Wordshore

Writing in the long form
November 24th, 2011

TO MOVE: Why do we advocate for libraries?

(Slightly misleading title perhaps. “We don’t know the future” is perhaps better.)

September is Library Card Sign-up Month

advocacy n. The act of pleading or arguing in favor of something, such as a cause, idea, or policy; active support.

Why do people advocate for libraries? Ask a bunch of advocates, or a bunch of library supporters, and you’ll get a myriad of answers back. They usually include:

  • Information should be freely available to all.
  • People can’t access everything online.
  • People are not good at finding the information they need; librarians are needed.
  • Libraries make us a better, more civilised society.
  • It feels personally wrong, offensive, to close this method of accessing knowledge.
  • Nowhere else offers all these things.

…and a heck of a lot of other, different reasons, because everyone has a different idea of what a library is, or should be, and everyone has had different experiences of library use. They may be similar reasons, but they aren’t identical ones.

But not every advocate is an optimistic advocate. There are several conditions, such as #AdvocacyFatigue and #AdvocacyApathy, which seem to be in evidence at the moment. The result of these can be summarised:

“Why am I doing this? It’s pointless. Libraries are all going to continue to close. Advocacy is just delaying the inevitable.”

Variations on this have been uttered by library campaigners online, in the US and the UK, over the past few months, enabled in some cases by posts and articles on libraries. Two examples from this week alone; AaronTay has some thoughts and a good collection of links to some of the negative prophecies about the future of libraries, while this piece on libraries: where they went wrong is also of a negative vein.

And extrapolating the current uncertainties that affect libraries don’t give a positive projection, for either the US or the UK. Funding is being cut. Politicians see libraries as a soft target. Library functionality, such as branches, hours, staff, collection, services, are being cut. More people are going online. eBook readers are becoming more popular. The trends point downwards.

But.

Library Customer Success Award

There are four flaws with this “Inevitable demise” model of libraries.

First; it’s an extrapolation, and assumes all the factors will stay the same to continue the trends. This is very unlikely. For example, broadband take-up at home as a percentage of the population is plateauing, not increasing at a relentless rate. Even if “everything” was online and intuitive to find (which of course it isn’t), there’s still roughly 30 to 40 percent of the population who can’t access “everything”. That’s sometimes because they can’t afford it, or don’t have the skills or confidence, and sometimes – despite promises over many years – the infrastructure is not there. Read “Without a Net: Librarians Bridging the Digital Divide” by Jessamyn West (who’s in the lead picture in this post) for more on this.

Second; not all the changes may turn out to be bad. Some may be good. eBooks in particular are turbulent, with the situation between libraries and publishers changing ridiculously quickly. For example, just while this post has been drafted, Penguin have changed their position on eBooks in US public libraries twice. Maybe more times, as I haven’t checked in the last hour. Who knows how the whole eBook thing will turn out for libraries. Who knows what it will be like just next week.

Third; predictions, especially when it comes to information or technology, are often hopelessly wrong. And usually negative. “The book is dead”; how many years have speakers, journalists, academics et al been writing that one? I’ve been hearing it since 1996 in UK academia. The library is dead. Literature is dead. Reading is dead. Dead is dead. Whatever. People seem to get off, appear knowledgeable and guru-like, on trying to predict or declare something is “dead”, but then they go very quiet, or move onto the next thing, when their prediction (usually) turns out to be wrong. Email. Online chat. Virtual Worlds. Virtual Learning Environments. Facebook. Twitter. Flickr. Cricket. Television. Radio. Even the desktop computer is still on most people’s desktop, and how many times has that been written off, over many years? All of these, with a thousand other things, predicted to have died or be about to die, years ago. All still here.

(And where is your hover board and bubble jet car, by the way?)

And as for the Gartner hype cycle; there isn’t one.

Fourth; a black swan event. No idea what that could be; that’s why it’s a black swan. A major publishing house – or much of the industry – might rapidly fail. Or possibly the print-based newspaper industry. The Internet may become badly damaged. A massive disaster (natural or man-made) could leave libraries in a large area being invaluable information and communication hubs for a long time. Best of all, Godzilla may re-emerge. No idea.

CIA Library

So here’s the point. No one knows how the remaining eight years of this decade will play out, with respect to libraries. Eight years ago, look what you were doing; buying your books from Borders, your music on CDs, and renting out films from a video store that you drove to, LOL. And what you weren’t doing e.g. tweeting, updating your Facebook status, video chatting with your relatives and partner, and playing full colour detailed games on your phone. No-one predicted all those changes, or even most of them; predictions are the game of the confident talking to the gullible. Hello, political pundits from just five years ago, who predicted en masse that the current US president would be either Hillary Clinton or Rudy Giuliani. How did that work out for you?

Things can also turn round quickly, in a negative or a positive way. If you watch the news or read the papers, then it appears that the country and world are teetering on the brink of ruin. Actually … no. Ask anyone who remembers the winter of 1946-1947, when a war-ruined and broke Britain really was in deep trouble, and mass starvation became a possibility. And as for it being impossible to pull back the worlds largest economies from the brink; not true. Can be done, and possibly quickly.

So anyone who predicts what libraries will be like, and what information services they will offer, in 2020 is either insane, a hopeless optimist, a thin bloke with a fez, bow tie and a telephone box, or most likely getting a nice speakers fee for something with no evidence behind it. I call fake, and if you listen to such a speaker ask yourself “Just how do you know?”.

And this uncertainty makes library advocacy tricky, a bit scary, unsettling. Many people, possibly most people, don’t like uncertainty, especially as they age. But, no-one can say these times are dull. And sometimes, it can be quite thrilling to try and ride through this decade, steering as best you can, while those things that have held a long-term continuity fall and new things rise around you. Somewhat like Paul riding the Shai-Hulud in Dune, perhaps?

Maybe it’ll all end in disappointment, and all the public libraries have been closed and converted into Cash Converter, charity shops or Poundstretchers. Or maybe not, and by 2020 libraries and librarians have shifted, somehow, into a better “fit” for that decade.

Alternately, everyone could give up, and watch Strictly Come Sell My Celebrity House, read the tabloids, go shopping every saturday, wash the car every sunday, and wonder one day when they are fifty and lying awake at 4am, whether they are content with what they did in their earlier years, especially during that second, turbulent, decade of the 21st century. Some people will only be able to honestly answer, to themselves, “watched a lot of reality tv” or “got drunk a lot”. Others, such as Johanna Anderson, will have personally banked more profound memories.

Because you can only write what you did in your twenties, thirties, forties or fifties, once. There’s no replay option.

So, if you’re having a down time and think advocacy for libraries is pointless, and won’t work; how do you know?

And will the whole library thing end in disappointment, with most or all public libraries closing? Or will they change more rapidly, metamorphasise into something different that address the information needs of the citizens of 2020 (whatever they will be)?

I haven’t a clue.

And neither have you.