Want to read the editorial titled “Amazon Should Replace Local Libraries to Save Taxpayers Money,” by Long Island University’s chair of economics Panos Mourdoukoutas and published on the Forbes website in July 2018? Sorry, you’re too late. Forbes withdrew it. The reasoning behind the removal? The author’s writing “was outside of this contributor’s specific area of expertise 1.”
I will not spend any time here outlining or refuting Mourdoukoutas’ piece. I don’t need to be cause hundreds of librarians have already done that. On Twitter, Facebook, blog posts, and editorials, librarians mounted a spirited critique of the piece that led Forbes to conclude that Mour doukoutas was outside his area of expertise. That’s what I would like to talk about.
Twitter was filled with responses to Mour doukoutas and Forbes. Some were angry, but most were funny—and all direct. What was fascinating was the observation that clearly the author had not been in a public library in a long time, and that libraries were already providing third spaces that went way beyond just collections to learning places and community meeting places. There was also a lot of economic data being cited showing return on community investments and how tax dollars invested per capita in libraries was well below the cost of an Amazon Prime membership.
What struck me was that it was public librarians, academic librarians, librarians of all stripes with the same message. And that message wasn’t defensive; it was proactive. It wasn’t about preserving the past, it was that libraries had moved well beyond the author’s experience and it was his fault (particularly as an academic, and even more so as an economist) for not being up-to-date. Moreover, librarians had and knew about a solid base of research on economic impact to draw upon. And all of this was happening without an ALA council resolution or days of debate.
What this says to me is that the concept of library as community learning space has taken hold across much of our discipline. Moreover, an emphasis on advocacy and change management over traditional concepts of leadership is having a positive effect. While the sentiment may not be universal, the idea that librarians are proactive, engaged, and centered on com munities (be they in towns, colleges, or government) is widespread.
It also shows an interesting potential for the future of how ideas and the impact of librarians can spread in a networked age. In the past, the Forbes article may well have come down … eventually. There would have been a greater effort to get statements and positions from library associations and major publications. And, to be sure, associations still play a vital role in both disseminating ideas and in advocacy. However, here we saw the agility of the masses.
The masses being librarians and allies around the world. Because the other thing I noticed was that the tweets and Facebook posts were not confined to the U.S. Librarians from literally around the world chimed in. The response was modeling proactive agency in real time even for folks who did not respond. As someone who has watched the spread of new ideas in librarianship and the information profession, it was one more indication that librarianship is developing a global unified narrative and means of disseminating innovation. The days of good ideas having to navigate up a hierarchy of conferences and bodies from the local to the regional to the country to the world are over.
We are seeing a shift not only in how we conceptualize the field in America, and Brazil, and Portugal, and Germany; we are seeing a shift in how those ideas are shared and developed in the first place. We are seeing the birth of a global knowledge school of thought that is pushing a new vision for libraries.
For a long time, we thought that vision driving library evolution was information. Why did libraries go from physical-owned materials to physical and digital, owned and licensed resources? Be cause people needed information, or so the argument went. Books, databases, webpages—it was all part of an information buffet we laid out for our users. And indeed, they were no longer patrons, or even people, they were users. We defined people as what they sought to consume, and we worked very hard to make sure their consumption experience, their user experience, was efficient.
But something happened along this route that increasingly made librarians uncomfortable. We librarians found ourselves compared to and aligned with an information industry that did not share our values. Suddenly, user experiences in libraries were being compared to user experiences with Google and Facebook. At first as good examples, but librarians began to realize that the industry’s view of people as users—and interactions as experiences—was being driven by a quest for data that could be monetized. Technology and data, once seen as neutral, now were being used to drive purchases and were re-creating old inequities. Ultimately, making a sale and making meaning in a life are not the same, and librarians are increasingly rejecting this narrative. This is not the change we seek to bring to our communities.
To be clear, especially as I am writing a piece for a journal published by Information Today, Inc., I am not condemning businesses and organizations that seek to inform or to monetize. Rather, I am pointing out, as those responding to Mourdoukoutas did, that there is room and, indeed, need for something else. Should libraries have users or members? Should governments have customers or citizens? What I love is that, across the globe, librarians are developing answers to those questions and, in doing so, are finding power. And it is this power that will make true partnership and contributions with the information industries possible.
1. See qz.com/1334123/forbes-deleted-an-op-ed-arguing-that-amazon-should-replace-libraries.