Tuesday, May 10, 2011

A Library for Human Capital

Andrew Carnegie spent his lifetime building physical capital and used to advise nascent Linkindustrialists that wealth could be used to “bind together the rich and poor in harmonious relationship.” By the end of his life, Carnegie had invested heavily in the establishment of public libraries around the world and, while most of this investment occurred at the beginning of the 20th century, he would have felt right at home at the New York Public library last Friday when the discussion turned to the future of libraries. Of the several themes discussed last week, he would have appreciated the continued need for private investor support (even for large libraries like the NY Public) but, most importantly, he would have agreed that public libraries help build public capital.

The “future of libraries” topic is a vibrant one, although broad discussion is often overwhelmed by those who suggest the end of all libraries is just a matter of time. Even at this discussion, which included President of the NYPL Dr. Paul LeClerc and President of the Bibliotheque Nationale de France Bruno Racine, moderator Paul Holdengräber started proceedings by quoting from Anthony Grafton who, to paraphrase, suggests that libraries face a Hobbesian choice: Carry on regardless, eventually becoming gigantic ghost ships with “all the lights on but nobody home” or reconstitute themselves by shipping books off to offsite storage and building nice buildings with open space, computers and internet access but, ultimately, offering nothing the patron can’t get anywhere else.

LeClerc took this one on and prefaced his comments by noting that, while he and “Tony” are good friends he doesn’t agree with him. Later in the conversation, he was more pointed when he expressed his frustration with people who speak “cavalierly about “libraries” and ignore the many differences between libraries”. There is a similar misreading of the situation in the publishing community: You would think that libraries exist at the will of the publishing industry and, implicitly, that libraries will cease to exist – vanish – once publishers stop shipping books.

Books Рor, more accurately, published materials Рare only one component of the value libraries provide to their patrons. A little past opening time at any one of the satellite outlets of the New York Public library, the library will already be full in a m̩lange of indigent, industrious, curious, educated, disenfranchised, foreign, young and old. All these patrons are embarking on explorative journeys both big and small whether they be reading the newspaper, looking for a new job, investigating vacation destinations or researching their dissertation or new business idea.

LeClerc noted two important aspects of the NYPL community: Firstly, that during 2010 there were 40 million physical visits to the library and, secondly, that an enormous number of people in NYC live marginal lives and can’t afford to buy books or other media. The library in this context is seen as an anchor of many communities offering a multiplicity of services often unrelated to books that go underappreciated by many prognosticators. Perhaps these services are considered irrelevant to the puffed-up value publishers place on their own products.

Predictably, LeClerc would also say he has no patience for people who say libraries will be an anachronism in the foreseeable future, especially in light of the fact that 68% of US citizens visited a library last year. In a recent Harris Poll of those visiting a library more than 25% of respondents did so more than 10 times in the past year and they visited in person rather than online or some other method. The library is embedded into the social network of our communities and lives but, perhaps, less so in the minds of people relied upon to fund libraries. Even the NYPL, which is a private library open to the public needs to raise a $1mm per week from public fund-raising activities.

Both speakers highlighted the influence of technology on the activities of the library, noting that Google has been more transformative that Gutenberg and that we can’t ignore the digital era. Responding to a question about the role of librarians, there was general agreement between the two that librarians are increasingly being asked to navigate the patron experience in an increasingly complex and chaotic content world. LeClerc said that librarians are ‘drowning in materials’ which is causing a whole new approach to information services dependent on technology. Younger patrons are “incredibly gifted” at retrieval but lack deep cultural education or awareness which continues to represent an opportunity for librarians, especially in the academic setting.

Naturally, this was a very positive discussion about the future of libraries and largely underscored the view that many people writing off libraries are really fundamentally unaware of their functions and the position of libraries on campus, on 5th Avenue and in the barrio. Libraries are attendant to, but not dependent on, the whims of publishers and the breadth and extent of their services to their communities is likely to be sought out for a long time to come. In closing, the two were asked about preserving digital content and, in the deliberations over the costs of doing so and issues related to storage, Racine suggested that it might be necessary to print content to preserve digital materials. And where would they put this but a library?

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