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The 21st Century Library…

Talk of the Nation is talking libraries on February 21. So many of us have written and said so much about the 21st century library that it’s hard to be fresh on this topic, so I’ll start with someone else’s view.

This weekend, Book TV replayed Andrei Codrescu’s recent keynote address to the American Library Association. It struck me, as I watched him address thousands of librarians, that Codrescu, a very traditional writer in many respects, agrees that books, libraries, and the very nature of information are changing rapidly. However, Codrescu sees opportunities for libraries where some in my own profession see danger or loss.

Condrescu sees libraries in the role of community digital repositories and producers of culture, and he called librarians to embrace the role of libraries as cultural centers. “Take away the library and what you have is the mindless shopping mall,” he insisted, and offered fresh ideas and insights about sustaining relevance for libraries even after the book becomes an artifact.

Codrescu said bookmobiles should be as big and as architecturally interesting as possible, and offered a vision of “low-flying Hindenbergs.” He sees libraries centered around writing, literacy, and the celebration of reading in all its forms. He urged us to make libraries friendlier for events such as poetry readings. He says librarians will need to reinvent themselves along with libraries.

Codrescu offered this riddle:

How is a librarian better than a mouseclick?
A machine doesn’t get tired and doesn’t waste time worrying about the quality of the information.

That bit of humor encapsulates the role librarians can play in the 21st century–and often do already play, in more enlightened libraries. Many libraries offer old services in new forms, such as using instant messaging and email to answer reference questions. A very fine library recently took the time to send me a several-hundred-word email answer to my emailed question, what kind of trees were common to the Upper West Side of Manhattan in the Revolutionary War? Not only that, the librarians went above and beyond, recommending good books and commenting that one of their librarians was a Revolutionary War reenactor. This human engagement is priceless, and we will miss it if it goes away.

The 21st-century library is convenient, attractive, and comfortable, and it offers the services I expect in a modern information society. I get daily use out of the many excellent databases brokered by the Gleeson Library of the University of San Francisco, where I am a graduate student. I consider Gleeson Library one of “my libraries” even though I have only been in the library two or three times and experience this library largely through its website. When I do stop in to the Gleeson Library–because not everything is digital, and never will be, and we need repositories to hold and share the materials that are difficult to digitize–there, I take time to watch the students studying, reading, or simply daydreaming in the beautiful library atrium, where they can bring their water-bottles and enjoy free wi-fi.

But the 21st-century library offers services that the 20th-century library did well, too. I love Google, and I use it all day, but Google doesn’t know how to read a picture book to a toddler or wipe the tears of a crying child, it doesn’t know how to steer a teenager to a good homework topic, and Google can’t provide a place where I can sit and read among other members of my community–that “third place” some have written about, the alternative to Codrescu’s dystopic reference to the “mindless shopping mall.”

The most daunting problems libraries face today is twofold. First, the profession is divided between those who see the new information age as a threat to old ways, and who stay focused on old formats and old methods of delivering them, with grudging lip service to new technologies, versus those who see the new information society as a great opportunity–one that might liberate us from our role as curators of dead-tree collections and move us toward the more dynamic, vital, and timeless role of cultural leaders.

The balance shifts with every new batch of graduates from library school and every new roster of retirements, but it’s questionable that it’s shifting fast enough. Which leads into our second challenge: the slow, reactive quality of most librarians. We have repeatedly allowed private entities to coopt our turf, and we have only ourselves to blame. Too many librarians aren’t asking why a private company is digitizing the great libraries, and why this wasn’t a national priority for us, the profession that brought you the libraries of Alexandria, Melvil Dewey, and the card catalog. I don’t begrudge Google what it’s doing with Google Scholar, but I do begrudge the leaders in our profession for their failure of imagination and at times almost superstitious fear of change.

It is now obvious to writers such as Andrei Codrescu, and even to the current president of the American Library Association (who in his comments after Codrescu’s keynote address remarked that we seemed to be rolling back to the chaos of the Manuscript Age, so it was not an optimistic view on his part), and even to the hosts of radio shows, that the paper-based book will soon be an anachronism. Books are now born as digital objects; it’s only a matter of time before we stop felling trees and keep those digital objects in their own forms. The question in my profession is almost one of allegiance: are we about books, or are we about information in its myriad evolving forms, and the people who use it?

For those alert enough to be paying attention, the action plan for libraries in the 21st century is simple: change or die. The ironic part is that it’s very clear in the broadest sense how we should change and where we should take the lead, but it’s like my favorite lightbulb joke: How many therapy patients does it take to change a lightbulb? One, but the lightbulb has to really want to change. If we don’t want to change, then it doesn’t really matter what we’re like in this century, because it will be our last.

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