Tuesday, June 23, 2015


I guess it is my fault that I found John Palfrey’s book, Bibliotech:  Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google (Basic Books, 2015) somewhat disappointing.  I was looking for the very thing Palfrey says his book is not:  a paean to the libraries of the past offering a nostalgic, wistful, sepia-toned wish for a time now long gone.  He does admit that there is much to celebrate and love “about the libraries of the past,” but he is administering here what he calls “a dose of tough love.”  How can these institutions survive and even thrive in the burgeoning information age?  That is the question Palfrey seeks to answer.

From the start, Palfrey makes clear he is a “feral,” a “nonlibrarian who ends up working in a library.”  He believes the institutions are at risk “because we have forgotten how essential they are” in this age of Google and Wikipedia.  He calls libraries essential cogs in the wheels of democracy, and believes their presence on the American landscape is just as important now as when Andrew Carnegie was donating the funds to build these secular temples across the land.  Of course, in the information age, what we have lost is the ability to filter the information.  Everything screams at the same volume, so how do we know what is important?  Librarians, Palfrey argues, must perform a most vital task.  They must filter information and make it relevant to the patrons’ lives.

The down side is that most municipal libraries are facing diminishing budgets as cities and counties are squeezed.  Because of exorbitant tuition costs, Palfrey writes that “college presidents are freezing pay in libraries, reducing the rate of new book purchases, and laying off librarians and archivists.”

Palfrey offers a brief history of libraries including the most famous library in history, the historic edifice at Alexandria.  He tells us about how every ship in the port had its cargo of books copied and how scholars traveled the countryside visiting monasteries to copy ancient manuscripts to build the colossal collection that was eventually destroyed by a series of fires leading to a loss of a considerable portion of ancient culture and literature.  In the present, more than a million books are published each year with the fastest growth in the self-publishing area.  Coupling book publication with information published on the internet, and we have a tidal wave of words flooding the digital and actual archives of human thought and endeavor.

I have noticed that when working with college level students, they tend to access material digitally through library platforms and databases.  I am in the minority when I advise students to print out articles and mark them up with annotations.  Most do this on their computers or tablets now, and Palfrey writes that in his research, he, too has seen this phenomenon.  Research has become, in many cases, paperless.  Palfrey makes another point that many of the sources for research are now non-traditional, including things like blogs, podcasts, and YouTube videos.  He also points out that the machinations for accessing these digital sources change at a fantastic rate.  He calls this “data rot,” and writes the Library of Congress “holds roughly 150,000 compact discs of audio recordings” of which one to ten percent already have degraded information.  In short, compact discs and DVDs do not last forever.  In addition, some fairly recent information has been recorded on outdated mediums like computer tapes.  This is his argument for the importance of armies of archivists with expertise in preserving these materials before they are lost forever.  It turns out that books are probably more stable as a repository of culture and ideas than a polycarbonate and aluminum CD.

His solution to the fading funding and the diminished centralized power of the library is to expand digitally.  Already, many patrons use the library for computer access.  Palfrey claims parking lots are full of patrons using the free Wi-Fi even after closing time.  He proposes that libraries develop platforms that would allow a patron to utilize materials from several institutions without having to actually go to the bricks-and-mortar edifice.  Once every library’s holdings are digitized and available over the internet, reference librarians could step in to guide patrons to the best sources from a plethora of possibilities without concern for time or distance.  This would solve space and budget issues because no single library can house, or even afford to purchase, all the materials published each year.  Only by combining resources and making them available in a kind of universal digital library could we move to the next step in the information age.  Palfrey writes, “Libraries need to recast themselves as platforms rather than as storehouses…The crucial elements of the library as platform are the access to information that libraries offer, the expert advice in navigating through the information environment, and the connections to larger networks.”  Libraries could still contain stacks of books and traditional library materials like magazines and journals but these would also have digital copies for day-to-day circulation and patron usage.

One such project now underway is the Digital Public Library of America.  Palfrey writes that its goal is “to establish a national library platform for the United States—and in some respects for the whole world—in the digital age.”  He quotes from their mission statement that the organizers wish to create “an open, distributed network of comprehensive online resources that would draw on the nation’s living heritage from libraries, universities, archives, and museums in order to educate, inform, and empower everyone in the current and future generations.”  It is quite a lofty mission.

Palfrey suggests observing the way universities are opening themselves up to the world by offering online courses that people from any location with internet access can take for free.  By broadening out into digital platforms, we break down walls and open up archives so that the information is easy to access and available to any scholar anywhere in the world.  Palfrey calls this “hacking the library”; the word hacking normally has a negative connotation, but in this case, it is a positive.  It is an opening up of information, democratically, to the world.  This would have the added benefit that digital access would preserve the physical copies of art, maps, books, and other materials.  They would remain safe in controlled environments while digital copies could be utilized by patrons.  However, for these kinds of platforms to be built would require collaboration “far beyond what happens today,” says Palfrey.

Where I think Palfrey’s writing is less successful is when he discusses classroom usage of these resources to meet the needs of Common Core curriculum.  In this area, the writing is already dated; many states are jettisoning Common Core and as an educational fad, its luster is fading.  He also drops names incessantly—teachers, librarians, and other people he believes are at the forefront of the movement.  His discussion of these individuals is, in some cases, so brief that the name drop serves only as a distraction.

In fact, my one major complaint with the book is that there is a lot of redundant writing, a lot of repeated ideas that should be stated and explicated once.  Palfrey includes in his last chapter a summary of the ten steps to keep libraries alive now and in the future culled from the book.  It is a summation that is not necessary.  I felt as if the book, in a trimmed down version, might have worked better as a long magazine article in The New Yorker or Harper’s.

Undoubtedly, though, the prospect for library survival is one crucial to our society and culture.  Of course, it seems like a no-brainer that digital platforms will be the way to go.  Already we can borrow from libraries across the country and have the materials delivered to our local branches and universities.  There is an abundance of sharing going on, and I trust that librarians are savvy enough to know that the way forward is a collaborative one.  In that, John Palfrey is astute and on target.

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