When Librarians Go Bad . . .

I saw this poster in a library the other day and it made me queasy. I like books. I like libraries. I dislike zealots and this kind of garbage.


This poster is the kind of reactionary propaganda that does no one any good. The opening quote is below.

Libraries are icons of our cultural intellect, totems to the totality of knowledge. To claim, as some now do, that the Internet is making libraries obsolete is as silly as saying shoes have made feet unnecessary.

Wow. Icons and totality. He almost makes Internet zealots seem reasonable. To claim that there can ever be a “totality of knowledge” is egotistical and to claim the library somehow embodies “totality” is absurd. Libraries, by their very nature, have to exclude huge amounts of information and make editorial decisions regarding content inclusion. There’s plenty of good and plenty of bad in that.

To use the feet/shoes metaphor is equally misguided. Libraries and the internet aren’t comparable to feet and shoes. That would seem to indicate that a library is an organic component of a society, like feet are a part of the body and the Internet is an add-on whose main purpose is to protect, or possibly enhance, the library. Neither is the case.

Libraries are places we’ve put information. The Internet is a place we’ve put information. It’d be a more apt comparison to say information is food and libraries and the Internet are containers – let’s say bowls and plates. One is likely to be better than the other for certain foods but each has its own advantages. You should have access to all sorts of containers and you ought to choose them based on your needs.

I will say that the Internet is making the old idea of libraries obsolete. The Internet is forcing libraries to change and focus on what they offer that is beyond content repository. Libraries ought to be (and many are) incorporating the Internet and all it has to offer. Libraries are useful and good but not for the reasons outlined in this poster.

  1. Not Everything Is on the Internet. – You wouldn’t assume this anyway but lots of things don’t make it to the library because of limited space and money. This idea seems to be ignored. Other types of content simply can’t exist within a library. You need both- although in its current incarnation the Internet is far more likely to end up with a more expansive and deeper amount of content than the library.
  2. The Needle (Your Search) in the Haystack (the Web)– Building your own search skills is important. Don’t let librarians or anyone else think for you or control what you can access. Fear shouldn’t be used to motivate how and where you look for information. I’d expect better tactics from a librarian.
  3. Quality Control Doesn’t Exist That’s also a good thing about the Internet. Other people aren’t deciding what’s good for you. Granted, you need to learn to evaluate things for yourself but that’s a good thing. The comment about pornographers is about the stupidest thing I’ve ever read. I’ve seen articles about pedophiles in libraries molesting children. Would that be a reason to avoid them? After all, no one has ever been physically attacked on the Internet ever. Additionally, I know some libraries carry Playboy and other pornography. Should I be scared? That kind of stupid fear mongering sounds pretty desperate to me.
  4. What You Don’t Know Really Does Hurt You. – Don’t libraries continuously push online databases as a way for them to cut costs and allow greater access? This is a petty comment anyway and it ignores the vast amount of information that simply cannot fit within a library. I guess that info is ok to ignore because it hasn’t been sanctified by the Lord Librarian.
  5. States Can Now Buy One Book and Distribute to Every Library on the Web – Here the librarian proves he’s hip by using the ever popular “NOT!” l’m not ever sure how to respond to this other than with pity.
  6. Hey, Bud, What About E-Books? – And no one sees reading in general as a chore, right? Nothing like taking the opinion of some and making it fit all people. Who is the final arbiter of when this ceases to be a “chore?” How long is a library “generation?”

    We should ignore new technologies because people aren’t used to them. That worked well with computers and the Internet. Why get involved with trends like that?

  7. Aren’t There Library-less Universities Now? If other people have failed then we, too, should give up. No one flew before the Wright Brothers so flight really should have been ignored rather than thought about in different ways because it’s impossible.
  8. But a Virtual State Library Would Work, Right? – Apparently digitization is necessary because you can’t buy digital books or take advantage of things like the Gutenberg Project. You certainly couldn’t pool state/national library resources and work on digitization in an organized way. Nope. It’s all or nothing. Besides, we’ve already proven reading digital books is a chore.
  9. The Internet: A Mile Wide, an inch (or Less) Deep – I find most libraries to be weak in lots of subject areas and, by their very nature, they are as limited in recent information as this claims the Internet is in terms of older information. If you want more, up-to-date information you need the Internet.
  10. The Internet Is Ubiquitous but Books Are Portable – I don’t know anyone who reads books in the snow. It sounds like a good way to mess up your book. The stupidity of this whole poster is that things are portrayed in black and white rather than degrees of grey.

14 thoughts on “When Librarians Go Bad . . .

  1. Really great post! Although I can lean toward Internet zealotry, I really do appreciate books, print materials and libraries. But I’ve been more frustrated with libraries lately than happy with them. Trying to find recent research is almost impossible, and at least for the library I have access to (at a traditional liberal arts college) they don’t carry material in areas I’m interested in–i.e. technology.

  2. What ticks me off the most is that the poster (and the discussion, truthfully) ignores one of the most important things that 21st century librarians can share with patrons: the ability to search the internet effectively. A good librarian should link patrons with quality information, no matter where it comes from. How many of you know about googlescholar.com? or http://lii.org/ ?
    I will never agree that we should give up on libraries..a good library is more than the sum total of its print resources. It’s should be a portal. One thing that really peeves me are teachers who don’t see any value to libraries or independent research and they reflect this in their classrooms. They consistently copy HUGE articles off the internet or from ancient clipping files to hand out. They don’t challenge students to read or search for information themselves, or how to critically evaluate the information they get. This not only is a waste of paper, it’s a waste of intellect. Successful teachers know how to use their libraries as an extension of their classrooms, and effective librarians know how to collaborate with them.

  3. Um. Do you know anyone who reads the Internet in the snow?

    Books are portable. I carry one everywhere. Rain, snow or otherwise.

    That’s ’cause they’re also disposable. Is your laptop? It’s cheaper to replace one or the other.

  4. It should be mentioned that this poster was adapted from an article that was originally published in American Libraries in April, 2001. Many things have changed since then. But one thing that has not is that librarians are still the information experts, no matter which dish the information is served in.

  5. @Laura – I reach the middle ground by going to opposite extremes. 🙂

    @G – Thanks and I appreciate the very careful wording of that comment.

    @Liz – I think that’s the point. Libraries ought to be celebrating the Internet and how the two can mesh to take advantage of what both areas have to offer. Instead we’ve got posters taking lame potshots. I find that sad.

    @Harry – The original poster mentions reading books in the snow. Ask around or look around while reading next winter. You’ll find very few people go out into the snow to read.

    The point is not that books can’t be read in the snow etc. but that isn’t a compelling reason for libraries or a very thoughtful way to think about mobile computing. It’s seeing things through a very colored glass which doesn’t reflect the way most people live their lives. If libraries are going to survive they’ll need a lot more than the crowd who reads Frost in the snow and curls up with books by fires.

    @Leslie – It’s still up on the website, it’s still displayed in libraries as if it were accurate- – maybe they should update or correct it or better yet take it down.

    I’d say librarians are experts on information rather than information experts (insert asst. to the regional manager joke here). It gets slippery and I don’t want to generalize but in k12 where I’ve taught and gone to school librarians are experts in traditional information management. That’s very different from what I want librarians to be now.

    I certainly see librarians doing interesting things and using technology in really amazing ways but we’ve got a long way to go before the job as a whole is seen in quite the high esteem with which you seem to hold it. For what it’s worth, I feel teaching (k12 and higher ed) is in desperate need of elevation as well and tends to evaluate its own practitioners far too highly.

    Good librarians and good teachers ought to aim to make themselves obsolete. People ought to be self guided and independent learners and their very own information experts.

  6. Another thing to realize is that the Internet is growing and getting better. Are libraries? Usually, only when they get more “techie.” As Tom and others have said, how will they get better if they don’t embrace the current day? I went to college before the Internet was the first place you looked for info, and I remember my library (I’ll leave that anonymous) was always missing the books I needed. This poster doesn’t seem to suggest they want to change.

  7. I read books all the time even in the snow in Scotland – it’s called an ebook reader (Sony) and I carry an entire library around with me! The internet doesn’t close at 4pm, is far more up to date than most of the reference books in the library and can be annotated and amended to suit MY needs and those of my students.Inded, my students want me to cancel the so called ‘go the library and read quietly period’ and do more reading/writing in class instead. Libraries really need to get with the times if they are to survive in any form in years to come.

  8. I don’t think it’s an either/or situation…there’s no way that the internet can totally replace libraries, and libraries can’t come close to the same sort of connectivity and dynamics of the internet. Both function well together, though. I hate to think what will happen when the internet gets too crowded (as it did during the inauguration) or the power goes down for extended times. Libraries need to incorporate technology, though…loaning ebook readers and audio books to go for those with disabilities, laptops for in-library use for patrons, and more. The creative librarian should grasp opportunities to fill niches in the community: literacy classes, tech classes, author talks, poetry slams, etc. Sure, lots of that is online, but the human interaction is still best.
    BTW, when classes come to my library they don’t read quietly. The library is a lab for working, researching, and much more. Heaven forbid someone comes to our library seeking quiet…stimulation, maybe, but not quiet!

  9. I agree that it’s a misguided poster. I also agree that there are good and bad things about libraries and the interwebs. But I think the library is more than just the books. If you took all the books out of my little local library (or the media center in my school) you would still have a needed and changeable community space. There would be people on the computers who couldn’t get access otherwise (still a majority of the population, although I doubt this will always be true). You would still have a place for meeting, working and a repository of local, historical and artistic information. A non-commercial place with good lighting, comfortable seating, and areas dedicated to children and teens. You would still have librarians who would be there to help you find the information and make recommendations. So yes, they will of course change but I doubt they will disappear.

    Thanks for the food for thought!

  10. Liz and teacherninja – I think your two points are key. It’s not an either/or situation and libraries are/have to be more than just a place full of books.

    My only point in this post was that the poster was a bad idea and full of fairly stupid statements that didn’t highlight what actually makes libraries good. I like libraries. I like books (I may actually have a problem considering how many boxes of books I had to move to our newest address).

    I don’t have to make a choice between the two.

  11. People are scared of what they don’t understand. Combined with a the “This is the way it’s always been” attitude, I sometimes wonder that any progress is made at all.

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