Seth Godin and the Future of Libraries

202506372_37c8ed68f7_oI like Seth Godin. His book Tribes (which I admittedly haven’t read yet) was quite the talk of SLA 2009. I also like his blog, which generally always gives me something to think about and wonder how I can apply to libraries. So when I saw that Mr. Godin – who is not a librarian – actually wrote about libraries, I was really excited to see what he had to say.

Aw, crud.

Aw. Crud.

It’s…not good. His idea of what libraries are, what they should be doing…I disagree with most of it.  I want to unpack his post, but before I do, I want to make clear (and make sure it doesn’t get lost in the bottom of this post) that the main problem with this post lies with libraries and librarians.  If someone like Seth Godin, who has met with librarians and has so many fans in the community, can get it so wrong, what does Joe Q. Public think of libraries?  This should definitely be (yet another) wake up call that libraries need to think about how we market ourselves.

Okay, on to Mr. Godin’s post…

What should libraries do to become relevant in the digital age?

No problem here. I could be pedantic and harp on the “become relevant” verb usage which implies that libraries currently aren’t relevant, but pedantry helps no cause. I believe that it’s extremely useful and proper, especially when you are in a public service industry like libraries are, to periodically evaluate yourself and change course as necessary. And I don’t mind when non-librarians poke their head into our self-evaluations and offer suggestions – after all, they are our users.

So, one sentence in, we’re okay! Then the wheels fall off.

They can’t survive as community-funded repositories for books that individuals don’t want to own (or for reference books we can’t afford to own.)

What? Wow. So much wrong with this sentence. I mean, obviously for the purposes of his post, Mr. Grodin seems to be talking about public libraries, which is sort of the first problem. If you are reading this, then you are likely aware that there are dozens of types of libraries (many not even called libraries) with as many types of librarians. But, again, that’s really a minor quibble. All libraries are “community funded.” My academic law library is funded by tax dollars and student tuition – the community we serve. Corporate libraries/knowledge management centers are funded by the company whose employees they are expected to serve. There’s just no such thing as an independent library.

Mr. Godin says “repository” like it’s a bad thing. Someone needs to preserve knowledge. Just because something is not immediately needed, that does not mean future generations won’t need it. I take huge issue with the “books that individuals don’t want to own (or for reference books we can’t afford to own.)” part of that statement. Want? Really? I mean, I guess it’s technically true in that I borrow books from my public library because I want to pay my bills and eat more than I want to buy books, but otherwise I just don’t see libraries as currently taking up the slack for people who just don’t feel like purchasing information resources. Call me a commie, but I have no problem with a community (be it a town, a company or educational institution) pooling resources so that all of its members may share information resources.

More librarians are telling me (unhappily) that the number one thing they deliver to their patrons is free DVD rentals. That’s not a long-term strategy, nor is it particularly an uplifting use of our tax dollars.

I get really nervous when we start judging the relevant “uplifting” value of resources, especially in a public library setting.  Every library has a mission and ultimately it’s up for the community to decide what they want from their library.  In law libraries, it’s not too hard.  We, for the most part, collect the laws and the secondary materials that interpret them.  It’s also not super-easy, though, because there are myriad decisions about which jurisdictions to collect, format, duplications, etc.  Additionally, some law libraries are branching out from their basic mission and are starting “Popular Media Collections” (Deborah Schander discusses her current efforts in creating one here.)  Personally, I would love to work on creating a collection like that, but I can see where some members of our community would have an issue with it.

Similarly, some people may have an issue with public libraries collecting DVDs.  Surely these people don’t think that everything in a public library is intellectually stimulating, do they?  Should public libraries only collect Shakespeare, Dickens and Austen?  Should they chuck out the romance novels, science fiction and graphic novels?  If DVDs go, does that mean books on tape have to go too?  I have this crazy notion that I like to enjoy what I read.  My favorite writers are Ernest Hemingway and Graham Greene, but I know they’re not everyone’s cup of tea.  Why can’t everyone have free enjoyment from the library?

Here’s my proposal: train people to take intellectual initiative.

Here’s my answer: We do. Or try to, anyway.  I mean, this is sort of a major component of librarians’ raison d’etre.  I don’t just hand out answers like candy at my reference desk.  I show people how I found the answer. I teach a handful of bibliographic instruction sessions every semester in addition to CLEs – and what I do is minor in comparison to many that I know. (A quick check shows that my public library has dozens of computer skills classes every month.)  Librarians aren’t trying to be gatekeepers of secret knowledge – we love to explain things to people.

Once again, the net turns things upside down. The information is free now. No need to pool tax money to buy reference books.

Ha. Haha. HAHAHAHAHA.  Oh, man, I can’t wait to tell our aquisitions department to tell West to take their bills and STUFF THEM because INFORMATION IS FREE NOW.  Frankly, this statement is just ignorant.  Yes, there is a ton of great information on the web.  However, there’s a little thing called copyright law that keep most information sources from being torrented up on the Internet free of charge – you know, legally at least.  There’s also the fact that about 80-95% of all information on the Internet is in the Deep Web and therefore unreachable from search engine searches, not the mention that I’m not going to throw over a solid reference resource for a webpage unless I can verify that the source is legit.  (I like to show my students this seemigly okay page on Dr. Martin Luther King. Check out the owner of the site and try not to vomit.)   And, as I recented noted for my disclipline of law, while the information is free, the indexing and finding aids for it are not.  So, while I wish that this would change, for the time being legal information is not free.

What we need to spend the money on are leaders, sherpas and teachers who will push everyone from kids to seniors to get very aggressive in finding and using information and in connecting with and leading others.

Like I said, we’re trying.  Some of us, at least.  There is a definite component of librarians who don’t want to explore all the possibilities of user engagement that are currently available, but I think that there are few out there that don’t want to help users find and use information.   Obviously we’re not doing a great job on marketing this fact.

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  16 comments for “Seth Godin and the Future of Libraries

  1. January 11, 2010 at 1:50 pm

    Sarah, I have come to expect intelligent, thoughtful and funny takes from you on library land stuff. This post is no exception.

    You are so so so correct that the core issue is not Seth G. but mostly public libraries problem of not translating the value and importance of our mission to the public that does not use the library.

    You are my library learning environment’s Molly Ivins.

    Thank you so much.

  2. January 11, 2010 at 2:49 pm

    Sarah, thanks for taking the time to explain some of the details about what we do in libraries. This post could easy be the default response to every “Why do we need libraries?” editorial. Without folks like you holding open the Gates of Knowledge the millions of people who benefit every day from public funded information resources would be forced out into the badlands of unmanaged, unauthoritative data. Sure, I like hyperbole, but when it comes to information you’d trust your life with, I’d rather have a pro on the job.

  3. January 12, 2010 at 12:30 am

    Excellent post. That is the best response to Godin I’ve seen so far.

    I would invite you to riff on the theme further for the essay contest Blake is getting set to have at LISNews in February. If you do not want to wait for that, hit the contact form there and we can make arrangements to do a guest column. Blake has been wanting more original writing for a while now and this would be a good fit topically.

  4. Cindy Martin
    January 12, 2010 at 12:43 am

    Sarah, I have recently stumbled upon your blog,and I am glad I have found it! It is a real joy. I really love your response regarding information now being free so we can basically tell our accounts departments they no longer need to pay the bills! I work in a law firm, and mostly there is a sense in the legal world that libraries are very valueable and they appreciate that information can be difficult to source and comes at a cost. What can be suprising is some people from all age groups and professions in the legal world assume everything is freely available – why they think this way could be for a number of reasons and is usually easily turned on it’s head once you are given a chance to point out a few truths about where information really comes from. Assumptions are dangerous and clearly lack any real authority to back their validity.

  5. January 12, 2010 at 6:24 pm

    Simplifying the current state of libraries to a nine sentence post generalizes the issue to the point where Seth Godin doesn’t say anything relevant.

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