There are several things you can count on in this world: Every now and then, the New York Times will write a 10 years too late article about hipsters and Brooklyn; someone will start an essay about graphic novels with the phrase “Comics! They’re not just for kids anymore!”; and a rich white dude will pen a wishy washy article about the how libraries are deadSeriously, the library has died so many times, I’d like a preferred customer punch card for attending its countless fake funerals. And yet, despite the library being all dead and stuff, I still go to work every morning, seeing patrons queueing up for computers and storytimes and ESOL classes and the next bestseller. According to the Center for an Urban Future, libraries “are become an increasingly critical part of the city’s human capital system,” “are more essential than ever”, and are “far from being obsolete.”

But, enough about facts and realities. The article in question, written by Michael Rosenblum, is an anecdotal testament to how he’s never been to the library that was near his house (“I never went inside. I never sat in its reading room. I never checked out a book. I never explored its stacks to go through old volumes of bound periodicals in some research project.”). He’s never used it, so he doesn’t understand the need for it (I don’t have a pacemaker, but that doesn’t stop me from realizing that some people need them). Rosenblum adores Google and Dictionary.com for all his information needs. I mean, they’re free, right? Says Rosenblum, “the web is…free (at least so far), and instant and much much easier to reference and find stuff than in the stacks (though less romantic, in a literary sense).”

Let’s talk about internet access (or the “web” as he calls it) being free. I’m on my computer right now. This computer set me back about 1000 bucks and on top of that, I pay for a wireless connection. 1000 plus dollars doesn’t quite ring as free to me, but this is an article written by a man who lives on top of the MoMA, so our idea of “free” might be vastly different. Now, on the other hand, if I wanted to bust this blog post out at the library, all I’d need is a library card. Which is free. I’d sign up for a computer (I could even access a nice Mac or a laptop at certain locations), which is free. WiFi? Also free. In the comments on his blog, Rosenblum laments that libraries are “now a place where the poor can get online.”

First, I resent the insinuation that an institution that only serves the poor is somehow without value. Second, many people who don’t qualify as “poor” cannot afford the hundreds of dollars needed to buy a computer and maintain WiFi access. The library is for the poor, absolutely, but not just for the poor.

Moving on, let’s assume that a person has enough money to buy a computer and pay for internet access. Good for you, imaginary New Yorker that I made up. You have access to information. Google is always free, right? And always totally correct, no? Wrong. Google is fast and convenient, but it is not free nor is it always correct. Rosenblum and I had a little discussion on Twitter about Google being free, and it went like this:

Here, I tried to explain that many authoritative resources (including things as simple as full access to The New York Times), require payment. You could subscribe to all the newspapers and expensive databases, I guess, but I doubt even Rosenblum has that kind of money to burn. The library pays for these resources so that the patrons do not have to. Google and Google Scholar can link you to these authoritative resources, but it doesn’t always give you access to them.

But let’s say that you have enough money to buy a computer, pay for WiFi access, and subscribe to every newspaper and database that your little information-hungry heart can desire. Yay, you. You’re living the dream. You can Google until the cows come home. Hurrah!

But will you always get the right answer? One of the ways I teach teens and students about information literacy is by asking them to Google the term “Martin Luther King”. Go ahead. Try it. Now, since Google noses its way into your personal information, everyone’s search results are different/tailored to your individual needs. But chances are, in your top 10 search results, you get the site MartinLutherKing.org. For me, I get it as my second link, right after a Wikipedia article. It’s got .org in the address, so, it has to be good, right? Yeah. Google fails the researcher in this case because MartinLutherKing.org is a hate site. It’s full of articles that are racist, anti-Semitic, and poorly written to boot. Now, when I talked to Rosenblum about this, he claimed that I was anti-freedom of information. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Like most librarians, I’m a huge advocate for freedom of speech. This disgusting website has every right to be there. However, Google seems to think it’s a valid resource for researchers. Students and patrons may be confused by the .org component of the address and think the site is legitimate. This is just one example of where you cannot count on whatever Google spits out at you. As our buddy Neil Gaiman says, “Google can bring you back 100,000 answers, a librarian can bring you back the right one.” Information literacy is the name of our game.

Later in the article, Rosenblum worries that libraries have become just a place for people to encounter each other. He cites this quote by Enrique Norton, the architect of the new Donnell Library:

“It has become more like a cultural space, which is about gathering people, giving people the opportunity to encounter each other,” Mr. Norten said. “It’s not really about just being a repository of books.”

Because of this very quote, Rosenblum reacts with that old “libraries are dead” trope. Says Rosenblum, “Another 3,000 year old institution killed by the web.” What an absolute stretch of the imagination. Norten simply said that the library, in addition to its traditional uses, is also a place where people can meet and network. Yes! The library has a variety of uses. It’s for books, it’s for internet access, it’s for classes and community. The library is a multi-faceted institution. Let’s not unplug the life support just yet, friends.

I guess the real question is, why are these articles being written by the same kind of author over and over again? Why is it almost always a rich, white man who is so ensconced in his own world that he can’t imagine what life is like for the 99%? Why must we constantly recycle these “The Library is DEAD!” articles? What is the appeal? How can we get our devoted library patrons to be published in the Huffington Post and New York Times? Or is it that we simply aren’t concerned with the opinions of people of color, the middle and lower-class, the academics and scholars, the elderly, the under-resourced, the immigrants, the small business owners, the youth of our city, and the homeless?

Our patrons are our best library advocates, but sometimes it seems that the only voice that’s being heard is the one that’s anti-information and anti-community. If we don’t get our patrons to speak up for us, we truly will be dead. And Rosenblum will be looking down on us from his high-rise, not caring.

~Love and Libraries, Ingrid

About magpielibrarian

Children's Librarian, Library Advocate, Mediocre Crafter, Urban Magpie, Vegetarian, Glitter Addict, Thrifter, and Worshiper of Ridiculous Outfits

82 responses »

  1. Ingrid. We are at this moment engaging in a very interesting discourse which, only a few years ago, really, would have either been every expensive to do, and/or taken an enormous amount of time. 100 years of or less we would have exchanged written letters (at a cost for the postage), or we could have telegrammed (at a cost), or telephoned (at a cost). Remarkably, we are now able to do this for free. (or nearly so). We are also able to publish this exchange for billions (2.4 billion online at last count) to see. Only a few years ago, we would have had to own a newspaper or a printing press or a TV network to carry out the same trick, (and at considerable expense).

    Thus does technology ‘change the game’.

    You may argue that access to the web is ‘too expensive’ for most people. You and I both know that this is a pretty specious argument. In Africa, where I do a great deal of work, access to the web via mobile devices is exploding and changing the nature of entire societies.

    There may in fact be a few people in NY who can’t afford access to the web, but my guess is that this would be a very small percentage indeed.

    If your argument for libraries is grounded solely in the notion that libraries make access to the web possible for those who cannot afford a computer or mobile device, well then the nature of ‘library’ and what it is (as the title says ‘What Is A Library’) has indeed changed as rapidly as the cost of gathering and disseminating information.

    For several years I was the President of a New York Times Company (one that I founded and sold the The Times). I have watched as The Times and other papers, have grappled with the massive and dislocative (is this a word?) impact of the web. And we are still only at the very beginning.

    If the merging of the function of a library and the arrival of the web results only in a place where poor people can ‘get online’, then I would say that libraries don’t have much of a future.

    If, however, you can conceive of a purpose of a ‘library’ that is not only consonant with the flood of new and free information, but one that does for the web what Google should do – that is curate as well as gather – then I think that perhaps there is a vibrant place for a ‘library’, as there was for one in an age of scrolls and parchments in ancient Alexandria.

    • natkors says:

      I’m a Youth Services Librarian which means I work with children and teens. Let me share a brief smattering of what my library does:

      We offer a weekly program for children and teens with special needs. The topics range from socialization, to motor skills, to math. We also offer their parents a support group.

      We offer Baby Time (Did you the rhythmic quality of mother goose rhymes help with language acquisition?), Early Literacy, and other programs that boost learning.

      I recently showed a group of 3rd-5th graders how glue is a special kind of polymer whose properties can be changed by adding different substances (in other words, we made slime).

      For my teens, I offer a bi-annual SAT Prep class, cooking classes, and programs where they can use their imagination such as duct tape & origami. We also help reduce the summer slide by offer an annual summer reading club to keep kids & teens on track with their literacy.

      None of these involve the internet (except maybe to get directions to make a duct tape wallet), yet they still come to the library.

      YOU may think the library is a waste, and for that, I feel sorry for you. You are missing out on so much of what we can offer you.

    • I have never worked in Africa. So, I can’t comment on that. I have, though, indeed worked in the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn. And there are for sure people who don’t have computers or internet access. These people exist whether you want to acknowledge their existence or not. They are not “few”, they are plentiful enough that librarian outreach to these populations is needed, appreciated, and in demand.
      Even those NY-ers lucky enough to own computers and afford WiFi access use the library. In high numbers. Again, I point you to the Center for an Urban Future report I linked to up above.
      You said in your comment: “your argument for libraries is grounded solely in the notion that libraries make access to the web possible for those who cannot afford a computer or mobile device”. Well, I responded to your HuffPo article. Rest assured that my most popular program is storytime. Good, old fashioned storytime. A librarian with a stack of books, who sings some songs and teaches parents and children about early literacy. We offer books and articles and every manner of class and program you could imagine. We offer these to the rich and poor alike.

    • Mr. Rosenblum –

      (I’m going to post this comment here, rather than in Huffpo. I’d rather Ingrid get the pageviews.)

      In a comment in your piece, you write “The librarians, I think, would be better served embracing the web and figuring out how to take their talents online.” If you haven’t been in a library in years, how do you know they aren’t doing this already? Basing your argument on your personal observations (and an anecdote from your niece) is hilariously short-sighted. “I don’t use the library, therefore libraries are obsolete.”

      I’d advise you to start by actually researching some of your claims. Maybe even engage in some good old-fashioned research. Call it journalism, even. I might even be able to suggest a venue in which you can start your journey. Let me know if you’re actually interested in learning more about the topic and I’m sure we librarians would be happy to get you started.

      • My offer for Mr. Rosenblum to visit my library is still open. I offer it sincerely. Drinks on me. OK, one drink on me.

      • I don’t understand this part of his argument. We already have a huge online component with Chat Reference and the like, and still library usage is at an all time high. Why would we be “better served” there? Not every aspect of librarianship is appropriate for digitizing.

      • Ingrid, sorry if I’m not being clear.

        I’m just trying to point out that libraries are *already* online, and succeeding in a lot of different ways. This is happening in addition to all the in-person traffic, not at its expense. We’ve already shown that we’re capable of doing both. Anyone who says “You know what the problem is? It’s that libraries aren’t going online,” clearly hasn’t seen either a) the importance of actual face-to-face services and b) all the ways libraries are making a difference with their virtual patrons.

        Like the others in this thread (and on the Twitters), I’d encourage Mr. Rosenblum to spend some time learning just how much libraries are doing – and just how much no one else is doing it. I hope he’ll learn something from the experience, and become yet another library champion. Thanks for taking the lead in responding to his piece.

      • Toby, I’m sorry. The stupid WordPress “reply” function doesn’t always make it clear who I’m replying to. I was replying to Mr. Rosenblum.

    • Meagan says:

      Hello and good evening Mr. Rosenblum.

      First, your state “there may in face be a few people in NY who can’t afford access to the web, but my guess is that this would be a very small percentage indeed.”
      Here I have an article (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/31/internet-access-american-households_n_2049123.html), from the HuffPo, stating that 20% of Americans do not, in fact, have internet access in their homes. That doesn’t seem like such a small percentage to me.
      Okay, but you said few people in New York. Fine, let’s see about New York… There is this article (http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/computers-internet-access-lacking-bronx-homes-article-1.1309227). This article states an even HIGHER percentage of NEW YORKERS without internet in their home. In fact, 1/3 of Bronx households do not have internet access. And this leaves children at a disadvantage. Within the article it also states, “Across the city, roughly 40% of black New Yorkers live without a computer, followed by nearly 30% of Hispanics.
      According to the report, 60% of households without broadband Internet have annual incomes lower than $30,000″. Wow, those are hardly small percentages.

      Next time you want to start a debate about libraries I urge you to do your research first. If you need help, I’m sure the reference librarians at the rebuilt Donnel Public Library would be happy to help you, right after you sign up for your very first library card.

      One last thing– how very smart of you to ask a librarian if Dislocative is a word. I used your ever so trusted dictionary.com to find this: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/dislocative

      Have a great day.

    • Jason says:

      Hey Mike, I don’t think you read past the first paragraph.

    • mlarents says:

      Mr. Rosenblum,

      While the internet has certainly changed our global society, I think you’ll find that libraries have done an excellent job adapting. Buying some computers, hooking them up to wifi, and setting them in a room does not make a library (nor does stacks of books equate with one). I think if you were to venture into a library you might see something a little more profound take place.

      I work at a library in a children’s hospital and last week I helped a woman draft an email to her family in Texas letting them know what was going on. She had never used a mouse before and I had to guide her through right and left clicks, drag and drop, and a host of other things. When the email sent, she kissed me on the cheek and thanked me wholeheartedly.

      Every single day, I have new patrons come in who have just been given terrible news. Because of our extensive consumer health collection (materials available in print and through our online databases), I’m able to provide access to information that could very literally save someone’s life.

      A few weeks ago, a set of parents asked for help choosing a book. Their child was being taken off life-support and wanted to read something to him before. I am not a doctor, not a nurse, but my job absolutely relieves pain. Libraries have yet to stop being meaningful, I implore you to venture into one and see for yourself.

    • Coral says:

      Mr. Rosenblum, I live in Alaska. There are communities here where there literally is no internet access except at the library. (And those libraries pay over $1000/month for what you’d consider pitiful bandwidth–1.5Mbps, total, for the whole organization/community.) A quick Google search* will show that broadband access and computer ownership are not a reality for all Americans–over 50% of households making under $30k are without a computer. Even then, only 90% of households that DO own a computer have broadband.

      Also, as a librarian who spends large portions of my days making websites, I would say that libraries ARE embracing the web. I would also disagree with the notion that curating the web is a useful enterprise: there’s too much, and it changes too quickly; we are all funded by our local communities, in one form or another, so even a massive collaborative project to curate everything, while probably possible, would fail to provide strong local ROI and would therefore be doomed from the outset. (Some librarians put work into small curated lists on specific topics, and some of those lists are fabulous. But they require constant vigilance to keep up to date and useful. I think it is a losing battle.)

      That said, libraries do curate some fantastic resources–far more authoritative resources than the open web–and that is a clear societal benefit, even if it is not one you personally choose to take advantage of. (Side note: I think that’s really too bad. As a writer, the resources you’d have access to, if you used your library, would make your life easier. Well-researched pieces of writing are also a societal good, I think.)

      Speaking just about technology–because I am not a particularly bookish librarian, but rather one who lives with technology all day–I don’t know if I can impress upon you how much help people need and how vital libraries’ services are. Just to give one example, I teach college students (and the public) how to use email pretty regularly–something so basic, yet so necessary for modern life.

      You may not know this, but paper job applications are a thing of the past, even for minimum-wage jobs. Basic computer knowledge–including how to use web forms and how to send and receive email, at the very minimum–is absolutely vital, now. At the same time, places to get computer training, especially at a price that an unemployed or minimum wage worker can afford, are scarce. Kids should be learning these things in school, but in my experience, many don’t. So libraries fill this need.

      The library is the only place you can go, in our modern world, with any question you might have–from serious research questions for articles you might want to write, to “how do I send an email?”–and get an answer, with no price, no strings attached, no attempt to get you to buy something. I think this is amazing. It makes me really sad to read articles that downplay this clear societal benefit.

      *True, these statistics came from searching the open web. There’s a chance that they’re flawed.

      • Thank you for the non-NY perspective, Coral. Very much needed. I’m not surprised that librarians are adding so much to this post. I thank you all for this. You’ve excelled in places that I couldn’t even pretend to talk about.

      • Jennifer says:

        Non-urban here also – I work in a small town in Wisconsin (service pop. 23,000). We’re only a couple hours from Chicago and Milwaukee, but many, many people in our service population do not have internet. Homeless, ex-offenders (our town has the county jail), seniors who don’t own a computer, and farmers who can’t get service in their areas. We also provide internet service for summer visitors passing through and one that nobody seems to have mentioned – people whose computers have crashed! When your computer/printer breaks and you desperately need that one last document, the library is the only place to go in our community. Not to mention copies, faxes, phone books, etc. Lots of businesspeople drop in to use our wifi – we’re a much more pleasant place than McDonald’s. As children’s librarian, I had over 11,000 kids, teens, and parents at my programs last year and circulation of our children’s items averages over 9,000-12,000 a month. We also provide a safe after school environment for kids whose parents are working and meeting space for local groups like Rotary, Kiwanis, Headstart, and social services. We are also fully aware of the internet’s capabilities as our library has a website, facebook, pinterest, etc. and we offer computer classes on a range of topics from ebay to basic skills.

        This is, of course, irrelevant to the discussion when Mr. Rosenblum appears to be only interested in whether or not wealthy, white, urban middle-aged men find the library useful, but I think the 50+ people to whom we issue new library cards every month would disagree with his assessment.

      • Your comment about computers crashing and patrons using the library because of that reminded me of something. After Hurricane Sandy, the library was a HUGE lifeline for those people without computers, internet access, and even phones.
        Your comment about programming and social media presence further illuminates the fact that libraries are already doing more than Mr. Rosenblum can imagine. I wish he would have done some research before he wrote his damaging and uninformed article.
        Thanks for commenting.

      • keelay says:

        Here’s another statistic that has stuck in my brain since my MLIS intro course: after Hurricane Katrina, a single library in Mississippi completed over 45,000 FEMA applications for patrons in the month following the hurricane.

      • Wow. Wow. I’d also like to draw attention to the work that Urban Librarians Unite has done in NYC post-Sandy:
        Thanks for sharing those statistics! Amazing.

    • LoveMyLibraryinPA says:

      I am a 42 year old woman, white, college grad, graduate student, wife, mother of 1. I have a professional job. Until just this past year I could not afford internet at home. I have a hand-me-down laptop. I have no “luxuries” like tv, cell phone, etc. I live totally within my means but it is a stretch. Finally someone offered internet for $20/month and I had that. Now I am faced with losing it because the price is going up more than I can afford. I need it for school, for my son’s school, for paying bills that will CHARGE me to mail in a payment, to look for better paying jobs, etc.

      I think anyone who doesn’t understand such things should truly give up all their money, all their toys, come live with me for a month.

      We’ll visit the library together, a lot. And its not to google a stock price or to google something stupid to win an argument about trivia. I just spent an entire semester “assessing” online information sources. I love anyone who works at a library that can show me things (information sources mostly) that are better.

      I don’t go to the library for the internet or even the books (although I do use these things since I’m there ANYWAY). I go to the library for help, for people who know their shit and are there because they want to help. I’ve never met a ssshh’ing librarian. I’ve never met an unfriendly librarian. The librarians in my town know my son better than anyone he comes across in the course of his week, even better than people at the school.

      Not signing my name because I want to BE a librarian in a year or so and I don’t want this to show up in google. :p

      I promise that every time I read some “libraries are dead” piece to find 5 places to post my praise and appreciation of libraries.

    • Karen says:

      I would like too reply to this by explaining my expereince of patrons use of the Internet in a library in the UK. I worked as a volunteer at the job club in my local library. This involves helping patrons search for and apply for jobs online. i naively thought at first that there cannot be that many people who dont have access to the Internet and dont know how to search. How wrong I was. The job club was packed with people who were unable to search by themselves and who did not own a computer because they could not afford to. Here is where the library provides a vital service. These peole had to search for jobs online as part of their arrangement with the job centre, if they could not prove they had been serching for jobs, they would not get their benefits. Without the help of a trained Librarian (me as a volunteer), they would have been in a lot of trouble.Libraries provide a vital service to the community.

  2. Abby says:

    Preach it, sister! You hit on so many great points here and I hope that the rich white guy can stand climbing down off his high horse long enough to actually consider what you have said here.
    Criticism of libraries coming from people who haven’t set foot on one in years is one of my biggest peeves as an information professional: authors like this assume that because they haven’t been inside the library since they were children, nothing about them could have changed. Clearly the library missy be worthless if you can’t see its value from across the street atop an ivory tower. Only poor people need to use libraries now, so we might as well just burn all the books and tell the poor to get jobs and buy themselves a laptop, right?

  3. Ingrid, I will be in Brooklyn the next time I am in NY. Get ready to read me a story!

    • Wait until you hear “Pete the Cat”. It will blow your mind.

      • Erin says:

        “My Buttons, my buttons, my 4 groovy buttons…”
        Sorry couldn’t resist, has become a favorite with every class I visit in my outreaches to local schools…for free…yes another service provided by your friendly neighborhood public librarian!

      • Certain people don’t value libraries, but did the librarians cry? Goodness no. We just keep walking along and singing our song.

  4. Access to information isn’t just about the physical connection to resources. A room full of books is useless to a person who can’t read, and a room full of computers is useless to a person who can’t use a mouse or keyboard, comprehend what they’re seeing, or think critically about it. Where do you think these skills come from? Do you think babies are born with them? I can assure you, they’re not, or I wouldn’t have a job.

    I am a librarian. A huge part of my job is providing basic assistance to patrons who don’t know how to use a computer, or who are afraid of computers. This isn’t just a rich vs. poor issue. There’s a generational gap as well. Due to the speed of technological change, many people who had strong communications and research skills 10 or 20 years ago feel like they’ve been dropped on the surface of an alien world. When you come to our library, we don’t care who you are, how much you know, or how much money you have. You don’t have to be a child, or in a low income bracket, or a college student, to come for help at the public library.

    Prince or pauper, *we will help you anyway.* It’s a totally democratic institution.

    Let’s talk about what that means.

    Every day my library helps people participate in online classes, apply for jobs, file their taxes, set up an email account, change account settings, confirm whether a bank website is real, research health information, etc. I’ve helped an 85-year-old grandma write her first email; helped a physically disabled patron use a keyboard to access his online pay stub; helped the former owner of a Radio Shack franchise understand how YouTube works; and helped someone who recently got a job apply for a reduction in her unemployment benefits. And that was this week.

    Maybe it doesn’t seem world-changing, but who would do it, if we shut our doors? Think about all the days and weeks, all the people, all the little things that are just a little easier and better and less frightening. Think about all the times you call a kid or and adult child for help with the computer, and then multiply that by about 14,000 (for my library alone). Isn’t that worth it? By the way, that has almost nothing to do with books, or Internet access, or apps or whatever. That’s just helping because people asked.

    But you mentioned the Internet, so let’s talk Internet.

    In Florida, where I live, you are now required to file applications for unemployment online. After implementing this law, the state government significantly reduced the staff at the unemployment office. You can’t get phone assistance from them anymore. The same people who think libraries are dead are usually the first people to say those who’ve lost their jobs should get rid of “luxuries” like Internet access. Try providing PCs or phones for free in their homes–your ears will be full of the words “entitlement” and “Obama phone” and “bootstraps” before the first unit is delivered.

    So the jobless come to the public library to apply for benefits, and claim their weeks, and eventually claim reemployment. Did we get extra training to serve as social workers? Of course not. Did we receive extra funding to hire more staff, or give raises to the current staff for the increased responsibility? LOL, my sides.

    Are you going to sit next to a single mother and high school dropout from rural Florida while she fills out an 8 page online form for TANF (welfare), SNAP (food stamps), unemployment, the FAFSA (the application for student loans), a job application? Are you going to explain what “falsifying” means? Cause I spend something like 15-20 hours a week doing that. This is in between the, you know, “outdated” stuff I do, like cataloging books and helping people find the latest Lee Child (it’s “A Wanted Man,” IIRC).

    The reason we didn’t get those raises, incidentally, is because a lot of powerful public officials feel the same way as you, Mr. Rosenblum.

    It isn’t just that. The schools in my area are terrible. It’s a complicated, community-level issue. The kids here don’t have access to the middle class through the school system. A lot of parents choose to home-school, but many of them struggle with science, technology and math skills themselves. I was able to design a science, technology and math (STEM) summer camp so these kids could enjoy some of the fun, simple science activities that you might remember from school. For example, our campers got to correspond with one of the engineers who designed the Curiosity rover. Some of the parents cried, because they had never been able to provide that kind of thing for their kids. One mom told me her son and daughter spent an entire summer evening designing Mars rovers after camp.

    But who needs it, right?

    The problem isn’t that libraries aren’t keeping up. I think that considering the lack of resources and support, libraries have been pretty nimble, and most libraries are eager to add the services patrons want. I know mine is. The problem I see is a lack of community support.

    All kinds of people can benefit from libraries. But the people who choose not to use libraries are the most likely to be guiding the conversation. They’re politicians and media commentators. They’ve never had a problem finding information. People bring it to them all the time, for free, or they know exactly where to look for it, because they’re well-educated. They look at the struggles of libraries and see algebra. They wonder: “Why don’t they offer (more) ebooks? Why don’t they add Starbucks? Where are the mobile apps? Why are there so many books? OMG, they’re so outdated!”

    I work in a very poor and rural community. Around here, Internet access runs out down past the dog track. I’m not kidding. That’s the line. If we spend money developing a mobile app, nobody would use it. Ebooks are nice for the few people who use them, but you don’t need a $100 e-reader to read a regular book. I need more money for books. I need better broadband infrastructure, new carpet and keyboards that don’t get gunk in them. I need money so we can restore bookmobile service and bring books to the projects. I need more training for my staff so that we can fight poverty and ignorance with resources and information.

    I look at the library and I see arithmetic.

    Incidentally, if you’re a billionaire who never uses the library, or you hate all taxes and social programs, you should be happy the library is here, because every child whose illiterate or immigrant parents care enough to take him here is a child with that much more opportunity. That’s a child who is that much more likely to graduate high school and progress to a college or career. Everyone we help with a job application is someone potentially off the welfare rolls. Every college student we help with a paper is someone who may get a better GPA and get closer to a good job. I don’t know of another social service that is so completely about giving people a hand up, instead of a handout.

    And we do it for next to nothing. My library’s budget is around $250,000 a year. That’s everything: books, salaries, benefits, computers, tech support, cataloging, printing, office supplies, electricity, science camp, even the ebooks! One of our best and most helpful full-time employees makes $19,000 annually. With my master’s degree in information science, I make less than $30,000–before taxes. Because that’s what our community can afford. We’re lucky we haven’t had to face cuts. It’s a near miss every year when the money’s allocated in Tallahassee.

    This is turning into quite a rant, so I’ll wrap it up. When I hear someone say “libraries are dead, because Google” the mental image I get is an aristocrat at a banquet table saying “Who needs food? Don’t the servants bring it every day at dinner time?” It doesn’t sound clever or progressive or edgy. It sounds ignorant, and when it turns into a call to cut library funding, it sounds even worse.

    I’ll close by saying that I spent time in the developing world, and recently. I was a teacher at a girls’ boarding school in rural Indonesia. The girls weren’t allowed phones and couldn’t have afforded them anyway. Talk about a community that was desperate for books! But more than that, they were desperate for knowledge, and you need more than a book (or the Internet) for that.

    • Amen. What I often say about libraries is this, “If not us, then who?”
      In addition, the library does so much for so many. And we do it without the luxury of a full staff or a budget that’s proportional to the work we do.

    • P.C. Sweeney says:

      It would be amazing if you wrote this kind of thing for a newspaper or magazine! This is absolutely fantastic.

  5. Mustapha Garba says:

    Mr. Rosenblum,

    Reading your article over on the Huffington Post, I was struck by a few things.

    It seems this “transition” to “not exactly a library” may be news to you, but even here in Nigeria a library is no longer JUST a repository of physical books. The primary function of a library is still being fulfilled, just in new ways using new means.

    Secondly, that “explosion of mobile connectivity in Africa” you speak of? Grossly overrated, and I was born and live in Nigeria, THE fastest growing mobile telephony market on the continent. Never mind that I’m sacrificing my eyes’ integrity right now on the altar of keeping abreast of information, what serious scholarly endeavour could be undertaken on a phone (in this case a Blackber

    • Interesting comment, but it got cut off! Please come back and finish your thought. We’d all like to hear it.

      • Mustapha Garba says:

        Ouch!

        There was a lot more I typed, which basically boils down to “the library is NOT just for the poor of means, and even if the majority of patrons are financially poor, that just makes it more important, not less!”

      • Thanks for coming back! I can’t say how much it bothers me when people claim that the library is only for the financially poor. It’s not, but even if it were, the problem with that is WHAT exactly? I’m glad you came back to finish your comment. Thank you!

  6. A friend linked to this on FB. I read anything about libraries so I went into it without real using that the author was Rosenblum, an elitist I encountered 7 years ago at a blog meetup where he repeatedly preached the gospel of new media without realizing that he has financial and social advantages. He strikes me as a very entertaining, enthusiastic man who is tone deaf to the needs and means of the masses. I keep waiting for him to run for something.
    http://mycropht.wordpress.com/2006/09/09/thoughts-on-the-wkrn-meetup/

    • Interesting. What bums me out about Mr. Rosenblum is that he seems like a genuinely nice man who’s, unfortunately, really out of touch with what life is like for most people. Thanks for sharing.

  7. Erin says:

    Thank you so much for writing this article. I don’t have anything more astute to share than the other detractors of Mr. Rosenblum’s piece/position, but wanted to say thank you anyway. We are a family that tries incredibly hard to maintain a more balanced approach to technology and raising children, and a weekly visit to the library always–well, usually–offers enough reading material for my oldest to get through the week, computer time that is age-appropriate (and a treat!), and an opportunity to learn about and interact with many different kinds of people. And, we can afford a computer and the wireless connection to the internet because of the zillions of dollars I’m saving by using the library. I know we are privileged indeed.

  8. I am, of course, reading. And the more I read the more I come to realize that the passion that librarians have and the importance of libraries in general is a very good story that is being very badly told. This is truly ironic, as you are all ‘storytellers’ if not first, then certainly innately. What begins to occur to me is how to marry that skill to a better way to ‘popularize the brand’ so to speak.

    The first thing that occurs to me (off the cuff), is that you need a much higher public profile. One way to do this would be to launch a centralized online site and a Youtube channel dedicated to libraries worldwide. The online video space is today what cable was 20 years ago – that is, just getting started and eager for content.

    Again, off the top of my head, I think it would be relatively inexpensive to put a webcam in your library and live webcast the book reading you do for kids. Multiply this by 100 and you have the makings of a Youtube channel. You could open this for ‘contributions’ and split the revenue with YouTube, or you could sell ads to accomplish the same end.

    If people come to the library to use the Internet, why not have the library come to them over the same medium? Just thinking out loud.

    • Do you think libraries don’t have Youtube channels? I can’t imagine a central library Youtube channel considering the number of libraries in the world and their different missions.
      I’m curious to know why you think libraries don’t already have a web presence?

      • Jennifer says:

        One of the things libraries do best is serve the needs of their individual populations. When people come to the library to my storytimes, it’s not just for the experience of me reading a book to them and dancing around (fabulous fun though that is). It’s also my discussions with parents about their educational and developmental concerns, reader’s advisory, word of mouth marketing. I direct them to needed services and connections in the community. When people leave my storytimes, they take ideas for early literacy projects at home, books handpicked by an expert (me!) and an overview of programs coming up that they might want to attend. They also have the warmth of a community connection and knowing the town as a whole cares about their families and children. Libraries are the ultimate “buy local” venue.

      • I’m fine with my library’s YouTube storytime videos, but from an early literacy point of view, attendance at storytime is important. Face to face time. And we get plenty of attendance at storytime. So much that we have to turn people away. I wonder what would be the appeal of a webcam storytime? We have examples of song and books on our YouTube channel, but they are more for the parent to mirror than to replace storytime. Kids don’t need any MORE time in front of a screen. They have enough already.

    • I realized I just gave you a real half-assed response, but today I’m at work. I’m on my lunch break and it’s been nuts in the library already. Miss Ingrid needs a break and I’ll be back to talk later.

    • Thanks for listening and having an open mind (if I make take up a little more space on Ingrid’s blog). A lot of our passion–or at least mine–comes from having this conversation frequently with people who haven’t used the library in a while. I have it every year (usually successfully) with state officials and local media.

      Maybe it seems like we’re having trouble getting the word out to certain people, but it’s hard when the gatekeepers are against libraries or don’t know what we do. You’re so powerful in the media–I hope you’ll write another op-ed about what you’ve learned about libraries. Not just about how we need to promote them more, but about what we actually do and the purposes we serve. It is such a great story!

      You Tube channels and self advocacy can certainly make a difference, but I’ve found that the best thing foir us is positive mainstream media coverage. I mean, advocacy websites aren’t that useful if people don’t know about them. Anyway if you or anyone would like to chat more about it you can always email me nvbinder@gmail.com.

    • P.C. Sweeney says:

      Popularize the brand!? WTF!? My library can’t get any more popular! What the EFF would I do if it was more popular!! I have no more seats to put people in, I have no more computers to put people on, I have no more staff than my already over stretched staff, I have no more bandwidth on my wifi, I don’t know what I would do if this library was more popular. My library is full every.single.day. Hundreds of people coming through our 4,000 square foot library every day. Over 120K in materials being checked out every year, over 173k people walking in every year, over 4k in volunteer hours last year to help manage it all. No, Mr. Rosenblum, the problem is not that our libraries are not popular, its that you don’t hold the popular view. I definitely don’t have time to put together a youtube channel, I’m too busy helping the people you are out of touch with.

      Also, as a library (government organization) the law is pretty strict about ads. That’s why you don’s see ads on government websites. Clearly you are also out of touch with a lot of things in the world.

      • Not much to say other than “here, here!” Wow.
        Like I’ve said before, my classes are full to the brim. I have to turn people away. I wish Mr. Rosenblum would come to the library, but if he doesn’t, we have plenty to keep us busy. We have enough patrons.

    • lokimotive says:

      This is such a bizarre and baffling comment, that I’m having a difficult time even wrapping my head around how to approach it. It’s like I’ve encountered an object that exists outside of Euclidean geometry, somehow bending space and time while still existing in this dimension. This comment seems to come from view of the world so fundamentally different from reality that my brain can’t possibly comprehend it.

      Why would you think that we don’t already have an online presence?
      Why would you think that libraries are not using YouTube?
      Why would you think that YouTube is eager enough for content that they would partner with libraries to produce content?

      Also, why in the world would you think that librarians are innately storytellers?
      Do you know what librarians are? Are librarians something different in your universe?

    • LoveMyLibraryInPA says:

      I am SO happy you are still participating!!!!

      When I was young and full of myself and full of ideas and full of energy, I used to think I could look at a situation, a business, a person and have wonderful ideas and “fixes”. It has taken me 20 years to learn that to truly be helpful I first have to understand and to understand I have to walk in other people’s shoes. I still have that tendency to let ideas and “recommendations” run away with me. It is another reason I am delving into librarianship as a career.

      In a library, doing what the customer needs, you will constantly be reminded that the newest waves, the next big idea, and all the “popularizing” you could possibly do will not mean a thing if the needs of the customers aren’t being met. Is a story-time youtube channel meeting the customers need? Customers of which library? Is it just to have a story read to a child? Because there are tons of websites that do that already – some with celebrity readers. Is it because the child gets to sit in a room with other children; feel the wonder because they see it in another’s face; meet a new, caring, grown up; get away from yet another screen and interact with a real person? How many will stay away because there is a camera for youtube? How many will come just because there is a camera for youtube?

      I think you are exactly right when you say that libraries have a great story that is being badly told. You also sound like you are full of great ideas. I wonder if we could do, say, or show you something to get you to take some time, go undercover, and hang out in a library. Make up a desperate, fictitious need. Pretend for a day you don’t have any of the conveniences you take for granted. Go see who can help you the most – and notice, its not just that you will get help but you will learn how to help yourself.

      Albert Einstein: The only thing that you absolutely have to know, is the
      location of the library.

      I really loved what Greg said above about finding things he didn’t know he needed. I think that is the best thing about libraries which requires that they still have books. Serendipity! Its just now I am discovering that there is a lot of work going on behind the scenes to enable serendipity – selection, collocation and cataloging (ugh!) and all kinds of things librarians do that no one ever sees but creates the experience that is unique to library users.

      Until you’ve jumped in, you aren’t going to know what the water feels like.

  9. Greg Stolze says:

    I’m surprised no one has brought up the issue of surprise.

    If I go online and google something, I’m likely to find what I’m looking for (eventually). But google is not good at surprising me. Whereas I can walk into my library, amble over to the “new nonfiction” shelf and find a book in which an anthropologist embeds herself in a charismatic American church to observe their prayer practices. I had no idea this book existed until I stumbled onto it, and the library — a physical place I can go to wander without being lost — is where I can go to stumble on books on antiquities theft, or brain anomalies, or any number of things I wouldn’t spontaneously pop into a search engine.

    It’s an issue, I suppose, of leadership. I often think a leader is someone who (for good or ill) shows you the thing you wanted that you didn’t know you wanted. (This is why crap movies arise from focus groups. They only show you what you THINK will make you happy, not what will surprise you with happiness. No leadership.) Walking into a library, I trust the librarians and, moreover, the structure of the enterprise, to lead me to something that, on my own, I would not have discovered.

    -G.

    • Yes! The element of surprise in the library. Whether it’s a well-read librarian making a suggestion or the joys of wondering the stacks, it’s amazing what we can find.

  10. Joanne says:

    I’m an academic librarian in Eastern Washington and head the interlibrary loan department. Let me just say even for the students who have made it into college the library is a very much needed resource. Can Google get you everything? Taking a look at the 23, 000 research requests that are borrowed and lent on an annual basis and the costs associated with all those requests (not to mention paying the copyright fees) I’d hazard a guess that everything you find on Google is certainly not free. Our students and faculty rely on this to further their studies and research and the library doesn’t charge them a dime.

  11. Audrey says:

    On the topic of surprise: Mr. Rosenblum, I encourage you to visit your local library and be surprised. You may think you do not need what the library has to offer, but it can provide something you desperately need, and appear not to realize you are missing. That something is a chance to connect with your community. I mean your entire community, all the diverse people who actually live nearby, and not just an elite segment of your socioeconomic peers. We are all poorer as human beings when we live such stratified lives. Technology makes it even easier for us to do this: to seek out only those who are like us, to see only them, to begin to believe that they are all that exists. It is not just the poor who suffer from being cut off from you and your resources and talents; you suffer, you are less than you could be, by being cut off from the ideas, passions, needs, talents, and values in the rich and diverse world you so readily dismiss. The library is one of the last truly public spaces, where we can connect with each other regardless of our class our background. Ultimately, no screen can be a true substitute for looking into the eyes of a person you never realized you needed to know. Start getting to know your library.

  12. Anna says:

    Perhaps next Mr. Rosenblum can tell us about how tampons are dead (since he doesn’t use them) and offer some ‘off the cuff’ insights on how to improve tampons and make them more relevant to people.

  13. […] Magpie Librarian responded to a recent Huffington Post article by Current TV founder Michael Rosenblum (who recently […]

  14. I’m a Teen Librarian in rural South Carolina. I also pull double duty in our reference department, since we’re a pretty small system with only four branches across the county.

    I can absolutely attest that there are a lot of people in our community who do not have access to a computer or internet at home. In a county like ours, there are a significant number of people without the means to buy a computer or pay for home internet access. 18% of our population lives below the poverty line. I could spend hours telling you stories about how full our computer lab is, or how many people attend our free computer classes (four days a week, two classes a day, on everything from computer basics to web design), or even how many people I encounter on a daily basis who need help even learning how to use a mouse. We don’t have convenient access to government offices that provide assistance and even when our patrons are able to get registered with those offices, those same offices frequently tell them to go to a library to complete certain tasks, without even telling them how to navigate their sites because they don’t have the time or the people to spend time with them. A lot of that falls on us.

    But that isn’t all we do. We provide access to genealogical resources, many of which are not free or even cheap. We also have librarians who are well versed in tracking down these historical documents. We’re a local hub for that here in the South and we have a lot of people who come through our historical room looking for accurate information.

    On my end I work with teens. I run regular craft programming, art programming, a teen writer’s group, a fabulous teen advisory board that regularly develops and runs their own programming, classes on video game design, and not to mention summer reading which hundreds of teens from across our county regularly sign up for. This summer our programming includes classes on forensic science, stage make-up, and survivalism, just to name a few things. We have a teen room that is one of the only safe places in our county for our teens to hang out at outside of school and their homes. Homeschooling is big here, and we provide free classes on technology and software for these students, as well as providing them free access to our computer lab for other purposes. I’m currently developing a program to allow some of our local teens to create, film, and edit their own short films. Yes, using equipment that we own or are able to borrow from our sister libraries. Not all of our teens have access to video cameras, webcams, or even smartphones. A huge portion of my job involves getting to know the local teens so I can better understand what interests them and developing relevant programming.

    We’re not dying. We’re not even on life support.

    As far as PR, sure, libraries could definitely do a better job of advocacy on a mass scale, but that’s a tricky task when you’re talking about a huge number of libraries with vastly different missions and populations. What is necessary and popular in my county is not necessarily going to be the same even a county over. Most of my advocacy happens word of mouth. It’s difficult to gauge what a patron’s need is until you talk to them. This is where librarians excel, because we take the time to get to know our community on a personal level.

  15. […] from his apartment on W. 53rd wasn’t enough of a clue, touts his everyman *cough* status in a comment to Magpie Librarian’s blog post, when he reminds us that he founded a company that was […]

  16. DJ_Librarian says:

    Ingrid, thank you so much for your amazing and passionate article. You’re one top-notch librarian, and it makes me ecstatic to share the same career path with you. :) My library is in a rather prosperous and ever-growing suburb, yet there are still so many people that come to our computer classes covering Microsoft Office products. Our adult librarians and paraprofessionals are always willing to help bring more of our community into the technological world both inside and outside the classroom, and they are always grateful. We also serve an academic community, and many professors want their students to utilize secondary reference sources. Where do we take them? Our Printed Reference section. Yes, we could show them articles on our databases (we do that, too, but we like showing off our Reference books), but if they require print resources, you can’t go wrong with an encyclopedia.

    It saddens me when I hear about those who aren’t utilizing their library, but I’m happy to report that while my library is fairly new in the community, our visitors always show their appreciation. And we’re always getting new visitors every week. If you welcome them, they will come, and you’ve already placed out the welcome mat for Mr. Rosenblum to visit. Bravo, Ingrid, and long live the library.

  17. […] Everyone’s angry about this What is a Library article. […]

  18. […] What We Talk About When We Talk About “IQ:” Algebra and School Quality (must-read) What’s a Library?: Written by a man rich enough to live on W. 53rd St. who’s never been to the l… The Present and Future of Higher Education Harvard takes a beating RPG Rules Sell Better Than […]

  19. […] What’s a Library?: Written by a man rich enough to live on W. 53rd St. who’s never been to the l… […]

  20. […] floor is too high up in your building, you might not venture down enough.  I was more inspired by Ingrid Coleslaw to write this letter.  I encourage others to do so as well.  The library is not  a space for […]

  21. […] and why they matter. Book Riot’s own Rita Meade wrote a beautiful, funny response, as did the Magpie Librarian, Ingrid Henry. Here’s a snippet from Henry’s Twittertastic debate with Rosenblum, to […]

  22. Lizzy says:

    May I just say, you are my hero? ‘Cause you are. :)

  23. Mortimer says:

    Dear Mr. Rosenblum,

    It is very sad for me, an employee of a research library and archive, thinking that individuals believe that all the information they need is on “the web.” As Magpie points out, most in-depth information is not available on the web, but has to be reached via various expensive databases and at times even original paper material needs to be accessed. I can’t begin to describe all the times, all throughout the workweek, I need to correct people about facts they found “on Google” or “the web,” how many times I have to tell them how to access information that is actually helpful and important for them that is not on Google, etc, but in databases one has to either pay for or go use at a library. This can happen many, many times a day and it makes me wonder what kind of place America will become where people think everything can really be answered on Google. If you had ever worked at a library or research center, I think you would find your own comments laughable. I can only think you must pay people to conduct research for you, if you ever have the need to conduct research.

    The fact that print journals and newspapers are going online doesn’t mean they are free, as I would love to read such simple things as old issues of the New York Times, the New Yorker, and other such papers and journals but guess what? I’d have to pay. So to read them I actually have to grab my library card and go to the library or log into their databases remotely. I think part of the issue you might not be aware of (never having been to the library) is that at many libraries you actually don’t have to go there physically, but can access databases remotely with a library card. Finally, I know many scholars and academics in New York who after university affiliations continue to pay huge amounts to their related schools simply to keep their library cards to these institutions – the databases and other resources they provide are that important to them. When you think of this, it’s amazing and wonderful that the New York Public Library is so free and has so many resources for people who are really engaged in deep research. Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for the New York Times offering all its articles for free, could you do something about that for the public? As part of a New York Times affiliated company, maybe you could bring it up? Maybe the NY Times could pay Google many millions of dollars and make them free and accessible? Until then I guess the library will have to provide.

    I am purposely concentrating on academic researchers and professors in my comments (which I think many will agree are hardly making the big bucks). I believe that speaking about other parts of the community, the underprivileged, the immigrant communities, and other communities discussed, has already been answered in previous comments by other librarians, and answered well. I’m also bothered by your insinuations an institution for the poor is without value, nor do I think the library is an institution for the poor more than for anyone else who wants to go. As I, who am not poor, do on a regular basis.

  24. […] by a librarian confronting a wealthy businessman's claim that "the library is dead." What?s a Library?: Written by a man rich enough to live on W. 53rd St. who?s never been to the libra… […]

  25. […] that he had the privilege of weighing in on the importance of libraries, while my patrons did not (http://magpielibrarian.wordpress.com/2013/05/12/whats-a-library-written-by-a-man-rich-enough-to-live&#8230 ;). Natalie suggested setting up a simple Tumblr where people could share positive stories about […]

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