Libraries Are Obsolete – An Oxford Style Debate – Critique


Finally available online at http://osc.hul.harvard.edu/hlsc/oxford_debate, the 1hr:40min video was both stimulating and disappointing. For those of you who don’t have 1:40 or patience to wade through the stilted academician rhetoric to come to any conclusions, I thought I’d offer my summary and critique of the event.

To recap:

The MOTION: Libraries are Obsolete was the topic of the Oxford style debate. It was chaired by Professor Jonathan Zittrain, Professor at the Harvard Law School, the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Professor Zittrain will become Harvard Law School’s Vice-Dean of Library and Information Resources in July 2012.

Speaking in favor of the proposition: Dr. James Tracy (Headmaster, Cushing Academy), and R. David Lankes (Professor and Dean’s Scholar for the New Librarianship, University of Syracuse iSchool and Director of the Information Institute of Syracuse).

Speaking in opposition: Susan Hildreth (Director of the Institute of Museum and Library Services), and Professor John G. Palfrey (Vice Dean for Library and Information Resources, and the Henry N. Ess III Professor of Law at Harvard Law School).

Student Speakers from the Harvard Speech & Parliamentary Debate Society:
• Sanhita Dey
• Rishav Mukherji

Beginning with Dr. Tracy, his position in favor of libraries being obsolete revolved around his definition of “library” as a space, and referred to libraries as a “vestigial” (stunted or useless) locus that only serves an “antiquarian” (museum essentially) function. He felt the ubiquity (pervasiveness) of technology makes libraries obsolete, and doubts whether the serendipity potential that technology allows with digital information can be matched in a physical library. Dr. Tracy did concede that librarians are not at risk, as long as they transition to the role of “guide” who practice in “digital aggregates” as opposed to “librarians” operating in a “library”. He believes that collection space must be replaced with usage space in order to meet the future needs of society.

Director Susan Hildreth followed in opposition to the Motion, but spent considerable time citing statistics on 97% of Americans who are served by libraries, and 57% of Americans that have a library card. Admitting that the number of reference questions are plummeting, she asserts that the complexity of the reference question is increasing – no statistics to support that claim. She repeated the standard rhetoric regarding the public access Internet use, the assistance for job seekers, and essentially regurgitated much of the traditional “libraries are invaluable” justifications. Director Hildreth did assert that libraries must change to survive, and become more proactive in managing their space. She asserts that libraries are centers for life-long learning, and the 3Rs have been replaced by the 4Cs – creativity, collaboration, communication, and critical thinking.

Professor Lankes followed next with his largely comedic routine in support of the Motion that libraries are obsolete. He asserts that libraries are no longer about sharing, but about lending which diminishes their value to the community. In his argument that libraries do not promote a free and democratic society he created an example of government documents never being made “public” or available to the public in support of his assertion. (?) He also created an analogy that when the Tennessee Valley Authority brought electricity to the rural southeast they brought it directly to homes, whereas the library simply opens its doors and says come get it. (?) He made a true statement when he asserted that librarians are not educators in terms of education in the 21st Century. Professor Lankes believes that the library has been operating on the belief that its role is to fix society for so long that it doesn’t understand any other way to operate. He stated: “If we keep going to our communities in a deficiency model, a remediation sense, if we keep pounding on the community and saying what’s wrong with them, what their problems are, how we can fix them, fix their problems, communities will kick us the hell out.” (As nearly as I was able to transcribe his exact words) That statement is in stark contrast to Lankes’ assertions in his book The Atlas of New Librarianship – which I reviewed in my Post Final Review: The Atlas of New Librarianship – on Page74.

Power is not bad or evil. Alinsky would say the evil is when you don’t have power. Without power you don’t make decisions, things are decided for you. Librarians need to be powerful. They need to be able to shape agendas, lead the community, and empower members to do the same. We seek out power not as an end but as a means to make the world a better place. To serve, to truly serve, you need to be powerful so you can steward the community.

After Lankes’s remarks, Debate President Professor Zittrain stated that Professor Lankes’ argument was “ironically and nominally in opposition to the Motion.”

The final prominent speaker in opposition to the Motion was Professor Palfrey. He asserted that the real issue is that libraries and librarians lack imagination in order to change the future of libraries, because the definition of “library” needs to be rewritten with imagination. He feels that the mission of libraries has not changed – therefore not obsolete – but the delivery of that mission is the real quandary. His four main points were; libraries have and must change, the mission has not changed, the difficulty of the mission has changed, and whether librarians can change. Professor Palfrey believes that a library in these digital times is a hybrid organization in transition toward whatever circumstances will make it in the future. His final words of wisdom were to “get in front of the mob and call it a parade.”

The two students who provided comments were much briefer than the primary speakers, but did offer a couple of nuggets worth reporting. Rishav Mukherji, speaking in the affirmative (I think), pointed out that a library is not a library without a collection – regardless of what form it takes. Sanhita Dey, speaking in the opposition, noted that the microwave did not make the role of the oven or the range top in the average kitchen obsolete, and that librarians need to protect free access during this transitional period.

At the end of the debate, the audience voted yea or nay on the motion, with the results (in favor of the continuing relevance of libraries) announced over gin & tonics at a reception that followed the debate.

Overall – IMHO – this Oxford-style debate was more detrimental than productive to the profession. It took a very serious issue, and made light of its seriousness. Libraries closing and loss of jobs is not humorous. Loss of free access to information by tax payers is hardly a subject for levity. It is unfortunate that one of the most prestigious libraries in the world was the first to address this significant issue in such a light-hearted manner. As I noted above, it was both stimulating and disappointing – stimulating because it took considerable concentration to understand whether there were any relevant points being made, and dissappointing because there was no new information.

When the profession is struggling to find its role in the new millennium, this conversation about whether libraries are obsolete should be conducted at every level, in every SLIS, and in every library. An adequate answer to the nagging question “Why do we need libraries?” MUST be provided to the profession, if libraries are to survive. It’s too serious an issue to be taken lightly by individuals who should know better – or to be decided over gin & tonics – where no real answers to serious issues are presented.

3 Comments

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3 responses to “Libraries Are Obsolete – An Oxford Style Debate – Critique

  1. Pingback: LIBRARIES ARE OBSOLETE « BIBLIO-GAGA

  2. Marianna McKim

    Thank you very much for your summary and critique. Too bad the debate was framed in a way that suggests that libraries probably are obsolete. Simply flipping the title (“Libraries remain essential”) would change the bias.

    Many librarians do embrace new definitions of libraries, library services, and library collections. Probably more of us need to be out front, leading the way. At the same time, the boards and other administrative bodies that govern and limit how we function are also implicated if the problem is lack of imagination and creativity.

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