Libraries and Our True Interests

palfreyLibrarians of all stripes are regularly asked about the prospects for the library in the 21st century, often some version of “won’t libraries go away now that everything is available online?” It is a reasonable question given the extent to which our lives are increasingly characterized and shaped by the use of digital tools. What will the library become (presuming it survives) in the coming decades, when screens will have replaced printed books?

John Palfrey’s recent work on the future of libraries, Biblio Tech: Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google, attempts a full answer to that and related questions. In doing so he is cautiously optimistic that, provided they work to keep pace in providing the kinds of services and collections patrons desire, libraries can continue to be a vital places of research, discovery, and diversion. He posits a “digital plus” future for libraries, where some more traditional functions (such as inspiring study spaces and special collections) continue to exist alongside emerging offerings (such as data management and advocacy on privacy and copyright issues).

Among the many salient issues Palfrey discusses, he repeatedly reminds readers of the importance of libraries as a non-commercial, non-competitive space in a world increasingly dominated by market models of access to information:

The risk of a small number of technically savvy, for-profit companies determining the bulk of what we read and how we read is enormous. The great beauty of the rich, diverse library system that has developed over the past century and a half has been the role of librarians in selecting and making available a range of materials for people to consult and enjoy. No one pressing ideology can co-opt the system; no single commercial entity can do an end run around the library system in the interest of profit. Scholars can rely on major research libraries to collection broadly and evenly across disciplines. Towns, cities, and states can rely on historical societies and archives to maintain records of the past. And every community can rely on its public library to offer a culturally relevant, broad-based collection of materials that can be consulted for free. [1]

In a context when “value” most often seems to mean “economic value,” libraries can be welcoming places where everyone is free , as publisher John Shively Knight put it, “to bestir the people to an awareness of their own condition, provide inspiration for their thoughts and rouse them to pursue their true interests.” [2]

Student and library staff member Ian White takes full advantage of library resources in pursuing his true interests.

[1] Palfrey, J. (2015). Biblio tech: Why libraries matter more than ever in the age of Google. (New York: Basic Books), p. 90.

[2] ibid., p. 179.

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