Godin 0, Libraries 1?

25Jan10

I have a confession to make. I think Seth Godin is totally overrated. People just love him, though, and while occasionally I do find his soundbite-style edicts thought-provoking and useful, I mostly find it quite worrisome the way people immediately accept and evangelize everything he says . Especially when he pronounces that today’s libraries “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.)”

I had started to write  up a huge rant about Godin’s thoughts on the future of libraries, but wound up getting frustrated every time I worked on it. (Karen put together a good round-up of other bloggers’ thoughts, anyway.)

My main points of contention with Godin’s post are that:

  1. It’s incredibly ignorant to say that everything is on the internet, and free, to boot.
  2. Public libraries are about much, much more than just access to information — how about literacy? Community? Culture? Entertainment?
  3. Public libraries are in dire straights? News to me!

Overall, I just felt stunned that someone so supposedly admired and respected, so in touch, would make such uninformed comments.

So I was thrilled to see Kelly Grant’s article in the Globe & Mail about how today’s libraries are (surprise, surprise) not just about books, and are actually keeping up and adapting very well to our digital reality.

From the article:

“For an institution whose fundamental goal is to give people literacy and access to knowledge, you can’t ignore the new world,” said Jane Pyper, the top librarian in Toronto, where all 99 branches offer free wireless and patrons “borrowed” 88 per cent more electronic titles in 2009 than they did in 2008.

Now obviously, this article focuses on large urban library systems. I know that not every public library is doing this well. But let’s give some credit, here, to the many, many libraries that are finding innovative ways to keep up with our rapidly changing world. And while recognizing that our needs change, they also fortunately remember that human nature doesn’t. We still want the content of that library material – from fiction to reference to films and beyond – we just want new ways to access it.

The problem is that if someone of Godin’s prominence doesn’t realise this, then libraries need to work a lot harder to promote their newer, digital-friendly services. As Sarah Glassmeyer concludes:

Like I said, we’re trying. Some of us, at least. There is a definite component of librarians who don’t want to explore all the possibilities of user engagement that are currently available, but I think that there are few out there that don’t want to help users find and use information. Obviously we’re not doing a great job on marketing this fact.

But at the same time, I couldn’t have said it better than Pete at Thoughts While Waiting:

Please take care with your words. When a strong influencer says that a certain institution “can’t survive” he may be inadvertently assisting in its demise, however good his true intentions. Words, even digital ones, have power.

~ Emma

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4 Responses to “Godin 0, Libraries 1?”

  1. When I read the original, all I could think was “Seth, Seth, Seth, when was the last time you went to a library?”

    I was very disappointed, though not surprised, that he was out of touch. There is a trend to go to Google first before the Public Library. Only 18% of Canadian’s don’t have internet access at home: http://www.muchmormagazine.com/2009/10/82-of-canadians-now-have-internet-access-at-home/.

    In my mind it is not Technology vs. The Library, or even Godin vs. the Library. The main problem is unwillingness to break out of the mold, or to recognize when change is required. All publicly funded institutions must stay current, fresh, and relevant to their patrons. Just ask Stephen Harper…

    PS. Onoway Public Library is AWESOME

  2. 2 Emma

    Shaunna, you’re absolutely right – it’s really not a fight. There are all sorts of perception problems, and the librarians who moaned to Seth that all they do is lend DVDs need a little perception adjustment, if you ask me. It’s definitely up to our libraries and those who fund them to make the public aware of how they can meet our needs.

    And, as you and I both know, for those of us who *are* aware of how great our libraries are, little public fanfare can’t hurt :)

    P.S. Winnipeg Public Library RULES!


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