I applaude John’s effort to approach criticism with dialogue and agree with many of his conclusions. As an institution, libraries have a well established history as central repositories of physical, and now digital, collections. In my last post, I pointed out how we need to transition our thoughts of library as place to the digital world. However, John reminds me that the place is only important in so much as it meets the needs of our user communities.
To me, libraries are much more than collections, but instead represent a broader set of ideals related to universal access and intellectual freedom. As far as I am concerned libraries will live on as vital institutions as long as we embrace these ideals. John asks:
I agree on both points, especially with the “Â“Don’Â’t expect kids, seniors, and everyone else to trudge downtown”Â” part. But let me ask you this, is there any reason why a new library initiative couldn’Â’t encompass all those things? Why not subsidize wifi hot-spots around town that default to the library web page when a user first logs on? If you don’t have the money, raise it. Why not have our libraries represented on planning commission boards so that we can push for ubiquitous broadband access? Why the hell are we not the ones spear-heading these efforts?
All of those suggestions appeal to the ideals of universal access that I previously mentioned. Whenever I visit a new town, the first thing I assess about the public library is its location. I ask, “Is it accessible to those who need it most?” Oftentimes the answer is no. Contemporary information technologies offer new opportunities to distribute access points in new and valuable ways. And to answer John’s last question, I sure as heck would rather see librarians leading these initiatives than other interest groups. One of the reasons I entered this profession is so I would have a platform to get on local technology boards, school boards, and the like. I see our profession as a calling to help people connect with the information and knowledge they need to live fulfilling lives. We have a strong history of professional ethics and public service that we need to apply to these new initiatives.
John states, “The problem is that libraries are not typically aggressive beasts.” He then discusses a number of places we need to be aggressive. It seems that traditionally our value has been largely accepted without argument. As defenders of intellectual freedom, we should wonder why that is. Isn’t increasing criticism in many ways due to a more informed public? As defenders of intellectual freedom don’t we recognize the value of looking at both sides of an issue. Even if we are right, it is usually helpful to embrace criticism as an opportunity to reflect and improve. One of the ways we can become aggressive is to meet criticisms head on instead of going on the defense.
All this said, it is also important to attack these particular criticisms head on in the way Michael Stephens and have. In this case, it is clear that many of the points in the original critique were unfair to the Lawrence Public Library.
I look forward to seeing other responses to John’s essay.