Why does anyone need the library?
Why do we need anything?
If we, librarians, could define the role of the library, then we, library users, could decide if we really need them. As it is, we are letting technology define the role of the library. Whereas I think that our service to people should define it.
I think it's a matter of ego. And Homo NOVUS, the superior iPhone-clutching human, can be a huge asshole. Whatever he needs, he gets, with a simple tap of his as-yet-to-be-determined-rightful-ownership-through-patent-litigation futuristic touch-screen. He (and She, the ladies can be assholes, too) is multi-tooled, unlike his club-wielding and single-minded predecessors.
It truly is ego. The new library is about who owns the authority. In the old library, the librarian was the authority. But things change.
|ANTIQUUS (old library)||NOVUS (new library)|
|Fixed Authority||Dynamic Authority|
|Repeated shushing||Constant bleeping|
So clearly there's a power struggle. But it's not between librarians and library patrons, but between librarians and inanimate devices. NOVUS totes the device around, searching for signals, or wireless connectivity, and follows. So who is the master? the human or the device?
Homo NOVUS has less control over his own destiny. That electronic device is dependent on applications and services he can't control. Life on the Web is nomadic. There's the illusion of control with GPS and location-based services and instantaneous results, but NOVUS possesses none of it; it's all rented like a disco-era prom tuxedo. Both will induce shame over time.
NOVUS says, "Look at me. I command amazing powers." But the power is really in the device, and NOVUS is actually empty and powerless.
Now you must be saying, "Hey, the.effing.librarian, you big dope... are you just quibbling over the content delivery system? Does it really matter if people read from paper or from tiny cell phone screens? Oh, gosh, I didn't really mean to fly off like that and call you a dope. I love you. Can you forgive me?"
And I say, "Yes, of course. But you should never feel like you need my forgiveness. After all, Love means never having to say you're sorry."
But when people read from paper, they get more of a chance to consider the words before they react. You would read the paper then write a letter to the editor. Or you'd read a book and think about the story. But online, people react before they've even finished reading and leave comments and criticisms on the opening sentences or even the headline. Or they comment on other's comments without even reading the entire article. Arguments break out and it's all just me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me. Reading on paper allows one to internalize their thoughts while reading online fosters externalized responses.
But this isn't an argument about paper versus electronic. It's about whether the library is a place for people to learn or for them to sit on some furniture and look at their phones or netbooks or whatever. Anyone can provide wireless access, so why would we expect these people to support the library if free wireless becomes available at the local book store or department store or coffee shop or strip club?
Libraries should serve people, not devices. Whenever you write up your library service plans you need to put "People" at the top. You can have an 80/20 split for devoting your time and resources to non-people related services, but the vast majority should serve people.
Libraries are just our attempt at having some control over the glut of information. Libraries try to put chaos into order. Librarians take all those ideas that have some formal structure on print or in a database, and we organize them and give them a home. Libraries are a home for information. So when we promote libraries to our users, we should stress these ideals, that libraries are for helping people and for providing information with a home.
But don't express these ideas of home too literally. Because if your library is like mine, there are a few people who already treat the library like their home and you might just find them taking a nap in your office.