Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Book Review: "BiblioTech"

John Palfrey's BiblioTech: Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google (Basic Books, 2015) offers a timely and heartfelt examination of the library world as it is, as well as a series of steps he suggests will ensure that libraries will remain vital parts of the American community well into the future.

I wish one more word appeared in the subtitle: "Public." Because by and large the libraries Palfrey discusses in this book are the community-based public libraries that populate large cities and small towns throughout America, like the one I walked to many days after school (where I learned about the magical mysteries of interlibrary loan, where I first used the Internet, and where I came to appreciate the absolutely essential role that a good librarian can play in shaping lifelong habits and interests). These, it must be noted at the outset, are for the most part the libraries Palfrey refers to. At least, I hope they are, since at least some of his recommendations would be severely out of place if applied to most libraries at schools, colleges, and universities, not to mention independent research libraries, archives, and historical societies.

Such shorthanding can be partially understood if we take Palfrey at his word that this book is targeted not at librarians, but at "those who do not work in libraries and who should be taking a greater interest in the fate of these essential knowledge institutions on which we rely more than we seem to realize" (p. 17). I do wish, though, that he had explicitly made the point somewhere in the book, since I fear that Palfrey's message could be easily misapplied by well-meaning but unwise administrators or oversight boards, with potentially dramatic and drastic consequences for the types of libraries to which Palfrey's (over)generalizations simply aren't germane. The needs of the scholarly community at a major research university are vastly different from the needs of the patrons of the Jamaica Plan branch of the Boston Public Library; what is good medicine for the one might well poison the other, or vice versa. If Palfrey sees his prescriptions as universal (which I'm not suggesting he does, but wish that he'd made clear), then there are places where he's just flat-out gotten it wrong. So let's give him the benefit of the doubt, and from here on I will focus to the extent possible on his recommendations in the context of their application to public libraries—recognizing that there are vast differences between those as well.

Palfrey is correct to say that public libraries today will not be able to survive by coasting along on a wave of nostalgia, offering rooms full of Nora Roberts paperbacks, back issues of Popular Science, copies of the 1040 tax form, and a few computer terminals (my examples, not his). All those things can be had elsewhere, probably in more comfortable surroundings. He is also correct that increased regional cooperation, libraries as a "network of stewards" (p. 33), is going to be very important, as is an increased focus on providing digital access to books and other resources. It is true that librarians cannot simply throw up their hands and ignore the trends in publishing and book distribution, nor should they stand by silently (or even quietly) and allow a few powerful companies to come in and control the way people read, or the way libraries handle their own data.

He is also entirely right to call for increased funding, both from governments at every level and from private foundations, to support the important work that public libraries do, from providing a bridge across the "digital divide," offering spaces for civic engagement, educational services, community activities (but also for quiet contemplation), as well as (and still most importantly in my view) being access points for information. Obviously, too, innovative and imaginative programming for children and adults is a must.

Much of what Palfrey calls for is commonsensical and perfectly reasonable. As the founding director of the Digital Public Library of America, it makes sense that he mentions that organization's laudable mission every chance he gets (it's not the only thing he repeats several times throughout the book). He makes it difficult to argue with the idea that more R&D in libraries would be a good thing for the future of the library (it would!) and that librarians should be thinking creatively and frequently about how the ultimate mission of their institution can be pushed forward.

But there are some areas where I take strong issue with Palfrey. He writes, "Libraries must continue to make the shift toward the digital and away from print. The shift should not be overnight, but it should be made steadily and with great care. Libraries can and should de-accession physical materials much more aggressively than they do today, especially to save space and money when these materials are redundant with other local collections or digital forms of access to them. The public will have to accept slower delivery times for print-related materials to come back from efficient shared storage facilities" (p. 219). This blithe dismissal of concerns, "the public will have to accept," comes just a few pages after Palfrey notes that "the browsing experience is one of the most magical childhood memories for many people" (p. 207). This experience he doesn't dismiss so casually, though he suggests that "experimentation in digital browsing could eliminate the problem of reduced serendipity with the removal of physical stacks" (p. 215). That doesn't fly with me. I find virtual browsing to be an exceedingly poor replacement for shelf-browsing. You can't pick up that book on the next shelf that might be relevant in order to check the table of contents or the index ... and if you do think a nearby book might be needed, you'll have to order it up, then wait a day or more for it to be retrieved from wherever it's been stowed. Don't get me wrong, in certain cases offsite storage makes sense, but replacing open stacks with virtual browsing is by no means an acceptable substitution, nor should it be one that is turned to without a deep understanding of how it will change the library experience.

Palfrey's cliché-laden references to the book as physical object rubbed me the wrong way too, though that happens with every author who insists on referring to library stacks on nearly every reference as "dimly lit," or "musty." If your library's stacks smell musty, there is something seriously wrong; this is not to be celebrated!

This all seems like a lot of criticism (and it is) but I am genuinely glad that Palfrey wrote this book, and I firmly agree with much of what he says: cooperation, innovation, the adoption of new technologies: these are all important parts of ensuring that libraries have a vibrant future, as are finding new sources for investment in library technologies and infrastructure. We may differ on the details as well as on the extent to which his recommendations apply, but this is certainly a book which deserves a broad audience and one which will, I hope, lead to significant discussions both within the library community and between librarians and those who support (in several different senses of the word) the work they do.

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