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 dead. Seriously, 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 have “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