"More than machinery, we need humanity."
Those who work in the library field, and those who love libraries, have become rather accustomed to hearing a certain droning argument about the impending obsolescence of libraries. Whether it be wrought by budget cuts or the Internet – those declaring that libraries have served their purpose point to seemingly insurmountable societal shifts as evidence, lest they be accused of celebrating the library’s demise (even as many such writers confess that they are not library users). Yet what is almost always lacking in the doom-laden predictions of these prophets of Internet company profits is a consideration of what a library truly represents, of why libraries are truly valuable.
These are the questions we need to be contemplating everyday, but particularly today – as April 4 is the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s “404 Day” to call attention to the issue of censorship in libraries.
If one takes an antiquated view of libraries – seeing them solely as places filled with old books – it can be easy to understand the context in which the idea that libraries are obsolete can occur. Granted, anybody who has spent even a little bit of time in a public library (or many other types of libraries) of late should be able to recognize relatively quickly that there is much more to a library than old books. While the tireless celebrants of the Internet may love beating the drum of “who needs a library when you’ve got the net?” – what often goes unheard (it is a very loud drum) is that for many people libraries are an important site from which they can access the Internet. As a recent report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project “Library Services in the digital age”) found:
“77% say free access to computers and the Internet is a “very important” service of libraries.”
There is something wonderfully democratic about libraries. In a society wherein people are often encouraged to think of themselves, and their relation to their fellow citizens, in terms of their roles as consumers libraries (particularly public libraries) remain somewhat removed from the market. Libraries are places in which the entire community invests a little (through tax dollars) and gets back quite a lot. This is why it frustrates some librarians when people say that libraries are “free” – for while libraries may be “free as in freedom,” the fact remains that this “free” (as in price) is built upon everybody contributing a little so that everybody can get back a lot. The books filling the library’s shelves, the computers patrons are sitting at, the events that are hosted – all of these are a result of the convivial contribution of the community for the sake of all those in the community.
It is not unfair to state that new technologies have changed the role of libraries, for the ascendance of the Internet (and the myriad Internet connected devices) has shifted much in society. If, to risk advancing a highly imperfect hypothesis, one of the key roles of libraries is connecting patrons with information than libraries today must recognize that much of this information is today accessed online. This is even true when it comes to the libraries themselves – the last time you went to the library did you browse through their catalog online or did you pull out the drawers on the card catalog (does the library still even have a publicly accessible card catalog [do younger patrons even know what a card catalog is])?
Yet as the mode of accessing information shifts to newer technological platforms it brings with it new challenges and issues. After all, one could spend hours flipping through the drawers in a card catalog with little fear of stumbling across a shocking/offensive/pornographic item, but such content is always just a click away on the Internet. To meet this challenge many a library (and many a school) has taken to installing various “blocks” or “filters” to ensure that “inappropriate content” is not accessed – indeed in many regions a library’s ability to continue to receive funding is linked to their willingness to install such filters. Though, as is often the case when a technological solution is put forth in response to a technological problem, such filters tend to produce rather questionable results: the filter blocks health related information, speech protected by the first amendment, content from museums, and other such content – whilst still allowing through the type of pornographic content such filters are ostensibly there to block. While most people who have spent time working with young-adults in libraries (or schools) know that young people possesses an uncanny skill in finding the weaknesses in such filters.
Technically in place to protect younger patrons, many libraries insist that such filters can easily be turned off if an adult patron so requests. Yet the need for such a request in and of itself represents a barrier that has been put up between a library patron and the information for which they are searching. While it may be the case that such barriers would be less of an issue if the patron begins by approaching a reference librarian with their question (which would ensure that a question about “breast cancer” would not filter out much relevant information), this still represents a stumbling block placed in front of a patron. Furthermore, “breast cancer” may not be the best example of such a search – it is more useful to think of somebody coming to the library to safely search for information on an issue about which they want privacy. A question about which they are perhaps worried about having to consult with somebody else who they may or may not trust. If a patron is looking for LGBTQ resources and the filter stymies their search than the library is not serving them fully, if a patron is looking for information on a political movement and the filter blocks their search than the library has not served them fully. In pursuit of protecting library users from the potential harm of inappropriate content, the risk is that libraries may be presenting only the content deemed appropriate by the status quo.
What is particularly worrisome and challenging about such filtering systems is that by obscuring certain options it may make it seem as if this information (these alternatives) are simply not to be found. One of the areas in which “trained librarians” become quite savvy is in recognizing that – even in the age of the Internet – information is often not just sitting there on the surface, sometimes lots of careful searching is required, but for some the message “404 error – not found” is enough of a rebuke as to end their search. The term “filter” may have a more positive connotation than a term like “manipulator” but it is worth asking whether “filters” are really “filtering” or if they are actually just manipulating. And certainly one of the things that they manipulate is a belief that they are effective. In her book Privacy in Context the philosopher Helen Nissenbaum builds upon Oscar Gandy’s notion of the “panoptic sort” to discuss the effects that such manipulations have, thusly:
“If, as a result of these manipulations, people choose jobs, banks, or products not primarily because they comply with our own values, but because they have been kept in the dark about more relevant options, they are victims of a form of deception or coercion, even subtler than that of the con man or blackmailer.” (Nissenbaum, 83)
To serve their purpose a library should be about allowing thousands of rays of light to pour upon a person so as to ensure that patrons are not “kept in the dark.” In purporting to be a space where access to information is free, open, and unencumbered but then confronting users with a range of fairly ineffective “filters” libraries risk putting in place an “even subtler” form of “deception or coercion.” This is not to say that library’s should refrain from thinking about reasonable steps, but in searching for a technological solution to this technological problem what is at risk is that what is getting filtered out is not inappropriate content but the very values for which libraries stand (and this is not to begin to delve into the complex discussion of the power relations involved in who gets to decide what is “appropriate” and “inappropriate”).
The democratic promise of libraries is built upon two distinct but interrelated poles: self-help and mutual aid. The library in and of itself is a structure built around the idea of mutual aid – the community has pooled resources for something that serves the entire community. While the mutual aid aspect of a library transcends its simple structure, what is equally important is that once people enter this space they are able to, and given the tools by which, they can pursue self-help. Through mutual aid linked values a library may give a community member access to a computer, but in giving them this access the library has now connected them with a tool to help themselves. It is this relationship which is at the core of Ivan Illich’s statement that:
“At its best the library is the prototype of a convivial tool.” (Illich, 65)
It is not that the books in the library, or the tables, or the computers are the “convivial tool” – it is that the library itself, the library in total, the library as such, is the convivial tool. Defending this openness, this conviviality, and this sense of freedom is an essential task for libraries, librarians, and those who love libraries. And so long as libraries recognize that this is where their essential value can be found, they will have no need to worry about being made obsolete. When the screen reads “404 Error – Not Found” we need to recognize that one of the things which is not being found is the values of libraries.
Illich, Ivan. Tools for Conviviality. Harper & Row, Publishers, 1973.
Nissenbaum, Helen. Privacy in Context: Technology, Policy, and the Integrity of Social Life. Stanford Law Books, 2010.