Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
It is an exciting time to be a librarian.
Whether it is a result of potentially positive changes or due to worrisome occurrences (budget cuts) libraries (and by extension librarians) can tell that the waters beneath librarianship are rocky. Thus, those in and around libraries with an eye and heart for everything that libraries are and can be are contemplating what course to set.
Whether the flag flying from the mast is that of a “public library,” “academic library,” or “protest library” these ships are crewed by those committed to keeping their vessels from sinking (the term “librarian” is being used here to broadly encompass all those who wish to take upon themselves that appellation). In truth there are so many interesting things going on in the library world these days, that it can be a challenge for a busy (or not so busy) librarian to find the time to get involved with every project, initiative, or volunteer effort in which they might like to participate.
Granted, beyond the “big questions” there are also quite a few “mid-sized questions” – that still represent serious existential quandaries for some libraries. After all, the everyday questions should not be overlooked simply because their repetition has inured us to them. Confusing and somewhat cryptic cataloging schemes can be confounding to those unfamiliar with them, likewise rows and rows and rows (and rows) of stacks can be intimidating, and “digital natives” may be somewhat wary of all those books – these are real issues.
The demand to take these matters seriously can be detected in a recent posting titled “Start a Protest in Your Library” by Jane Carlin (Director of the Collins Memorial Library at the University of Puget Sound) and Barb Macke (Associate Librarian, University of Cincinnati). In their post, Carlin and Macke recount a conversation with “social activist and library supporter” Micah White in which he raised three questions:
“1. How do we organize libraries to unlock the knowledge hidden in the stacks?
2. Why do digital natives avoid the library stacks?
3. Imagine what could come after the Library of Congress classification and rows of well-organized books?”
Carlin and Macke ponder these questions (mainly in the context of academic libraries) and present some potential answers, before opening the questions up for wider consideration. Their title “Start a Protest in Your Library” may be a tad bit misleading even as it may subtly point to a very different sort of answer (more on that shortly). Yet, to be fair – and in the spirit of participation – let us treat the above questions seriously, and try to pose some answers.
The question of how we “organize libraries to unlock the knowledge hidden in the stacks” is a compelling one – but, problematic though they may be, library stacks are not constructed with the intent being to keep information “hidden.” It may be that what libraries need to better “organize” is not the stacks but the way the “stacks” are explained, the way that librarians orient library users, and the ways in which librarians conduct reference interviews to ensure they are helping to “unlock the knowledge hidden in the stacks.” “Knowledge” is not actually “hidden in the stacks” (except perhaps in the case of “closed stacks” collections [which is another topic]). It may be that the answer to this quandry is giving librarians the resources they need (such as more librarians) to better engage with patrons in need of assistance. The great repository of untapped “knowledge hidden” in libraries is not in the stacks, it is in the staff.
Anecdotal questions like “why do digital natives avoid the library stacks?” are troublesome as they prompt a response of “do they really?” The foregrounding of “digital natives” in the question sneaks a premise (and therefore the answer) into the query – for if the problem is “digital natives” than surely the solution must be a digital one as well! Right? Not necessarily (unfortunately Carlin and Macke seem eager to suggest digital solutions). We do a disservice to “digital natives” (another way of saying “millenials” or “young people”) when we assume that they can only process information if it is delivered to them as a tweet, or an app. Carlin and Macke are writing from the perspective of academic libraries, and thus the question should be understood as addressing the larger educational eco-system of which libraries are just one part. Libraries on college campuses can (and should) do outreach to the student body, but to facilitate this the rest of the university community needs to reach back. “Why do digital natives avoid the library stacks” is a distraction, a better question is “how can academic libraries forge strong relationships of mutual aid between the library and professors to provide informational resources to students?” Some of this may come down to libraries lacking staff – but when one lacks for staff and is encouraged to look for a technological solution one should wonder if “technological solutions” are simply advancing neo-liberal educational policies.
The third question poses a complicated theoretical question “what could come after” while also raising a problem that may not actually be a problem – are “rows of well-organized books” really such a bad thing? Yet, in answering the question of “what could come after” perhaps it is more useful to ask: “how can we improve what we currently use?” It is not impossible to imagine a new classification language sweeping through the world’s libraries – but libraries would benefit from thinking on a more local level, or by better integrating the insights of feminist, ethnic, Queer, and post-colonial (to name a few) studies to address the ways that library classification schemes may serve to reinforce hierarchies and histories of domination. There are flaws in the LoC classification scheme and “rows of well-organized books” may appear boring…and while these can be catalysts for action (particularly around cataloging) the answer may not be to think about “what could come after” but to think about “what can we do now.”
The first step to “Start a Protest in Your Library” should be to empower those who know the library to put their ideas into practice. Libraries are brimming with creative people who know the needs of their community better than an outside consultant (“library supporter” though they may be). As events like the recent Urban Librarians conference demonstrate – there is no lack of creativity and foreword thinking engagement to be found amongst the individuals who staff libraries every single day.
Nevertheless, in this spirit of “what can we do now” to “Start a Protest in Your Library” here are some quick ideas. Let us ask: “what can large academic libraries learn from protest libraries?” Here is an easy answer (and idea): why not take that “hidden knowledge” out of the stacks and set up temporary libraries around campus? Why not draw inspiration from the various “Occupy” libraries, or from the rolling “library brigades” of Urban Librarians Unite? If you are worried that “digital natives” are not coming into the stacks – take the library out of the stacks and put it right in front of them. Worried about the “stodgy” old LoC classification system? So, organize your “protest libraries” differently – try putting up a tag that says “politics” or “economics” or “poetry” instead of a call number (you could even [gasp] do both). Or take the idea of “start a protest in your library” and turn it into an excuse to “bring a library” to every protest/gathering/student group – where there is an event on or around campus bring a temporary library there so relevant informational content is immediately available. “Start a Protest in Your Library” by thinking about libraries beyond the walls of the actual building, and then take the library out of the library. Spring is here – maybe the “digital natives” are not cloistered in the stacks because it’s lovely outside – so take the library outside.
While experimenting, libraries should not be afraid of technological change but they should also recognize that some times technological solutions are unnecessary, expensive, and ultimately inappropriate. It is essential for libraries to engage with technological change in a way that stays true to the values of librarianship – part of this must mean that libraries remain places where patrons can search without fear that their moves are being tracked and noted. Privacy, after all, is an important value for libraries – thus to Carlin and Macke’s point that “new technologies like Google glass can anticipate and connect students with resources before they even know they want it” a fair response is that perhaps such new technologies are actually antithetical to the core values of libraries. A library in which a patron feels wary of freely browsing through a certain section of the stacks because of the presence of somebody wearing Glass is a library that has chosen “technological goods” over the pursuit of “the good.” Experimentation is worthwhile when it helps libraries better reach patrons, and while we should not be bound by tradition – a commitment to protecting patron privacy is a tradition worth upholding.
Libraries certainly have their flaws but their core values (privacy, access) remain as important and vital as ever. So “Start a Protest in Your Library” by fighting for the values that have made libraries strong, and bring your library to the protest (or to streets) so that these values can be shared. We should not allow ourselves and library values to be shushed, regardless of if that shushing comes from budget cuts, hiring freezes, or the promise of technological solutions. Thus, let us end with other questions:
When the call goes out to “Start a Protest in Your Library” what are we protesting against? Are we protesting neo-liberal budget cuts that threaten the survival of libraries? Are we protesting invasive surveillance technologies that threaten the privacy of library patrons? Are we protesting the ways in which classification schemes and gaps in our library collections replicate hegemonic narratives? Are we protesting to demonstrate that libraries – with their core values – can be inspirational sites for prefigurative politics? Or, are we protesting that libraries have not been quick enough to become fiefdoms for technology companies?
There are lots of reasons to “Start a Protest in Your Library.”
Let’s pick a good one, not a “goods” one.
[note – the juxtaposition of “the good life” and “the goods life” is a turn of phrase owed to Lewis Mumford]
[Image Note – The Image of “Peoples Library Occupy Wall Street 2011 Shankbone” was taken by David Shankbone, it was uploaded to wikipedia under a creative commons license, the background image of the library stacks is in the public domain; patrons in the People’s Library have had their faces covered with books to respect their privacy]