Book review: Marilyn Johnson, This Book Is Overdue!

I really enjoyed reading Marilyn Johnson’s This Book Is Overdue! How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All. If anyone is in doubt about the digital role librarians can, and already do, play in the 21st century I’d recommend a read.

Johnson doesn’t draw any earth-shattering conclusions from her foray into the world of cybrarians (not sure I like that word btw, sounds a bit like a Marvel villain), but her thorough study highlights a lot of the pros, and the pitfalls, of moving libraries of all shapes and sizes into the digital world.

I came away with a really positive attitude, fired up to explore all the applications I’d learned about; it’s kind of career-affirming, at a time when it seems our industry is being battered from all sides.

Seth Godin: The fallout continues

Seth Godin’s piece on the future of libraries is continuing to foster debate in the biblioblogosphere (not sure about that term, but can’t think of a better one!).

PC Sweeney makes a good point over on his blog, that while Seth may have a misconception of what a present-day library looks like, the fact he doesn’t know that many librarians already embrace digital resources is our fault as a profession. Essentially, it’s fine to provide ebooks, increase web terminals and use social media but if we don’t tell anyone about it, how can we expect to attract new users?

While I agree that librarians need to get proactive, need to get out there and market our services, I still think Seth should have taken a proper look at the industry before he formulated his argument. But Sweeney makes a good argument and is worth a read (a bit of blog love goes a long way :) ).

Articles: Seth Godin, The future of the library

Seth Godin’s article The future of the library, based on a talk he gave recently (there’s a good summary of the talk on Nancy Dowd’s blog), has sparked an interesting debate. It’s always a little galling when a non-librarian tries to tell information professionals how to do their jobs. I’d overlook that if the arguments were sound, but in this case they’re not.

Godin opens with an apt description of a librarian (although we could all add to it, as Bobbi Newman points out):

The librarian isn’t a clerk who happens to work at a library. A librarian is a data hound, a guide, a sherpa and a teacher. The librarian is the interface between reams of data and the untrained but motivated user.

Unfortunately, the remainder of the article reinforces Godin’s belief in the stereotype of librarian as clerk, declaring that films are “a mere sideline that most librarians resented anyway”, exhorting us to stop “defending library as warehouse”, and arguing that “what we don’t need are mere clerks who guard dead paper” – absolutely right Mr. Godin, but then this ceased to define a librarian many, many moons ago.

The thrust of Godin’s argument is that while librarians can still play a key role in a digital future, libraries themselves are a thing of the past. Why go to a physical library when you can access all the information you need through a computer screen? Why borrow a book, or a DVD, when you can get them cheaply online?

They need a librarian more than ever (to figure out creative ways to find and use data). They need a library not at all.

As Phil Bradley and Bobbi Newman point out in their blog responses, this is an incredibly simplistic, unrealistic view of the situation as it currently stands. Not everyone can use a computer. Not everyone who can knows where to look for the information they need. And not every source of information on the web is reliable (Wikipedia is the only resource named, and we all know how unreliable that is). To say nothing of the stripped-down budgets public libraries are currently dealing with.

Godin bases his argument on a totally outdated library model; he overlooks, for example, the fact that the vast majority of libraries already subscribe to online reference databases, and that most librarians already work with digital as well as paper resources.

Yes, we should be “fighting for the future, which is librarian as producer, concierge, connector, teacher and impresario.”

 Yes, “the library ought to be the local nerve center for information.”

But that nerve centre must include online and offline resources, or we risk alienating and disenfranchising a chunk of the population who aren’t web- and tech-savvy, or can’t afford to be.

Further reading:

What makes public libraries great

Bit of a public library theme going on this week. Neil Gaiman, one of my favourite authors and a big fan of librarians (follow him @neilhimself), tweeted a link to this ingenious halloween recreation of The Graveyard Book, which won him the Cilip Carnegie Medal this year. What a great way to get kids into libraries.

More on public libraries

This week’s Cilip bulletin included a couple of links to articles on the reinvention of public libraries. According to the Evening Standard, 130 London libraries are at risk of closure due to funding cuts; writers Charlie Higson, Benjamin Zephaniah and Will Self have added their voices to the campaign to save them.

The Standard also reported on Upper Norwood library, which is funded jointly by Croydon and Lambeth councils but since its foundation in 1899 has been run by an independent committee, which drastically reduces running costs by cutting red tape.

On a lighter note, the bulletin also included a link to this Flickr page of 1960s library posters from Enokson. They’d look great on mugs or tea towels – one way of funding libraries once the budget cuts are in force?

Cilip members can sign up for the weekly email bulletin (which is keeping me in the loop while I’m on leave) by following this link.

The reinvention of public libraries

I didn’t quite manage to type up all my notes before the baby, Ella, arrived six weeks ago, but I will get round to it at some point. I’m just getting back online workwise, so apologies if posts are sporadic for the next few months. I have plenty of reading time but I’ve not mastered typing with a baby in one arm yet!

Today I was directed to an article from the Chicago Tribune on how libraries are attracting new audiences. With funding cuts and falling user numbers, we all know that public libraries need to reinvent themselves if they are to remain relevant. This isn’t a new issue – my A-level General Studies exam included an essay question on how public libraries could attract more young people, and that was back in 1996 (I think I advocated more computer terminals, so forward thinking!).

It’s certainly true that libraries need to embrace digital resources, although I’m not sure many libraries will be undergoing such a total overhaul as the Denver library that offers kids game rooms, has scrapped overdue fines and – perhaps the hardest for traditional librarians to swallow – has also scrapped the Dewey Decimal System.

Former ALA head Michael Gorman is quoted as saying, “The argument that all these young people would turn up to play video games and think, ‘Oh by the way, I must borrow that book by Dostoyevsky’ — it seems ludicrous to me.”

But I think Gorman is missing the point. The fact remains that if libraries don’t reposition themselves at the centre of the community, they won’t survive. Perhaps we need to change our way of thinking away from a book-centric view of libraries and towards libraries as a meeting place for the community, whether they want to check out Dostoyevsky or play Guitar Hero.

News: Neil Gaiman hearts libraries

I’ve been away for a few weeks, sunning myself in Cyprus, so I’ve got a lot of library news to catch up on.

First up, one of my favourite authors, Neil Gaiman, has won the CILIP Carnegie medal for The Graveyard Book. American Gods is one of my favourite books; comic book geek and American Studies alumnus that I am, how could I not love him? But he also writes spectacularly good children’s books (Stardust and Coraline among them). I can’t wait until my son is old enough to delve into the worlds he creates.

At the awards ceremony, Gaiman took the opportunity to rail against planned library cuts, saying:

“In this austerity world it’s incredibly easy if you are a local authority and you are looking for cuts, to say ‘Let’s cut libraries’. But that’s borrowing from the future.

“We’re now in an age of ‘too much information’. Libraries and librarians are more important than ever. Children want stories. They want information. They want knowledge about the strange world they’re in. Saying that the internet can be that is like setting a child free in a jungle and expecting them safely to find things to eat.”