Libraries Reinventing Themselves?


I suspect that by now most of you have read the LA Times article by David Sarno, published November 12, Libraries reinvent themselves as they struggle to remain relevant in the digital age. It has gotten a lot of buzz, mostly because it makes many wide-ranging claims about the future of public libraries, and casts dubious credulity on them remaining relevant in the 21st Century.

I’ve made no pretence about my opinion of “news reporters” and their inability to maintain objectivity and refrain from sensationalizing an otherwise routine story. This is a good example of why.

That spirit of bookish defiance has guided the makeover of the suburban Denver library system …. Reference desks and study carrels have been replaced by rooms where kids can play Guitar Hero. Overdue book fines have been eliminated, and the arcane Dewey Decimal System has been scrapped in favor of bookstore-like sections organized by topic.

“That spirit of bookish defiance …” What exactly is that? The DPL is defiant of books, so they are making their library into something else, or they are defensive of books so they’ve made books the core of their library, just re-designed their distribution? Does anybody understand “bookish defiance”? Thus my point!

As this Blog has stressed repeatedly, libraries MUST reinvent themselves to remain relevant in the 21st Century! And, they must do it in those ways that Director Pam Sandlian-Smith stated; “We have to reframe what the library means to the community.”

The Times author also tries to make a case for eBooks taking over the market place, and provides fodder for the argument.

Piracy concerns have also limited the supply of popular new titles. None of the bestselling “Harry Potter” books, for example, is available in a digital version. Publishers and some authors are concerned that books, once online, can easily be copied and shared without authorization.

In other cases, such as the new Jonathan Franzen bestseller “Freedom,” the book is available to consumers as an e-book, but the publisher does not offer electronic versions to libraries. The book’s publisher, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux., declined to comment on whether piracy concerns affected its decision to hold the digital version of “Freedom” out of libraries.

IS THAT EVEN LEGAL? – Libraries buy their books like everybody else. Are publishers seriously entitled to refuse to sell eBooks to selected segments of the market? Since when is library lending of legally obtained materials against some law? Is there a conspiracy underway against libraries?

The article also points out that

E-book collections at U.S. libraries grew nearly 60% between 2005 and 2008, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. During the same period libraries’ print collections grew less than 1%, though ink-on-paper works still make up 98% of U.S. libraries’ holdings.

trying to (no doubt) make a case for eBooks being the future of literature. And in fair and balanced fashion, the author provides an alternative opinion from Joan Frye Williams, a library consultant and futurist, who “… believes that the underlying purpose of libraries will not change, even if bookshelves disappear. “Saying that there’s a challenge to libraries because books are changing would be like saying there’s a challenge to family dinner because plates are changing,” she said.”

Ms. Williams, who apparently hasn’t published anything since 2002, surely had more to say than to imply that the demise of the family dinner is due to something other than the changed place settings, but we don’t know. Although four years ago Christopher Harris reported that she was presenting ways to “pimp your library”, so who knows the truth about what anybody says.

What we do know is that libraries are impacted by SO MANY 21st Century factors as to be challenged to remain relevant.

Possibly the most egregious indictment for libraries reinventing themselves is implied around the comments of former ALA President Michael Gorman.

“If you want to have game rooms and pingpong tables and God knows what — poker parties — fine, do it, but don’t pretend it has anything to do with libraries,” said Michael Gorman, a former president of the American Library Assn. “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.”

Is ALA weighing-in, in the person of Michael Gorman, to say that libraries should not reinvent themselves, or that those who do are no longer libraries? Or is the reporter simply trying to make a story titillating?

That assumption is supported by the author’s stand alone assertion that “…public libraries in particular are looking to become more like community centers.” using DPL as an example – a gross mischaracterization – and another vague reference to Charlotte, NC’s Imaginon, which is not a replacement of a library.

Is there any competent authority that says public libraries want to become community centers? If there is, I’d love to hear from that person!

I guess just stating Director of the Rangeview Library District (Anythink) Pam Sandlian-Smith’s observation; “We have to reframe what the library means to the community.” is not enough for some people. Libraries reinventing themselves has to be “dramatic”. Why do you suppose that is?

Could it be that everybody truly loves their library and has their own ideas about what it should or should not be – usually rooted in their past experience? It is people who love their library who will keep it relevant for their community!

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