Too Close for Comfort
by Barbara Quint
Editor, Searcher Magazine
Regular readers of this column know how fond I am of quotations, particularly those from my all-time favorite authors, like Benjamin Franklin, America’s first and still greatest “great man.” Franklin was an inventor who, some 217 years after his death, has at least two inventions still selling briskly — bifocals and the Franklin stove; a man famed even in his own time for his scientific discoveries in electricity; a diplomat so savvy that he could get the French nobility to support a cause that would lead to their own destruction only a decade later; a wildly successful publisher and entrepreneur, a Founding Father of the United States; and a very, very funny guy. Remember his wry, fear-defusing witticism at the signing of the Declaration of Independence, “We must, indeed, all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”
But Franklin had another accomplishment. He founded the first successful public subscription library in America. The Library Company of Philadelphia [http://www.librarycompany.org] was established by Franklin and 49 other subscribers in July 1731. For 3 months of the Library Company’s early years, Ben himself was the librarian. Minutes of a Dec. 11, 1732, meeting of the committee running the library show that, when the printer was asked his price for printing catalogues of the collection for distribution to each subscriber, he responded that he considered them presents and would take no money. In the coming years, the Library Company offered access to its books to the first Continental Congresses and the Constitutional Convention, becoming — in a way — the first Library of Congress. While Boston boasts the first free public library in the country, Franklin’s innovations in expanding ways for the educated public to reach more books set a strong leadership role.
So here we are in these tough times and what do we see? Notices appeared in September that the Free Library of Philadelphia, Franklin’s hometown, would shut down on Oct. 2 due to the collapsing city budget — the whole system, all 54 libraries, shut down. The same savage budget cut announcements also told residents that they could expect garbage pick-ups only once every 2 weeks. Apparently only the rats would find life always sunny in Philadelphia. But, once again, the state legislature responded to a “doomsday” budget threat and sent in the funds to rescue the library system — at least, most of it.
This type of situation is spreading across the nation and not just for public libraries. Daniel Greenstein, vice provost for academic planning, programs, and coordination at the University of California, ran into a minor maelstrom of criticism for telling some harsh truths at the Ithaka Sustainable Scholarship 2009 conference. Greenstein predicted that “the university library of the future will be sparsely staffed, highly decentralized, and have a physical plant consisting of little more than special collections and study areas.” And his timeline for that future was only 7–10 years.
“Now, with universities everywhere still ailing from last year’s economic meltdown, administrators are more likely than ever to explore the dramatic restructuring of library operations.” Outsourcing and centralizing of digitized collections would dominate the academic library scene, Greenstein told a room full of academic librarians. He ought to know. The dire California budget situation has hit the state’s university library budgets hard. The California Digital Library, which handles electronic ordering for the UC system, had to send a pleading message to all its vendors asking for kindness — and sometimes, forgiveness.
But it’s not just tough times that imperil traditional libraries. The economic crisis is speeding up the cascade of technological and societal tipping points, but those tipping points would happen regardless of the economy. The core change, in fact, began more than 30 years ago when online appeared on the scene. Even then, with expensive and difficult-to-use services, early searchers could feel the world change from one of information scarcity to information affluence. With the arrival of the internet and its web and the transformation of online content into a mass media with endless numbers of end users, information affluence slopped over into information overload. We see the changes and challenges to traditional information industry all around us. The question is not whether the old ways can endure somehow, somewhere. They can’t, or at least no more than smithies for shoeing horses after the arrival of the automobile. The question now is: What will need doing in today’s and tomorrow’s information environment and how to get it done?
Our own history has some lessons to teach information professionals. Decades ago, a whole portion of the library profession — catalogers — experienced a sea change. OCLC’s rise and adoption by libraries led to a diminished need for catalogers. Before OCLC, each library cataloged each book it acquired. Then OCLC built a network where once a single library had cataloged a book, the other libraries shared the cataloging. In other words, the library world went from cataloging copies of books to cataloging titles. Well, here we are again, with Google Books and other large-scale digitization projects creating a central repository of books that libraries and their clients can share. I guess you could say that Google Books extends the OCLC experience beyond bibliographic citations (aka metadata) to full text.
Publishers should be shivering in their boots, of course, and book sellers too. Both depend on multiple sales. They have a legitimate interest to defend. But the professional service ethic of librarians should lie first and foremost in the welfare of clients and they should define clients as broadly as possible. When enemies of the Google Book settlement and its opening of a vast, multimillion, curated collection of books selected and paid for by generations of research librarians gather, one does not expect to see librarians in their midst. And yet, SLA, the Special Libraries Association — a group to which I have belonged for decades, sigh — chose to join the enemies of the settlement gathered in the Open Book Alliance. Sigh, indeed. In the course of investigating this shocking development, I found that the decision to join was approved unanimously by the elected board. Unanimously!! My own SLA!!
Excuse me for just a moment. I have to check my email. Why, what’s this? Speak of the devil. A message from SLA. Let me read … Well, well, well. It appears they’ve decided to up my dues “in order to continue to deliver the services members expect.”
You know what they say. “Timing is everything.” And these are, indeed, critical times demanding critical decisions.