How Can Libraries Compete with Amazon?

I’m so bored by this question. Let’s talk instead about some things Amazon can’t do:

  • Amazon can’t be part of a community.
  • Amazon can’t build meaningful, multifaceted relationships with people at a local level.
  • Amazon can’t provide communal space.
  • Amazon can’t provide boots-on-ground, in-the-trenches, front-line community services.
  • Amazon can’t provide anything beyond purely commercial transactions.
  • Amazon can’t be assumed to care about the common good.
  • Amazon can’t build trust with people.

Libraries do all these things. Libraries do so much more than these things. All without ever advertising to you, without leveraging your needs for commercial gain.

Amazon values monetization. Libraries value people.

Can libraries compete with Amazon? This isn’t a legitimate question. If you think Amazon is competition for libraries, then you fundamentally don’t understand what libraries do.

The truth is this:

Amazon can’t compete with us.

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On the Economic Value of Human Beings

This.

Immigrants Shouldn’t Have to Be ‘Talented’ to Be Welcome by Masha Gessen (New York Times, September 6, 2017)

If immigration is debated only in terms of whether it benefits the economy, politicians begin to divide people into two categories: “valuable” and “illegal.” When countries make people illegal, the world comes apart. When we agree to talk about people as cogs, we lose our humanity.

I hate how our culture has decided that economics is the only thing that matters. That every aspect of our society is assessed predominately—if not exclusively—in economic terms. Education, healthcare, the environment, arts and humanities, science and engineering, technology, civil rights, immigration and refugees, and on and on and on…

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My Twitter Year

One of my goals this year is to participate more in professional conversations and debates. For me, this means getting more active on Twitter. That’s where I keep track of most of my professional connections.

This past week saw my first forays in that direction.


There’s a quote from Donny Miller that has become ubiquitous among information professionals:

“In the age of information, ignorance is a choice.”

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Library Thought Leaders

On April 8, 2015, dolly m (@loather) tweeted the following:

dolly m pithily sums up something I’ve been wrestling with for the past few years, ever since I started working in a public library:

There are so-named “thought leaders” in the library community who make their living telling the rest of us how we should do our jobs. They travel from conference to conference, keynoting and presenting, speaking about the current state of librarianship.

Several of these thought leaders haven’t worked as librarians in an actual library in a long time. Some not since before the internet existed. Some of them have no first-hand experience of the practical realities of being a librarian in the Digital Information Age.

This makes it hard swallow when they presume to tell me how I should do my job.

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Public Library Reference: An Unscientific Test

I debated for several weeks about writing this post. Some of what I want to talk about I already discussed in my post, The Pain of Bad Reference Interactions. I think there’s more to say, though.

My concern is that I have some strong criticisms of the reference interactions I’ve had with some public libraries in the United States. I use no names and I leave out all identifying details—but it’s still possible that some of these libraries, or even some of their librarians, will be able to recognize themselves if they read this.

I have no desire to shame anyone with this post. I find online public shaming culture abhorrent and I refuse to participate in it.

I believe that criticism is necessary for improvement. I offer all criticisms in the sincere hope that it will help us all to serve our communities even better than we already do, and in my desire to help define the best path forward for public libraries in the Digital Information Age.

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The Pain of Bad Reference Interactions

People love to ask the question, “Why go to the library when you can just Google everything?” In answer, we tend to fall back on some version of Neil Gaiman’s famous quote:

Google can bring you back 100,000 answers. A librarian can bring you back the right one.

We talk about the authority of librarians, our ability to sift through the vast oceans of data with a far better eye toward quality than any search engine can match. We talk about the personalization of the interaction—librarians can recognize not just the right answer, but the answer that’s right for you.

Often, people don’t know how to ask their question. Google is stuck with whatever you enter—if you ask your question the wrong way then you only get results that aren’t what you need, and you’re left to your own devices to try and figure out what went wrong. A librarian can figure out what you really meant and guide your search, to bring you information that’s actually useful in a much more intuitive and rewarding way.

I agree with all of the above. Librarians can serve people’s information needs in ways that Google, or any other online search engine, simply can’t.

Which is why it especially pains me every time I have a bad reference interaction.

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Prohibitive Library Signs

In the library world, few issues are more divisive than the use of prohibitive signs.

On the one hand, there are those librarians who see prohibitive signs in libraries as a very bad thing. This post by Michael Stephens is a good example:

Ten Signs I Hope I Never See in Libraries Again (posted on Tame the Web on July 7, 2006)

And of course, there are the obligatory “Passive Aggressive Library Signs” boards on Pinterest:

On the other side of this debate, librarians point out the necessity of having rules—we need to maintain a safe and clean environment for all our patrons and for the maintenance of our collections.

I agree that rules are necessary—but I don’t believe that explicitly prohibitive signs are a useful or healthy way to communicate those rules to our patrons.

Even worse, such unilateral prohibitions punish patrons who don’t deserve it.

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