Monday, May 2, 2011

Libraries Are So "Quaint" - And Never More Crucial

by Stephen J. Gertz

Brian Cooley, CNET's senior technology commentator and editor at large, offered his view of libraries during a segment of the April 20, 2011 "Buzz Out Loud" podcast on Kindle's new library services.

Because it must be read to be believed, we reprint a transcription of Mr. Cooley’s comments:

I'm still a little vague on this.  Why would I go or deal with a library to borrow a book? You don't have to go there, right?  This is weird. Why would a library have anything to do with virtual books? It doesn't make sense.

Locality is about physical books. They're physically available in a certain place, so your library houses them, but once they're virtual, locality goes out the door. It's weird.  The library thing is real divisive. We can start a hate storm. I mean, I'm sorry folks, but I don't get libraries. In this day and age, I don't get libraries. Great air conditioning, good place to nap, right?

Libraries are for the very old and the very unemployed. I'm sorry, that's where it's at right now. It doesn't make sense anymore.  The local library's really starting to get shaky to my mind, unless it's for the poor, the unemployed, the homeless, and the very old. That's what libraries are for now. What kid in high school is going to get anything out of the library?

Seriously,  you've got some ninety-year-old reference librarian who's going to point you to what, a Britannica volume to look something up? All you've got to do is Google. For crying out loud. Getting out is fine, but there are plenty of bars. You don't need to go to libraries to get out of the house. 

How does the library ‘defend your right to free information?’ The Internet's already got that done, folks.  What do you mean, "for people who read"? Who on earth needs to go to a library to get a book? Crazy town!  The library? How quaint!

Mr. Cooley seems to be an arrogant young man that I strongly suspect has never undertaken a major scholastic research project. The Internet is good a start for preliminary research but, at this point and well into the future, you still have to go to a library (preferably, your city’s central branch) to access - for free - newspaper and magazine archives (with annual subject guides in print for each major U.S. newspaper going way back); government documents on microfilm (i.e., you will never find U.S. Senate records for 1947 on the Net), archival collections that will never be digitized, or even basic research guides, i.e. the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature, which annually indexes articles from all magazines by subject; indexes in print for scholastic journals, obscure and otherwise. Yes, it's now available online - for a fee. At the library, nada.

“In this day and age,” physical libraries are more important than ever simply because the New is not the be-all and end-all for research. Ask a reporter. Leg-work, the physical schlep to primary sources, human or obscure and arcane texts, remains, and always will be, the key to effective research that reveals something heretofore unknown. I have a few books under my belt, the research for which would have been impossible without daily visits to L.A. Central Library; the Internet just didn’t have what I needed. It’s only by sitting in a chair going though the boring process of sifting through reels and reels of microfilm that one can unearth the golden nuggets. The Internet provides a lot of information but not all - far from it.

Oh, Mr. C., you are napping! Libraries are not just about borrowing books. Most of the stuff you need for research is not available for circulation, particularly rare and archival materials. Yes, painful as it may be, you have  to make an appearance and stick around a while to delve into all the great stuff available, for free, at a library.

The primary problem with doing research on the Internet is that you can only find what you know exists or can discover with a keyword or phrase. You cannot find what you don’t know exists and if you don’t use a magic keyword will never find. Serendipitous discovery is the soul of original research.

This is where those useless ninety-year old reference librarians come in. Only an ignorant fool tries to go it alone with research - you will likely miss something important to your work and not even know about it unless you know someone who has devoted decades to mastering navigation of the ocean of reference materials out there, far beyond the Britannica, most of which will never be digitized because it is not profitable to do so. We’ll gloss over Mr. Cooley’s  snarky attitude. Who needs someone with decades of experience to help with research? What can they possibly know that Mr. Cooley, with all his vast experience within a hi-tech cocoon,  doesn’t?

“How does the library ‘defend your right to free information?' The Internet's already got that done, folks.” Uh, no, it doesn’t.  With, for instance, online newspapers and scholastic journal aggregators (i.e JSTOR) charging fees for access to their content, the same material offered for free at a public library is a great boon. Scholars are, by definition, poverty-stricken and cannot afford to pay $10- $15 every time they need to read an article in an off the wall journal posted on the Net. You could easily drop $500 - $1,000 in fees by the time the project is done.

As those of us in the real world know, free is no loner the default position on the Net. The cost of  high-speed access in the U.S. is rising, as is content. Monetizing digital text to its true market value is the trend, not the end.

The real problem with libraries and scholarship is that you have to move a muscle to get  there and into it. Armchair researchers and couch potatoes can never be successful researchers. What can a high-school student get out of a library? Everything. For instance, the broad perspective that can only come when the digital world is recognized for what it truly is, a virtual facsimile of a slice of the real world, and not the actual, real world in its entirety.

Digital dweebs with an attitude so narrow that they seem to suffer from mental myopia and tunnel vision have doomed themselves to scholastic mediocrity. To perform research at the highest, most effective and revealing level you have to get the pixels out of your head and the print in your hands. Crazy guy, this Cooley! How boring! He needs a nice, air-conditioned place to wake-up to reality and solid research. A library is ideal.

So, by all means, begin with Google for basic research. But if you have any expectation of conducting quality, in-depth scholarship - whether as a student or professional  -  it  will probably end at a library.

When it comes to libraries, if ignorance is bliss then Mr. Cooley is the happiest guy around, the village idiot. Crazy town! Cooley's the mayor.

N.B.: The poor, the unemployed, the homeless, and the very old are not second-class citizens. They are entitled to the same access to info that Mr. Cooley, the, presumably, financially comfortable, and new, crown prince of high-tech putzes, enjoys.

Our thanks to LISNews for the lead.


  1. In UK they had a campaign through twitter, #savelibraries, which may cause Brian Cooley to change his point of view or possibly will confirm the view that UK is "quaint and cute"!

  2. SJG, Where was this posting when I needed it, while facing a sea of community college freshmen faces in my "info. literacy and library research session I (out of III segments)?? Actually the guy who asked "why do we need the library when we have the internet," was about forty years old! Young people do not have a monopoly on stupidity. It was a jumping off point for a discussion which covered all the points most eloquently stated by YOU!
    As for the rest of it-- the public library being overrun by the homeless, the unemployed, the elderly, well that's not helping improve the image of libraries. It does drive people away who can do things more "conveniently" Also, the nature of what is considered "research" now has really changed for the K-16 set. I had students who wrote the "research" paper first and then asked my assistance to find "sources"!! They had no intention of reading these "sources." That's the way it's done these days! Backwards! JKG

  3. The public libraries I have used are full of the elderly, homeless, unemployed (I am that right now), little kids, mothers, fathers, high-school kids, librarians, painfully stupid people trying not to be that, very intelligent people who want to be very well-informed, people using computers, ipads, MP3 players - in fact everyone is there. What fun we have.

    Special libraries like the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, UT, university libraries, community college libraries are full of whoever can get in. What fun we have there.

    Research is fun, books are fun, libraries are heaven.


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