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Director's Column

PLSJC Director Alan Hall writes a weekly column discussing library and community news, history, and other interesting subjects.

The Obsolete Librarian

By Alan Hall, Director, PLSJ
Publish Date - Sunday, July 18, 2010

On one of my long distance train trips, the gentleman seated next to me in the Lounge Car inquired about my vocation.

 

On a train, this is an ice-breaker question, usually combined with “where are you going?”

 

The answer, “librarian,” often provokes an odd facial expression, followed by a “hmm,” then a smile as the requestor remembers a warm feeling about a library visit from some time in the past.

 

In this case, his response was quick and to-the-point, “What is it like to be obsolete?”

 

In this case, it was my response that had the odd facial expression, followed by a “hmm.”

 

I knew where he was going with this line of questioning, the common assumption that libraries will dry up and blow away with the Internet.

 

My standard answer is that libraries haven’t changed, but the tools that we have at our disposal have greatly expanded in this generation.

 

The Internet provides libraries with an endless array of resources as we hunt for the information that the public requests.

 

My second response is that Bill Gates, known as a major contributor to today’s computer networks, is a member of the Board of the King County Library System in Seattle.

 

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation have also contributed to the connectivity of all American libraries to the Internet, including our own system.

 

From a local perspective, our own library system checks out more items in 2010 than it ever did 20 years ago, and issues more library cards than ever before in our past.

 

Our computer system issues an annual report of library cards that have not been used in the past year, and this year less than 5 percent of our 33,000 users fit that category.

 

Things are different, as more people use the library from home and visit our buildings to pick up the things they found online, rather than performing the “library browsing” of past years.

 

As we look at libraries in our society, we need to understand issues with the Internet.

 

First, not everything is on the Internet.  If every bit of information were digitized at the speed that is available, it would take hundreds of years to put it on the Internet.

 

Secondly, the Internet is not “free.”  It costs money to maintain information on the Internet, and money to have the equipment to access the Internet.  Information can be lost by simply turning off a computer server which no one supports any longer.

 

Digitization doesn’t eliminate the paper copy of the item; it simply enhances accessibility to the item.

 

Libraries are providing access to e-book formats as mobile devices are becoming more common.  Who wants to own e-books, in the same way who wants to own every book in a library?

 

I contend that public libraries are becoming the last desk staffed by real people.  We have assumed many roles of offices and agencies that have disappeared from our society today.

 

I also feel that libraries are the great equalizer in our society today.  Everyone has access to information despite individual ability to “afford” the information.