Another Librarian’s Response to "What’s a Library?"

I love Rita Meade’s (@ScrewyDecimal) reaction piece to Michael Rosenblum’s op-ed “What’s a Library?” that was posted by the Huffington Post on May 8, 2013.

A Librarian’s Response to “What’s a Library?” (posted on Book Riot on May 13, 2013)

[With apologies for plagiarizing her title.]

Let’s be kind – let’s give Mr. Rosenblum the benefit of the doubt and assume he was honestly trying to critique the current state of libraries in some kind of difficult to discern attempt to help.

He still failed.

Problem #1

Whenever anyone says, “Everything is online now,” I’m going to send them the following links:

I could go on and on and on…

Anyone who thinks that “everything is online now” simply has no clue as to the true state of our information infrastructure – and it’s a dangerous myth to perpetuate. The overwhelming majority of our historical information resources are not currently available online and may never be. Many of the historical resources that have been put online aren’t conveniently usable and have lost valuable contextual data in the digitization process. Too much will be lost if we blithely proceed on the deeply misinformed belief that everything is, or will be, or even should be, online.

The flip side to this, of course, is that there’s so much information online we desperately need qualified people to help sort it all out. Too much online information is unevaluated, too much quality information gets buried and lies virtually undiscoverable beneath mountains of dross and rumor, and the information literacy of our society can’t keep pace with the expansion of information creation and access.

Worse yet – online access models are built around the idea that individual users should only ever see what they want to see. This design principle began as a sincere attempt to better serve user need, but it’s become a way for far too many people to ensure that they’re never presented with information that challenges or disagrees with them. Our current online information infrastructure enables – even encourages – a shocking degree of solipsism and information-isolationism. This isn’t good for us.

Libraries have long been bastions of expanding people’s horizons, enlarging their sphere of knowledge and understanding. We need this now more than ever.

Problem #2

At no point in his piece does Mr. Rosenblum ever express an accurate understanding of the true purpose of libraries and librarians.

The purpose of libraries is to evaluate, curate, organize, and facilitate access to the best information resources in our communities. This function is necessary regardless of the format that information takes.

The purpose of librarians is to be the agents of that process. We’re the ones certified and equipped to dredge through the giant mass of crap out there and find the truly valuable bits. We’re trained information professionals, helming dedicated information institutions, in the Information Age. We couldn’t be more relevant than this.

With the deluge of information that’s currently flooding our world, libraries and librarians are more essential now than they’ve ever been. It’s now, more than ever, that librarians can do the most good for our communities by utilizing our unique skills sets.

It would be one thing if Mr. Rosenblum had sought to argue that the current state of libraries fails to adequately fulfill their purpose. I would even be fine with it if he sought to argue that libraries are entirely outmoded, as long as his argument at some point answered to the core purpose of libraries, that he accurately recognized what they’re supposed to do. At least then it would be legitimately informed argument from a logically defensible position.

It’s clear to me that Mr. Rosenblum is incapable of seeing beyond his own extremely limited personal scope of experience to comprehend how libraries serve and are used by the underprivileged, the jobless, those seeking expanded educational resources and self-improvement, and all the others in society who are not him. Without that understanding, his position is about as tenable as me arguing that all seafood restaurants should be shut down just because I can’t eat at them.

It’s clear to me that Mr. Rosenblum has no clue what libraries are really for. Without that recognition of purpose, his criticism is without any substance.

Problem #3

I can’t help but feel that, to a great extent, we librarians are culpable in this situation. We have to ask ourselves:

How do people like Mr. Rosenblum come to so completely misunderstand what libraries are for?

This isn’t the first time I’ve tried to wrap my head around this question.

I’m afraid that we don’t communicate our purpose or our value to our communities as well as we should. I know that there’s a tremendous amount of cultural inertia that continues to push library stereotypes to the forefront of popular perception, and that this inertia is extremely difficult to overcome.

I think back to many of my MLIS classes and the discussions we had about marketing libraries, debating ways to prove their value to our communities – I was shocked at how some of my classmates simply took it as a given that everyone in society sees the value of libraries as clearly as we do. We cannot – we must not – proceed on that assumption. There are far too many people like Mr. Rosenblum out there who don’t see it at all.

I know that we’re trying but we must do better. If we can’t find a way to prove our utility as information professionals in this Information Age, then we’re in big trouble.

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