From time to time you’ll find an article claiming that libraries are doomed, libraries are back, and libraries are hip, libraries empower, libraries are full of homeless, full of perverts, full of librarian hipsters and thankfully most of these articles are full of it.
The daily work of a librarian and the culture of libraries vary greatly from library to library, region to region, country to country, multiverse to multiverse from time to time. At best the flow of these kinds of pop articles keeps the discussion about libraries going and at worst they give something of an impression that things are one way or the other. Yet we are all connected, especially online.
What I think is behind the ebb and flow of these boom or bust pop articles is the same force behind the sociocultural commentary of personal characteristics of librarians. This force I reckon is the wake of how Library World is emerging in what is generally referred to as the Information Society. And to see this play out we have to take a step back and see the larger picture.
But the way, this isn’t what I’m taking about, but I do like the song.
“Here are entered works on the concept of a society whose primary activity is the production and communication of information by means of computer networks and other advanced technology.”
That is a fine premise for our purposes because it is easy to understand and quickly defines the substance of the matter. Thus I say, taking the premise of a society predicated on “networked production and communication” as the definitive element of the Information Society, the seemingly superficial interaction betwixt libraries and society, in my view, takes on the meaning of a normalizing factor.
This is the kind of Internet Society I’m talking about, one predicated on Information .
This sounds like I’m making more of what we do than it actually is, that is OK. Taking the day to day and understanding how it works always sounds this way. I leave it to you to decide if this is over intellectualization or a substantive idea.
When you are helping the nice patron get an email address or apply for a job online or find a tax form, you are doing work under the domain of the Information Society. Seemingly obvious yet, we are quick to pass over the meaning of our expertise in doing so.
“An information society is a society where the creation, distribution, use, integration and manipulation of information is a significant economic, political, and cultural activity. The aim of the information society is to gain competitive advantage internationally, through using information technology (IT) in a creative and productive way. The knowledge economy is its economic counterpart, whereby wealth is created through the economic exploitation of understanding. People who have the means to partake in this form of society are sometimes called digital citizens. This is one of many dozen labels that have been identified to suggest that humans are entering a new phase of society.
The markers of this rapid change may be technological, economic, occupational, spatial, cultural, or some combination of all of these. Information society is seen as the successor to industrial society. Closely related concepts are the post-industrial society (Daniel Bell), post-fordism, post-modern society, knowledge society, telematic society, Information Revolution, liquid modernity, and network society (Manuel Castells).” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Information_society
Helping patrons get online is the domain of a new social organization in the sense of aiding in entry. When you help patrons do these simple things online, email or fill out a form, you are aiding in their participation in this larger extension of society and arguably internet citizenship. While it may seem simplistic to the average geek, skills like emailing and filling out online forms open up the world for some people.
It isn’t always a case of pebkac or a lack of RTFM either, lots of research has been invested in Human Computer Interaction in an effort to make technology less aggravating and more intuitive. This goes for websites as well, never mind walking through the patron on the phone who is trying to download an eBook to an eReader five minutes before your shift ends.
If you are the geek in your family and you’ve fixed many a computer for family and friend, or if you are an IT person you too will know there are very smart people out there that get frustrated over things geeks can figure out in minutes even after they RTFM. FYI, PC Load Letter mean you need more letter size paper, no big thing. What I’m suggesting is that we are in a form, societies default geeks.
Society, Information Style Divide
Addressing the digital divide is an attempt at mitigating the issues of digital illiteracy which in an Information Society is the same as what we’d normally take illiteracy to mean in society. Just how far can you get these days without being computer savvy? How much of life are you missing if you aren’t?
Some of us take for granted that we Skyped with our parents miles away. Technology now connects our social world and yet some will never get the pleasure of video chatting with a faraway loved ones because of a lack of resources and skill, two things libraries are good at addressing.
The Common Good
I think the library is part of the way the Information Society expands itself, arguably in terms as a continuation of public education, perhaps even as a common good to facilitate a community value which in turns fosters a stronger society. Mind you this is only an opinion to frame librarianship in the larger context of society and how the profession manifest itself in an Information Society, I hedge going beyond that idea.
The ability for a society to address those falling behind is not the work of charity, or remedial efforts for the incompetent. It is a continuation of access to the competencies of adulthood in this new-found society. Basic access to this online society does have a material cost and the library is there help collectively offset this cost and in turn creates an efficiency by creating more online participation. Like the way email offers us paperless billing, access to eGoverment forms, education, etc. help people become more efficient.
This sounds like tech support, and defining as such is not the best definition in my view, a better fit might be socialization or normalization. Those two terms “socialization” and “normalization” are used in the spirit of becoming acquainted with social technology norms. There is more to it than knowing all caps is yelling.
The Ebb and Flow of Roles
This takes us back to the social articles regarding what it is we librarians dress. What I think would be a more fruitful discussion is one of holding our library leaders feet to the fire when it comes to living up to our values. Wearing geek clothes is a symbolic gesture at an association of values championed by an techy avant garde subculture.
There is a big difference between the Suicidal Tendencies crowd and the Blink 182 crowd in punk, as there is between the Poseur hipster geek and living the life of experimenting with the permutations and implications of technology and science fiction. Trust you I, I’m no aficionado on all things geek and while I don’t care about fashion shows, I see no harm in them. I just take issue with feigning the authenticity of a subculture as a means to an end, another marketing short cut. Libraries need people that can engage and advocate with the social world of the internet and do meaningful things online. Let your skills do the talking.
Freedom to Think
Intellectual freedom for libraries tends to focus on nervous parents fearing Harry Potter is promoting Satanism. That is a radical interpretation, at worse laughable but at best worthy of some intellectual answer. Regardless of what that answer might be, what is wrong with having the Satanic Bible or any other religious book in the library?
The notion of judgement free exploration of ideas is central to a healthy democratic social milieu, I’m taking that as a given I grant you.
That such a social scene as a library affords a peaceful coexistence of contradictory views is a value for all and that extends to the Information Society as well. Net Neutrality, domestic spying, and online privacy are, I argue, just as big an issue for librarians as internet filters, and eBooks. Just as showing a patron how to participate online expands their horizons, we have to protect those horizons because they are extension of the social competencies and I argue part of the social contract we took as values in our profession. The free and private exchanges of ideas have and always been central to librarianship and this is a value well suited to be forged online.
Accessing the Double Edged Sword
For some the internet becomes the very thing that reduces the mission of libraries into a doomed plight. In general, the argument rests on technological determinism, for example libraries distribute content and content can controlled by licensing thus freezing libraries out of content by price. This will happen because it is more efficient for publishers to do the lending than libraries. Another variant is that “everything is online” so who needs libraries?
Technological determinism, is a bad card to play. The internet can be a plethora of information to test assumptions of the world or an echo chamber. Everything online feels like a double edged sword. I grant you that Wikipedia is awesome if you grant me that lots of the citations that make the articles are behind pay-walls, the same for the sources behind blogs and other free news sites. Libraries can help with pay-walls. But that does goes to the value of the person doing the seeking and this is another way I see libraries helping with socialization in the Information Society via bibliographic instruction.
The eBook book dilemma seems worse for the publishers in my estimation. It is far easier for people to pirate a book than to deal with the hassle of the library (thank you DRM) or buying it the book online or I should say getting a license for the book and being beholden to what The Man says in most cases.
That goes for academic journals as well. If you think a scientist isn’t going to share an article to help stop cancer or whatever they are researching because it would be a breach of copyright, you are delusional.
By the way, on the book front, we still can get hard copies of books, we still can buy them cheaply, they will get circulated and people tend to get in line and read something else until they get what they want. Hell, people can donate brand new copies and we’ll circulate them, life for libraries will go on.
The day publishers go digital and refuse to play with libraries would be the day publishers lose the income from libraries all together and they don’t seem to want to do that. Money is money, word. We’ll just have to see what happens with proprietary content born digital…I think it’ll just end up pirated if it isn’t in the library, far better to make a hard copy and force someone to scan the damn thing if you want to play that game.
In neither condoning nor condemning piracy I offer that there is a need for something of a financially sustainable and viable system of pricing eBooks and journal value. And I’d rather people borrow from the library in a timely manner than pirate, because everyone wins.
I doubt the articles that prognosticate the death of libraries should be considered more than lay opinion, which may be right or wrong, just consider the source. The doom of libraries seems to be driven by a perception that a) technology is in the driver seat instead of human values and b) the internet eventually will make libraries redundant.
I take the view of the latter as missing the point of how the commodification of information in needed to sustain itself and hold social determinism and values trump the idea of technological determinism making libraries redundant.
Nor do I see much value in preaching to the choir about how awesome we are, we seem pretty convinced of our self-worth, the question is demonstratively convincing others to invest in us. And if we are claiming allegiance to tech subculture, represent and stop fronting which means laying plain our role in the Information Society as an extension of our values, and acting on them.