Carlos Lozada is the nonfiction book critic of The Washington Post.
By John Palfrey
Basic. 280 pp. $26.99
Libraries are repositories of books, music and documents, but above all of nostalgia: the musty stacks, the unexpected finds, the safety and pleasure of a place that welcomes and shelters unconditionally.
John Palfrey shares these memories, but he is also wary of them. After all, fond recollections of pleasant reading rooms can cloud our judgment of what libraries offer us — and need from us — today. In an era when search engines, online retailers and social media are overtaking some of libraries’ essential tasks, “nostalgia can actually be dangerous,” Palfrey warns. “Thinking of libraries as they were ages ago and wanting them to remain the same is the last thing we should want for them.”
Palfrey, the former head of the Harvard Law Library and the founding chairman of the Digital Public Library of America, wants a library revolution, one that remakes the institution’s technology, goals and training. Libraries are in peril, he writes, facing budget cuts and a growing perception that technology has rendered them less necessary. All that’s at stake, Palfrey argues, is America’s experiment in self-government. “If we do not have libraries, if we lose the notion of free access to most information, the world of the haves and the have-nots will grow further and further apart. Our economy will suffer, and our democracy will be put at unnecessary risk.”
You don’t really have to believe that the fate of the republic hangs in the balance to recognize that libraries are facing unique challenges wrought by changing technology and consumer habits. Palfrey’s main concern seems to be not that people will be cut off from information but that the main conduits for that information will be private companies rather than public libraries. “The private sector has been wildly successful in digital innovation. . . . When it comes to the cultural, historical, political, and scientific record of a society, however, the public sector needs to play a leading role.”
But when Google is America’s reference librarian and Starbucks its ISP, what role for your local library? “BiblioTech” serves as an extended mission statement for libraries’ continued relevance. But relevance comes with a price. “For centuries, libraries have remained essentially separate, even competing with one another to establish and maintain the greatest collection,” Palfrey writes. Now, they need to “recast themselves as platforms rather than storehouses.” This transition won’t be easy, he cautions, and will require giving up lots of old, bad habits.
But Palfrey is somewhat vague about how to get there. Libraries must operate more as “nodes in a larger network” of organizations and must move toward “the digital, networked, mobile, and cloud-based library.” We must “hack” libraries, he urges, meaning we must find ways of distributing their traditional tasks — gathering, sorting and safeguarding physical materials, and helping people access them — among the members of a network, leaving more time for staffers to focus on helping users access the array of works available throughout these linked institutions. Think of a virtual, turbo-charged interlibrary loan system. (FYI, simply “reforming” or “rethinking” an institution won’t get it done; for lasting change, always be hacking.)
Palfrey points to some libraries and initiatives, and even to specific small-town librarians, that are starting down this path. Among these efforts is the Digital Public Library of America, a nexus of state- and university-based collections that seeks to digitize their holdings and make them available to the public. Palfrey also highlights efforts in South Korea, Singapore and across Europe that are further along in making disparate holdings available across national borders. “Libraries must act as ambitiously networked institutions,” he reiterates, and must “connect their network effectively with partner institutions: archives, historical societies, museums, and other cultural heritage organizations.”
Still, none of this compares to the transformations underway in the business world. “Most of the innovation in how we create and use knowledge is occurring in the private, for-profit sector,” Palfrey admits. “Funded by ambitious venture capitalists and pursued relentlessly by entrepreneurial CEOs and their programming teams, the start-up scene has been cranking out successful new information-related projects for decades.” Next to Google’s search engine, Amazon’s Kindle, Facebook, Twitter and Apple’s apps platform, he asks, “what is the biggest innovation to emerge from libraries in the digital age?”
Yes, it’s a rhetorical question. But Palfrey has faith that libraries can rise to the challenge, if only because he is so freaked out by the alternative. “The risk of a small number of technically savvy, for-profit companies determining the bulk of what we read and how we read it is enormous,” he warns. And those companies will always have incentives to offer services that are “biased, limited, and costly.”
“BiblioTech” is a slim book, but it reads long — the author repeats himself, probably for emphasis, but the proliferation of high-tech-speak becomes a tiresome substitute for a tighter, more grounded approach. (At times, all the hacking comes off as a little hacky.) A longish magazine article might have sufficed; absent that, make sure to read the final chapter, which recaps the whole thing.
Nonetheless, Palfrey, a director at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, is adept at explaining the struggles libraries face with technologies that constrain as much as they liberate. Digital information is easier to access but harder to preserve than its analog forms, for instance, in part because of constantly shifting digital file formats. “As each year passes,” he laments, “we are losing essential materials that we ought to be preserving for the historical record.”
And as a lawyer rather than a professional librarian (a fact he seems a tad defensive about), Palfrey is particularly good at explaining new legal challenges to preserving information. Libraries can purchase books and then lend them out as often as they like. But when libraries are renters rather than owners of digital materials — as is the case with e-books — their ability to lend is limited by licensing agreements. Because of longstanding copyright laws, “the digital age could perversely become an era with less accessibility, not more, than the analog age.”
So, how does Palfrey propose to fund the transformations he wants — all those hacks that will empower libraries and keep the information citizens need out of corporate control? Private philanthropy, of course! Yes, as suspicious as he is of corporate motives, Palfrey is eager for libraries to sop up the benevolent cash that private sources could provide. “The next big innovation in knowledge management should come out of the world of libraries,” he asserts. Sure, but it will be funded by the world of corporations. Citing the philanthropy of Joshua Bates in Boston and Andrew Carnegie’s massive infusions of cash for libraries across America, Palfrey declares: “The moment is right for a new investment of this same type and scale.”
As with most mission statements, “BiblioTech” is full of flowing prose while remaining a bit short on details or a clear road map. And maybe that’s okay. First set out the big vision, then fill in the blanks over time. Palfrey’s biggest service may be in shaking us free of our nostalgia for the local public libraries of our youth. “Just as we all love a memory of a childhood experience, we love the idea of libraries in general.” But that can be a “patronizing sort of love,” Palfrey cautions. And it won’t get libraries to where they need to be or how they need to think.
Can nodes in a digital network someday elicit similar devotion? In a world where more than half of Americans use a library regularly, Palfrey believes they can. “Libraries must create new nostalgia,” he concludes. “The purpose of renewed investments in libraries should be to establish new services and ways of discovering and accessing knowledge.”