: Vision and Visionaries: A Whole Bunch of Questions to Start off 2010
The year’s first article at In the Library with the Lead Pipe offers insightful observations and questions from reference librarian Kim Leeder. Kim’s candor about her experience of librarianship is quite moving:
Being a librarian these days sometimes feels like being a passenger on a fast-moving train. We sit inside, hoping there is someone in front running the show, or hoping at a minimum that another train won’t run us off the track. But we sit looking out the side windows without having any idea what may be coming along the road in front of us. Whether or not anyone’s in charge, it can be hard to tell. Lots of people have taken stabs at predicting the future of libraries, and I can’t say with any authority (until we get there!) whether they have it right. Will we be cultural centers, wholly special collections, digital repositories, absorbed into Google, or just plain out of business?
Her observations and ideas are gems:
Most of the ‘vision’ I see in the library field is just an expansion of what already exists.
…Let’s face it: we’re turtles among a race of hares when it comes to moving with the times. We grab onto new technologies eagerly, but don’t know what to do with them or how to use them effectively.
…I hear a little shrillness in the voices of many librarians who speak or write about the future. We argue with the world at large, insisting that not everything is available online, that libraries are not going out of business.
…We should not just adapt to fit our changing present, but plan ahead and prepare and take the future by the throat…
Kim sets aside the understandable defensiveness and consternation of an institution faced with an imperative to change. She looks openly toward the future and asks “what makes a library a library” and “what would our libraries look like if we tore them all down, erased our memories, and rebuilt them from the ground up?” These general questions strike me as a good starting point for thinking about public libraries in the coming decades.
Michael Clarke: Why Hasn’t Scientific Publishing Been Disrupted Already?
2010′s opening analysis in The Scholarly Kitchen is a fitting companion to Kim’s article, for it contains a set of basic questions to sit alongside “what would we build if we were starting fresh today?” In thinking about market disruption and what the future of scholarly publishing holds, industry veteran Michael Clarke takes a dispassionate look at his subject and asks:
- What are the basic functions of scholarly journals?
- How do they serve the scholarly community?
- Why were they invented in the first place?
- What accounts for their remarkable longevity?
- What problems do they solve?
- How might those same problems be solved more effectively using new technologies?
Michael’s thought process is worth emulating and his conclusions noteworthy. After examining the myriad functions and dynamics at play in journal publishing, he concludes that “deeply entrenched cultural functions” have been resistant to disruption. The most difficult function to replicate, in his view, is the most social: — designation, or the custom of relying heavily on a scientist’s publication record for career advancement and grant awards. (Libraries, take note…)
Kent Anderson’s follow-on post, Is It Still Disruption When You’ve Done It Yourself? is also recommended.
Russ Crupnick: 2006 And The Death Of Tower Records
As someone who has adored music since childhood, this NPR story warmed and broke my heart. It contains recollections of the early decades of Tower Records as well as analysis on why the franchise ultimately did not survive. People described Tower as a “comprehensive but not intimidating” destination where you could discover or indulge a passion for music ranging from the eclectic to the mainstream. As one person noted, Tower’s staff, service and product choices made it a “cross between a music store and a public library”.
Industry analyst Russ Crupnick rejects the notion that online music retailers killed Tower. He contends that Tower “just sort of lost relevancy”. It went from a “music lover’s mecca” to “a higher-end Sam Goody” and in doing so “lost that whole idea of being special.”
I couldn’t help thinking of public libraries when I heard the Tower story … and would add the following to the good questions above from Kim and Michael:
- What would make a public library a mecca for its community?
- What would draw a wider variety of people to use it with more frequency & passion?
- What staff, services and products would a place like this need?