Seth Godin is wrong about the future of the library

Seth Godin thinks that the future of the library is far from bright. His post from yesterday is short so I’ll quote it in full:

What should libraries do to become relevant in the digital age?

They can’t survive as community-funded repositories for books that individuals don’t want to own (or for reference books we can’t afford to own.) More librarians are telling me (unhappily) that the number one thing they deliver to their patrons is free DVD rentals. That’s not a long-term strategy, nor is it particularly an uplifting use of our tax dollars.

Here’s my proposal: train people to take intellectual initiative.

Once again, the net turns things upside down. The information is free now. No need to pool tax money to buy reference books. What we need to spend the money on are leaders, sherpas and teachers who will push everyone from kids to seniors to get very aggressive in finding and using information and in connecting with and leading others.

This reminds me of a presentation I attended last year at the CLA conference in Montreal by Ken Haycock. He was speaking about the challenges of advocating for public libraries and the downside of advocating the view that libraries are solely about information. He pointed out that there are often several other public bodies that essentially exist to give information to the public, for example public health authorities educate the public about safer sex practices or the dangers of drug abuse. If memory serves Haycock suggested that public libraries would do well to focus on their community building function. Holding the focus on provision of resources is not going to work well.

As you might understand, the library blogosphere has been up in arms about this post. From my experience of using and working with libraries, Godin’s criticism misses a lot of what libraries offer. For one, he completely ignores (or doesn’t care about?) all the resources offered by academic libraries; manuscript books, archives, special collections and powerful research databases. If you’re doing serious humanities research, trying to do it without a library or archive is not going to work (i.e. your dissertation/book/article will be awful!). In the public library environment, Godin’s post ignores all the programming that libraries offer including assistance to immigrants, literacy tutoring and Internet access. Joyce Valenza asks, “Is Seth saying that we need librarians, but not traditional libraries?” Hmm, possibly.The Analog Divide blog agrees with Valenza in saying that libraries are in trouble when one of the world’s most popular business bloggers makes this kind of criticism. Alas, the critique also misses much of what the world’s with-it librarians have been up for the past +5 years.

3 thoughts on “Seth Godin is wrong about the future of the library

  1. Pingback: The actual future of the library « Agnostic, Maybe

  2. Pingback: thewikiman » Blog Archive » #echolib – the Seth Godin Uber-Echo Disaster

  3. Pingback: The Radical Patron – extreme thoughts on public libraries –

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