Sunday, August 6, 2017

Book Review: BiblioTech:Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google

Book: Biblio Tech: Why Libraries Matter More than Ever in the Age of Google
Author:John Palfrey
Publisher information: New York, NY: Basic Books, c2015

“May you live in interesting times,” that infernal Chinese cliche, has perhaps never been truer than for the bearers of that most beleaguered title, “librarian.”  Despite study after study indicating the power, importance and necessity of the institution and its custodians, enamorment with Google and other big firms of the Internet and their false promises of unrestricted quality information at everyone’s fingertips have lulled us into the delusion that libraries have become obsolete.  A darkly symbiotic falsehood infects many public officials squeezed by tight budgets in the wake of the colossal economic meltdown, and who so often place libraries on the chopping block in their quest to cut “superfluous” agencies.   In the wake of this assault on multiple fronts, champions of the library arise to counter the prevailing common wisdom, advocating for the library’s value and irreplaceable role in the so-called information economy.  BiblioTech is just such a book, a slim and relatively recent text penned by John Palfrey, law professor and co-founder of the Digital Public Library of America.  As apparent from the title, Palfrey subscribes to the digitization school of library future forecasting, albeit with a more sensible and incremental approach than most: he doesn’t herald the imminent death of the book, and his central argument is that as the world gradually transitions from the analog to the digital, libraries must lead the way through the turbulence, forming collaborations with each other to ensure that open access to information will be available to all in the future.

Palfrey takes a “tough love” approach to how he assesses the current state of libraries: while lauding the role they have played and will continue to play in the lives of millions, he chides librarians for not doing enough to form collaborations and transition from bound books to open access digital content.  This well-trodden path may be refreshing or irritating depending on your viewpoint, but Palfrey nails some valid points as he treks along.  He's right in declaring that information has grown too voluminous for any one library to house all of it, and that a joint digital effort will be needed to preserve precious historical documents in the future.  This preservation aspect of the library's modus operandi - so often lost in the rush to “redefine” its mission - is critical to the future, Palfrey argues, especially since digital documents are so transient compared to print.  His chapter on the legal hurdles facing libraries in the acquisition of digital content and navigating copyright law is, as expected, thorough, and Palfrey's proposed solutions are clear-sighted and obtainable.

Unfortunately, Palfrey’s “tough love” often veers toward the unrealistic and the naive; many of his proposals are simply too far out of reach for most public agencies, and his inconsequential chapter on “hacking” library spaces comes off as faddish and meaningless, despite promises to the contrary.  Despite his good ideas and acknowledged respect for the library and its mission, he falls for the standard technologist trap of viewing the library as a platform of limitless possibility, despite the very real limits of funding, staffing, and hours in the day.  He gives numerous and heartfelt beseechments throughout the book for public support of the library, but falls short of real, practical advice on how to accomplish this.  For a more grounded approach to library adaptation in the “information age,” see Michael Gorman’s cri de coeur Our Enduring Values Revisited: Librarianship in an Ever-Changing World, released as a second edition the same year, which provides a welcomed antidote to the blind rush to make libraries everything to everyone by revisiting the core values of this peculiar calling.  By skimping on this central understanding, Palfrey’s work, while more steeped in the murky heart of modern librarianship than most digitization truckers, doesn’t quite check in with the profession’s more nuanced transformation efforts.

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