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Beware, public libraries: You'll go the way of print newspapers if you automatically diss nonlibrarians' gutsy ideas

By David H. Rothman, Published on December 29, 2013

Note: This is the first article in a three-part series. Part Two is about Carmela Hernandez and family. Set in the San Antonio area, a future scenario shows how a national digital library initiative could help turn their lives around. Part Three tells how librarians and policymakers can make the initiative happen and benefit the Hernandezes, not just the American elite.

Jeff_Bezos_iconic_laugh1More than a few newspaper people wrote off digital visionaries several decades ago. The crazies from outside the profession had the nerve to warn that the Internet could replace print editions, not just help promote them. Again and again came the refrain from editors and publishers: "But he isn't a newspaper guy."

Well, we know who owns the Washington Post today. And it isn't the Sulzbergers or Grahams. It's the man in the picture, Jeff Bezos, Amazon's CEO and 60 Minutes interviewee this week. Eventually the Post's presses in suburban Virginia will stop rolling or print limited numbers of a luxury item.

Granted, Warren Buffett, among the world's smartest investors, has bought predominantly print newspapers. But most are in small or medium-sized markets with less-than-fierce competition.  He must be aware that the pulped-wood editions won't necessarily be eternal, with or without the drone delivery of the kind that Bezos envisions for Amazon merchandise. The Sage from Omaha would not buy the Washington Post for Berkshire Hathaway even though he sat on the board of directors of the Post's parent company for 37 years.

A lesson for the library world, as well as the hold-outs in book publishing? Especially when Netflix-style private subscription services like Oyster are already cranking up online to loan out e-books? Simply put, it is far riskier for librarians to be smug and shun innovation--and nonlibrarians with worthwhile ideas--than to embrace progress.

bibliotech4Here is the latest example of so-called professionalism gone awry. In an attack on the all-digital BiblioTech library in Bexar County, Texas, a commenter in an ALA forum on LinkedIn dismissively observed that experiments like this were the brainchildren of nonlibrarians. Please. One of the most knuckleheaded pushes for digitization came from the executive director of the public library system in Rockford, Illinois, who wanted to splurge on digital books without providing enough e-readers for the city's many low-income people--the very ones most in need of library content and services. Both librarians and nonlibrarians can be right or wrong. The "isn't one" excuse is plain lazy.

Now compare Rockford to Bexar County, which includes San Antonio. A courageous nonlibrarian named Nelson Wolff set up the BiblioTech project so the all-digital library could loan out hundreds of devices capable of reading e-books. Likewise Judge Wolff, the leading official in the county government, cared about BiblioTech providing technical support to patrons, and his head librarian, Ashley Eklof, is excited about the possibilities of librarians spending more time on patron contact and community outreach. No need for shelving of paper books and related chores. From afar, this strikes me as good old-fashioned librarianship reinvented in the spirit of the Five Laws of Library Science. Books are for use. Not just paper books. Books, period. And the same for other library content and services, including the facilitation of connections between members of the local communities--for example, a virtual book club. "Outreach," as I see it, can cover a lot, both online and offline.

Yes, I myself have some questions about BiblioTech. Just to give one example, couldn't it offer the option of paper books for patrons such as for mothers wanting to read the traditional way to toddlers? Via deliveries, maybe, if there isn't room in the BiblioTech building? What about the many books that aren't even available in E but are in paper at nearby libraries in San Antonia? Also, as Ms. Eklof herself has correctly said, the BiblioTech solution isn't for everyone. A nightmare would be for BiblioTech imitators--owned by Wall Street investors close to powerful politicians--to pop up and replace true community institutions already thriving. Ms. Eklof would almost surely agree with me, and while I cannot read Judge Wolff's mind, I'd hope he would feel the same. I'd like to see librarians and nonlibrarians all pull together, and I was disappointed to learn that BiblioTech had trouble recruiting within the profession even though Wolff has also heard some encouraging words from future-minded librarians.

On the positive for library professionals, look at the efforts of the Douglas County system in Colorado to buy e-books directly from publishers and otherwise assert its independence rather than just deal with middlemen like OverDrive. Or read the insightful commentaries of James Duncan, executive director of the Colorado Library Consortium. Not to mention Ms. Eklof's own eagerness to carry out smart outreach.

What's more, while informed nonlibrarians can and should share their visions as patrons and library-lovers, this is not the same as saying, "Let's farm out all MLIS jobs to cheaper people." School librarians are a prime example. To dumb down student's ability to research--to distinguish between good and bad citations, for instance--is to dumb down education. And if you might die of cancer or heart disease, wouldn't you care about the educational preparation of the reference person steering you to medical advice? And how about librarians' professional ethics and related standards, not just their skills? Who will be more likely to try to shield your library records from snoops? An untrained clerk or an MLIS from a good library school?

Not every library employee needs to be a librarian with an advanced degree or any degree, as the more astute members of the profession have observed, but let's keep them in the jobs where it counts.  So no anti-librarian or anti-MLIS sentiments here!

But nonlibrarians, too, can be right and have their hearts in the right place, and I plead guilty to a personal interest in this matter. I am not a librarian. Even so, I've been writing about e-libraries and digital divide issues since the early 1990s, appearing in places ranging from the online Library Journal to an MIT Press information science collection and the Chronicle of Higher Education (see my Chronicle essay laying out an earlier version of the evolving LibraryCity vision). First-hand, I know how heartbreaking it can be when misguided librarians shrug off well-informed opinions and actions from friends outside the profession.

Nelson Wolff is at or near the top of the list of those wronged. The library world should thank him, not revile him, for his boldness. Remember, BiblioTech isn't just a provider of content. It's teaching people how to access it and is reaching out to them. Thousands in and near San Antonio have applied for BiblioTech cards--if I'm not mistaken, the latest statistic is 10,000--and the numbers keep growing. Isn't access an ALA priority?

That's what BiblioTech is all about, and it's a shame that some librarians' prejudice against digital technology and nonlibrarians is prevailing over facts and commonsense.

In particular I am disappointed by certain librarians' misinterpretations of studies on paper vs. e-books, especially since so many readers are fans of both (even if they realize that digital is the future). I could go more into that here, but I've already cut to the chase, with the information on the demand for BiblioTech cards since the digital system opened about two months ago. Wait. There's also the Pew survey saying that 53 percent of respondents want a broader selection of e-books from libraries, even though many people have yet to give the technology a serious try.

Clearly the future is digital. BiblioTech will be a godsend for many young Hispanic readers with cellphones; for grandfathers wanting to learn to blog; and for mothers eager to keep up with the computer skills of their children and enjoy digital editions of romance novels. America's public libraries are spending only around $4.20 per capita each year on content of all kinds, electronic and digital, according to FY 2010 statistics from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Also, only about 13 percent of our public libraries' operational spending goes for actual content, paper or electronic. Can't lessons from BiblioTech help pave the way for a national digital library strategy providing for more money for content--without local libraries neglecting services, either? In fact, a good digital national collection would reduce the work associated with paper books and free our local libraries for more community outreach, the kind that Ms. Eklof aspires toward.

Should libraries not wake up about the possibilities here, either through BiblioTech-style approaches or online expansion of traditional libraries, depending on the needs of individual communities, then Jeff Bezos won't just own the Washington Post. He will also own a good part of librarydom. Bezos very possibly would love to snap up  OverDrive, the main distributor of library e-books, for which he is already a major strategic partner. Ahead will we see Amazon-owned BiblioTech imitators displacing neighborhood libraries staffed by dedicated public employees? Or maybe just digital e-stores and paid online subscription services?

Yes, libraries are about much more than books. See LibraryCity's About page and a visionary book by R. David Lankes, an information scientist at the University of Syracuse who correctly believes that libraries should be more about connections between people than between books. But take books away and public libraries as institutions will lose much of the public support they now enjoy despite the pitiful amounts spent on content. Read the already-cited Pew survey, reporting that four-fifths of Americans believe that book loans are a "very important" service. Books are a calling card, so to speak, even if libraries should be venturing into everything of interest to their particular community members, from 3D printing to loans of fishing poles.

If I were ALA President Barbara Stripling or one of her planners, then, I would pay even closer attention to Amazon and other book-related companies than ALA must be doing now--and respond accordingly. I'd aim for the organization's recently announced policy initiative to focus on the creation of a national digital library endowment and separate academic and public digital library systems. We already know what needs doing (just read Jim Duncan's thoughts). And ALA needs to act much more quickly than now envisioned, given the existence of Oyster and the rest, as well as OverDrive's current goal of dominating the library market even more than it does now

Otherwise, public librarians, prepare for Jeff Bezos and friends to buy up the OverDrives and the Oysters and, in time, your profession. Don't count on Washington to save you if you dawdle. Have you donated as many millions to politicians as Wall Streeters have? Special-interest money is not the only driver in D.C., but as shown in books such as The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America,  it can be a dangerous distraction and wreak havoc on the nonelite. The Unwinding does not mention America's library crisis specifically. But the general idea certainly applies. When librarians pooh-pooh the BiblioTechs,  they unwittingly abet those favoring privatization of public institutions--by reinforcing the stereotypes of libraries as backwards. Yes, yes, Wall Street. Another profit-making opportunity. Who cares about the commonweal?

Later in this series, I'll share a few more words on libraries and the super-rich, including constructive suggestions for the latter. Bezos-and-Wall-Street-proofing, however, isn't the series' real focus. Of  even greater importance, from my perspective as a former poverty-beat reporter, is the ability of good librarians and well-deployed digital technology to change patrons' lives for the better. The just-provided link goes to one of Prof. Stripling's Web pages, and virtually everything in the Hernandez scenario will be in the spirit of the points she makes there. I'll simply offer specific ways of achieving her goals and hope that the Not Invented Here Syndrome will not deafen librarians to the ideas here.

I won't mind if Amazon listens, either. I'm a steady Amazon customer, finding so much that public libraries can't offer me because of business issues  the proposed national endowment would at least help address. But I'm worried about the less fortunate, the tens of millions of Americans without money for anything but essentials. The idea here is to help them, not hurt Amazon and the like. 

Even now, I won't write off Jeff Bezos. Perhaps he and enlightened people in finance can understand the societal and even business advantages of public libraries--among the best creators of wealth through self-improvement. Along the way, libraries help promote demand for the books that Amazon sells. I can see Amazon, Google, and the rest profiting in a reasonable way as contractors for the two national digital library systems and a joint technical services and infrastructure organization. I just don't want them to be America's public or academic system. And if librarians and well-meaning government officials can show more foresight than newspaper people have in the past, this won't happen.  Public libraries need to remain public--accountable and transparent to all of us, as they go about helping us change our lives for the better.

Details: In case it is not abundantly clear already, the Hernandez family is imaginary; their story is a just way to illustrate how a good national digital library initiative could benefit the people most in need of library services. Also, as I have done in the past, I'll disclose that I am a small investor in Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway for retirement purposes. Last I knew, Warren Buffett was a skeptic toward e-books or at least a nonuser. Ideally, was the case with Judge Wolff, this will change as Buffett finds out more.

Editor's note - this article was re-published with the author's permission from his blog, Library City.