I’m young for a librarian — 34 in a field where the median age is over 50. It should go without saying then that I’m not the least bit afraid of technology. Digital tools make me far more productive at what I do. However, as a member of the only profession dedicated to mastering, or at very least thinking about, the epistemology of all human discourses, I can tell you that books on a shelf arranged by the Dewey Decimal System (or Library of Congress Classification or UDC or Bliss or any other well-developed scheme) are an essential and invaluable architecture of human discovery and understanding.
Today, however, those books on shelves occupy a shrinking portion of library budgets in cities around the country. As Amanda Erickson reports in Next City’s Forefront feature this week, “The Next Chapter for Urban Libraries Is Here,” librarians are showing off new digital collections and finding creative ways of interacting with the public that integrate these resources into the community. In 2013, the first book-free public library opened in the suburbs of San Antonio, Texas. The mainstream and professional press has been breathless in reporting the popularity of BiblioTech Digital Library among the Texan population it serves. However, I can’t help but be underwhelmed by this description from the San Antonio Express-News: “When the school day ends, the crush begins at Bexar County BiblioTech.” In dense Philadelphia, where I work, our book-filled libraries are busy from open to close. When school lets out, they often operate at standing-room only.
Digital evangelism has lulled many of us into what I think ought to be an embarrassingly anti-intellectual comfort zone. Some comfortable folks among us are coming to believe that everything we need to know about the world can be skimmed in a compulsively reloaded feed, algorithmed and tailored to all our narrow biases. It is a mistake to assume that because of all of the reading on screens that we do these days that libraries are undergoing some sort of seismic shift. Or that they must.
Honestly, sometimes very little of gravity is happening on those computer terminals in urban libraries anyway. It’s often a lot of socializing on Facebook. It’s also cell phone videos of fights on Youtube. And yes, while thousands of people are indeed applying for jobs using our computers, fewer are getting them. Tech and traditional literacy skills are serious obstacles for our patrons. For those folks who have achieved those modern basic skills and have managed to get low-wage jobs, we often find ourselves helping them to use public terminals to fill out digital time sheets in between shifts. You know, so that the boss doesn’t have to hire secretaries for the HR department.
The potentially uplifting electronic resources that we do have — the expensive subscription databases — remain unknown to most computer users. With the rising costs of these digital tools, there’s a potentially proportionate threat to personnel budgets for hiring the librarians necessary to guide curious learners in their use. Run by a fraction of the staff necessary for a brick-and-mortar library, our e-book collections of pulp genre fiction and best-sellers steadily rank among our busiest branches when you count “circulation” statistics. The popularity of pulp is nothing new — leisure reading has long been an important part of library land — yet the complex webs of intellectual property law and vendor contracts guarantee that this “e-branch” is a pale shadow of the spectrum of human publishing represented by a real-life library curated by librarians who know their communities.
The digital revolution is changing us but not in the way people who don’t use libraries think it is. The meaningful life-changing core of the neighborhood branch is and remains the radical, flexible, dynamic education model that librarians build using every electronic, physical, and human resource at hand. We are a cradle-to-grave people’s pre-school through Ph.D. When a young mother is pregnant, neighborhood librarians are teaching her to read to her pre-natal child. Some of this involves tablets, but most of it will involve saliva-soaked board books. Before school starts, we are introducing children to the complexities of language, song, movement and manipulation. Sure, there are virtual versions, but the analog experience fills our programming rooms in a spectacle that has to be seen to be believed.
Once children are in school, we’re finding a million creative ways to give students a respite from classroom drills by introducing them to the wonder of stories or the excitement of indulging curiosity in the world via non-fiction. Browsing shelves with us as guides accomplishes this in a far more satisfying way than browsing hyperlinks alone. Yet when a hyperlink is called for, we’re the ones teaching how to evaluate the site’s trustworthiness, if we’re not recommending it ourselves first.
By high school, students are interacting with librarians who will frankly discuss sex, drugs, abuse, work and college. We will unearth — without judgement — the illicit counter-narratives young minds demand. At this point in their development, there is no question that we must harness every resource possible to respond to their needs. By university, we’re translating the peculiarities of the academic cult to students who didn’t even know there was Kool-Aid to be sipped.
No scholar can achieve anything of importance without navigating the full spectrum of knowledge about this world regardless of its published format. The e-book market is too narrow, too ephemeral, too monopolistic to meet all of these needs alone. And barring a complete collapse of our global copyright regime, it always will be.
This is the key point about which digital evangelists fail to think. The digital-only library is far from a utopian information commons, where the voices weighing in on every conceivable topic may be heard. Rather, that utopian commons is the traditional, albeit well-resourced, urban library with several generations worth of collection expertise and strong bargaining power against the electronic vendors. We librarians are the tenacious masters of this planet’s most effective freedom school, but we can never really seem to explain it to anyone outside our ranks. Librarians, whether public employees or private academics, are as a profession collectively fighting to make sure that when someone wants to know, there are no barriers to satisfying that emergent curiosity.
The Equity Factor is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Adam Feldman is a librarian in Philadelphia. Over the past decade, he’s interned in an archive of local history, worked as the public services librarian for an HIV/AIDS service organization, managed an Internet-only library’s reference department, taught computer classes, and ran the children’s department of a busy neighborhood branch of a large municipal library system. Currently, he’s a music librarian at that system’s central library. Needless to say his views are his own, and not necessarily those of any of his employers past or present. Adam is as an elected shop steward in the union that represents his fellow librarians.