Monday, May 12, 2008

Newsflash: libraries aren't cool

I want to explore an idea.

I've read about four blog posts in the past week that talk about how libraries are going to manage to keep our users "interested" in libraries (of course, there was also a nay-sayer who remarked "they're already uninterested"). We want to make our catalogs more like Amazon, encourage social tagging, et cetera et cetera. But WHY?

If we've already resigned ourselves to the idea that not everyone in the world, or even most people in the world, care about libraries, why are we fighting so hard? Libraries have never ever been for everyone. They've been for scholars, for researchers, for the rich (who, subsequently, have lots of free time to be scholars and researchers). Why is this a bad thing? Is it because we're disenfranchising people? Do the people feel disenfranchised when they're denied access to a college library? They already don't want to come in, but I suppose people feel like they just need to go somewhere when they're not allowed. So keeping all these libraries open to the public is probably only keeping people away. They'd be banging down the doors if they felt like their rights were being infringed upon and we were trying to keep them out.

Anyway, that's not my point, really. My point is that we're trying to make libraries the coolest place around, where everyone will flock and love books and reading. But libraries have NEVER been that way, and the majority of people have NEVER been that keen on reading. I feel like we're trying to make people think that the library is something it isn't. At the core, libraries are about providing knowledge to a group of people (be it the public or a select group). But as the saying goes, you can lead a horse to water but you can't make him read.

Why are we trying to be like Amazon? Because people like Amazon better than they like libraries? Is this a popularity contest? I've never really found Amazon's search interface any more efficient than anyone else's--but people like Amazon because it allows them to buy lots of useless junk for themselves. A library will never offer that kind of service. A library, even with a cool interface and lots of gadgets, will still just offer you books and multimedia, for 2 weeks. Sure it's free, but you still go to a library to LEARN. No one goes to Amazon to learn, they go there to shop.

I know that public libraries were started as a means of "educating" the people of the nation who were not "privileged" enough to get education on their own. But no one asked the people if they wanted it. And since all things are self-selecting, libraries will continue to have problems with attracting patrons because people self-select themselves out of going to the library, or learning, or being engaged in their world, or doing research. Knowing what's best for people isn't always enough to get them to come to the library. And I'm sorry to say, adding folksonomies and social tagging and bright lights and chat windows isn't really enough to get them to come to the library, either, because you can't play video games, shop, or eat food at the library.

Don't get me wrong, I know that libraries serve a very unique and important role in our world--the preservation of knowledge is one of the most needful things, especially in today's society where we throw everything away. And if we're going after new search strategies and technology for the pursuit of that knowledge, then I'm all for it. But...if we're pursuing this new technology just so that we can feel like we're "cool", then I think we're doing it for the wrong reasons, and in any case, that technology will probably fail to do what we want it to. I hate to break it to everyone, but libraries just aren't cool. Important, yes; cool, no.


Anonymous said...

OH! I am so glad someone said it.

And why do we need to be "cool" in the first place? It won't work and will just alienate the nerds who do like us.


All my mailing lists are talking about the proper way to host a Super Mario Smash Brawl tournament in their library.

Only lame people are going to go to such a thing.


petter said...

I agree, the older I get the cooler "uncool" becomes. But although much of what is communicated on the net is vacuous and/or frivolous, I think it's essential to know how1>people communicate. I do think there is a change from the "old days" when libraries and "fun stuff" occupied separate but equal (or almost) spheres - now the entertainment sphere has become so predominant that anything outside it becomes irrelevant. In Norway they're now debating whether its ok for high school students can be surfing and facebooking while the teacher is holding forth about history or biology. Oh, lighten up, they say, we can multitask...and this just keeps us from getting totally board. Sheesh, what's the world coming to..

kathi said...

Sure, comment comes late: I've just found your Blog, that's why. Some sad thing here from old Europe: there are some people, who doesn't really know the difference between a library and a bookstore. Librarians and book vendors tell in their blogs, how they try to explain them, not always with success. Maybe we have to reference to Amazon and they understand??? ;-)
And off topic: as i read, you are involved in metadata modelling and indexing - it's my interest, too. Maybe you'll like the following OPAC link in Belgium: first FRBRized one I know (besides the WorldCat thing). It's esp. impressing if you are searching for music items!
[Is the Aquabrowser to "Amazon"???]

Anonymous said...

If OPACS didn't suck so bad, maybe 2.0 technology would not be so exciting. But if it helps library users find what they have come in to find, then it is not about being cool. It's about being a better library.

The video games I don't understand, though.

"Wicked people never have time for reading. It's one of the reasons for their wickedness." —Lemony Snicket, The Penultimate Peril.