I recently read John Palfrey’s 2015 work, BiblioTech: Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google. (ISBN13: 9780465042999, Basic Books)
Palfrey, an attorney, has served as the vice-dean for library and information services at Harvard Law School library. He is a notable authority on the legal aspects of emerging media, and he is an advocate for Internet freedom, including increased online transparency and accountability as well as child safety. Palfrey was also the founding chairman of the board of directors of the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA).
I found Palfrey’s work to be quite readable. His passion for libraries and their place in American society came through in every chapter. As I read, I often found myself mentally substituting the phrase “higher education” for the word “library,” for much of what he wrestled with in BiblioTech has parallels in the world of higher education.
That said, with time to think since completing this book, I began to wonder who Palfrey had intended to be his primary audience. If he meant the library community, particularly public libraries, he may well be preaching to the choir.
If the audience was local library funders, philanthropists, or politicians, the people who can actually control the nightmare budget crises that are facing libraries. a bit more attention to the role libraries have played and can play with proper funding would have been beneficial. Criticism of libraries doesn’t hurt, as long as sufficient discussion is given to what can be done to improve and strengthen libraries.
BiblioTech attempts to answer a question that most librarians and library repeatedly workers face:
“Are libraries are still relevant in an age where any information an average person (or library user) might desire – ostensibly can be found via the internet – in the palm of one’s hand – via any smartphone?
The subtitle may miss the mark of what Palfrey is attempting to do. It seems to me that Palfrey is really attempting to explain “How Libraries CAN Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google”.
Some of what libraries have always done CAN be better done (now) by for-profit entities. However, there are things that libraries do that are not done elsewhere, or are not done as well elsewhere. The library community will need to work through this uncomfortable transition period and figure out how best to communicate this message so that in the end libraries are used, are supported by the presence of users and by funders.
An important mission of libraries is that of long-term preservation. It is impossible to digitize the entire sum of human knowledge. Still digitization makes remote or unique resources available to a greater audience. The irony, as Palfrey makes very clear, is that it is proving more expensive to preserve the current digital output of information for future researches than it has ever been to preserve paper records.
Museums often have in their holdings, examples of technology no longer usable or too fragile to use. In our rush to digitize and “go paperless” we will eventually have to acknowledge that paper is still readable 50-100 years later, but the computer files of 10-20 years ago may only be readable on a device that no longer exists except in museums.
(It is important to note that copyright law has a profound impact on libraries and on record preservation. His chapter on copyright is cogent and articulate and is one of the book’s strongest chapters. The author’s description is an informative summary of the current state of affairs and also provided new information.)
Also, libraries are not profit-driven in the way that say, Cengage or Google are. Thus libraries provide information from all sides and in multiple forms, with the primary goal of making the information available and protecting the privacy of those who access it. The agenda of a for-profit information vendor is to make a profit. Consequently that which is seen as not profitable may be deemed of insignificant and not preserved or made too difficult to find.
Perhaps Palfrey’s intended audience IS the library community and BiblioTech is meant as a prescription rather than a description. We would agree with Palfrey that libraries have a place in the future. We would also agree that libraries need to change in order to be a part of that future. We are free however to differ with the author about how to adapt. I have some difficulty with some of his prescriptions. That said, I do think that some of the more valuable ideas here (a call to more consortia and collaboration, advocacy for more digital preservation efforts, etc.) have much merit and deserve discussion.
It’s idealistic to expect that our users will accept fewer services, especially if the available funding for a library’s services is siphoned away for things not directly benefiting patrons, e.g., to fund capital equipment, professional development for library staff, and for research and development into the necessary changes that libraries should make for this bright new future. In truth this future is nebulous and poorly understood.
Libraries are in the painful position of struggling to keep their budgets from shrinking even future. At the same time they struggle with maintaining existing services at the current levels in the wake of dissatisfied patrons berating their funding bodies about what they consider poor service.
Perhaps few would disagree with Palfrey’s prescription that if libraries make some significant and necessary changes, they are capable of mattering more in the Google Age. Implementing prescriptions for change, including those offered by Palfrey will prove to be complicated. Honest discussion and yes, some disagreement has a place in determining what those significant changes are. BiblioTech contributes to that discussion.
A thoughtful book worth reading