Saturday, February 20, 2010

It's not about the books

Books have become a lighting rod in the discussion of libraries. People have very strong opinions and relationships with their books, and the idea of books. The emotional and sensory aspects, the relationship of the reader to print material, and the balance, or should I suggest battle, between formats. This is a crucial discussion but may be distracting us from the bigger question.

It's not about the books. It is about the content. And content is the business of libraries. Not format. We need to offer material in all possible formats available now, as well as formats we can't anticipate. Books are still an integral format as there is much information still found only in print, and we should no more rush to discriminate against paper than we should close our eyes to new formats. What this discussion is drawing attention to is the work of libraries. Is this work relevant? Will libraries as we know them survive? Should libraries as we know them survive?

Some content is only available in books. We need books. Some content is only available in digital format. We need digital. Some students with learning disabilities can better access content through audio versions. We need audio books. Graphic novels present ideas that aren't available elsewhere, and appeal to students who respond to visual representations of ideas. We need graphic materials. A diverse community requires a diversity of formats. As librarians we need to be agnostic about formats and content. 

Students are accessing information through a myriad of digital devices. We need to support those devices. It isn't about the libraries of the future. It is about the libraries of today. YouTube just turned five years old. The volume and diversity of information found on YouTube is simply astounding. In a blink it has become  vital component of learning and an integral part of our national and cultural archive. Who saw that one coming?

Just this past week one of our most avid readers stopped by to stock up on books for vacation week. She quickly assembled a stack of nine books, and as I checked them out to her, she sighed "I wish I had a Kindle. You could just check out all these books to my Kindle, and that way I could take them all  on vacation with me. I'll never get them all in my suitcase." (The flaw with her wish is of course, Kindle is still proprietary. But she has the vision! She gets it!) As a reader who lives for "getting lost in a book', the paper format impedes her access. Her reading is limited to what she can lug. She was absolutely thrilled when I whipped out a yellow 4-way H band to hold the stack together, and chattered on about all the "quaint" little supplies and gadgets that were found only in libraries. As she threw her 30 lb. backpack loaded with textbooks and sports gear over one skinny shoulder and tucked her nine hardcover stack under the other arm and staggered out the door, I couldn't shake the feeling that we could be doing a better job of introducing new reading technologies.

Reading has changed. It is time to stop wringing our hands over books. We need to be clinical, not emotional. Books are a content delivery system. What are the best systems for diverse content and diverse needs?  More than ever before we are positioned to provide leadership and instruction for students and faculty in the quickly evolving terrain of text. Just ask the students interviewed in the recent New York Times Room for Debate article, The Library, Through Student's Eyes. They present a diversity of opinions that embrace the traditional role of libraries as well as the new, and they clearly lay out the various and diverse needs of the reader, and how formats facilitate or hinder their work. Understanding the format and instructional needs of our students and our community is our mission. 

We need to be more than a quiet place to study.

Photo Credit:
Source: Nevins Memorial Historic Collection
Nevins Library First Librarians.
16 May, 2009. JPEG. file
Wikimedia Commons
Attribution license

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Blogger Smith Academy Librarian said...

Write on!
I love reading your blog. You express what I feel and wish I could say.

February 22, 2010 at 12:51 PM  
Blogger Robin Cicchetti said...

Thanks for posting such a great comment, Smith Academy! Very appreciated!
I suspect there are a lot of our out there who feel the same way. It bodes well for libraries. All the best - Robin

February 22, 2010 at 3:45 PM  

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