The Life of Libraries

Continuing our work in the digital revolution

February 25, 2015

Cover of Our Enduring Values by Michael Gorman

There is no shortage of people prophesying the “death of libraries,” some with glee, some with sadness, and some just consumed by techno-lust and laissez-faire economics.  ­One such someone is Tim Worstall, who in a July 2014 column in Forbes called for the closing of public libraries and for those libraries to be replaced by free subscrip­tions to “Kindle Unlimited”—an product giving access to more than 600,000 e-texts. A more serious person, Mark Miodownik, a British materials scientist and broadcaster, stated in an interview on the BBC World Service that hackerspaces (communal workshops also known as “makerspaces”) are “more important than public libraries” and that cities should convert their public libraries to hackerspaces. He argued that people had “access to more books than they could ever want” and could download them and read them on their smartphones in their homes at any time. Also, that there is universal access to “information” but not to the skills, tools, and materials needed to make useful objects in order to transform citizens from con­sumers to makers and society from a culture of waste and landfills to a culture of recycling and conservation.

I wrote Our Enduring Values, which was published by ALA Editions in 2000. In the decade and a half since, the world has endured the savagery of September 11, 2001; the deaths of millions in wars and other con­flicts, many waged in and over the cobbled-together countries that are the poisonous legacy of colonialism and imperialism; the almost complete collapse of the post–World War II financial architecture and the Great Recession that cupidity-fueled collapse caused; the ideologically and economically driven sustained attack on the public services of which libraries are such an ornament; the economic rise of China, run by communists who are much better at capi­talism than the capitalists of the West; the looming and multifaceted environmental challenges of anthropogenic climate change; the promise of the Arab Spring and its repression; and a variety of other unsettling global and national societal happenings and trends.

We have been blessed (or otherwise?) with:

  • the iPod and iTunes (2001)
  • Facebook (2004)
  • YouTube (2005)
  • Twitter (2006)
  • the mass adoption of smartphones and streaming video
  • devices for downloading and reading ebooks such as the Amazon Kindle (2007) and Barnes & Noble Nook (2009)
  • the enormous economic reach of the advertising-company-with-a-search-engine Google, which has contrived to hit brand gold by becoming a verb that is the near-universal substitute for “use a search engine”
  • Wikipedia (2001) and the whole social media, hive-mind, crowdsourcing “wisdom of the crowds” thing, felicitously summed up as “digital Maoism” by Jaron Lanier
  • a huge and lucrative videogame industry
  • giant flatscreen digital televisions foreshadowed by Ray Bradbury (and The Jetsons) decades before
  • 3D “printing”

Librarians have a duty, now more than ever, to revisit the values that inform our profession and to organize convincing rebuttals to anti-library arguments.

All of these digital innovations great and small add up to a complex world with endless opportunities for infotainment, commercial exploitation on a massive scale, and, to put the case for positive results, the creation of giant, ever-connected “communities” and new dimensions of education and creativity.

No library is an island, and libraries and the practice of librarianship have been rocked, socked, shaken, and stirred by these societal, economic, and technological changes. Very few libraries can say that they are better off than they were before the Great Recession eight years ago, and many, or even most, will tell you they are much worse off. Many of our colleagues have lost their jobs; many have had to take jobs that pay substantially less than they and their contributions are worth; and many graduates of LIS programs cannot find jobs, have had to take part-time posi­tions, or move to places far from where they really want to live.

For the first time in more than 50 years of working in libraries, I have hesitated when asked if I would recommend someone to enter an LIS master’s program. All this when public libraries are increasingly society’s only serious attempt to bridge the digital divide that threatens to deny the advantages of the brave new technological world to the poor, the rural, the armies of the unemployed, and all the others whose noses are pressed up against the windows of the glittering salons of the digerati. All this when academic libraries are under unprecedented strains of trying to do more with shrunken budgets, aggra­vated by the pressure of management, and IT depart­ments obsessed with shiny new tools and lacking any vision of the ends to which their digital means are to be applied. All this when cuts in government spending and savage corporate retrenchments have attenuated or abolished many special libraries. So it goes, but libraries and librarians battle on, boats against the current, continuing to do good work and serve indi­viduals and communities.

In the Preface to Our Enduring Values, I wrote of the defeated British and German troops marching away after the surrender of Cornwallis in Yorktown in October 1781. They played an old British march called “The World Turned Upside Down.” Fifteen years ago, I won­dered if the world of libraries had been turned upside down and if the time had come for librarians to beat a retreat. I did not believe that then, and I do not believe that now. The ideas that the digital revolution has made libraries irrelevant, that libraries can no longer be af­forded, or that libraries are no longer needed seem, at best, based on ignorance and the willful avoidance of realities and, at worst, the malign triumph of ignorance, materialism, and philistinism. I believe that librarians have a duty, now more than ever, to revisit the values that inform our profession and to organize convincing rebut­tals to anti-library arguments. That is why I have revisited and rewritten a book from the last years of the 20th century. It ad­dresses the eight core values that I advanced in 2000 in the light of the events of the last 15 years—service, stewardship, democracy, rationalism, privacy, intellec­tual freedom, equity of access, literacy and learning—and dis­cusses the overarching value of the greater good, a communitar­ian approach to the totality of the human record that will lead to the enrichment of the lives of individuals, communities, and society as a whole.

The magnitude of the task ahead can be seen in the re­marks of Miodownik, a re­spected and influential scholar. He is neither an ignoramus nor a vandal. Quite the reverse, he is an advocate of an enlightened turn away from consumerism and waste in favor of communitar­ian effort to restore the dignity of labor that would have been familiar to, and welcomed by, the likes of William Morris. Why would such a man call for his workshops to take over public library buildings? (Rather than taking over, say, dollar stores, payday loan shops, or any of the many other institutions that prey upon the poor?) The simple answer is that he has bought into a number of cyber myths (in this case, that “everything” is available, free and freely, on the internet; that “ev­erybody” can find what he or she wants with ease; that “everyone” can apply the critical thinking necessary for the productive use of “everything”) and that he, as with the majority of even highly educated people, has only the sketchiest idea of what libraries are and what they do, and of the role of librarians.

My forthcoming book on our professional values is intended to illuminate the present and likely future state of libraries as we adjust to a world that seems to be turned upside down with some regularity without ever being quite the right side up.


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