Saturday, January 26, 2013

A few words on the new dodo bird …

Some say libraries are going the way of the dodo bird.

The flightless, three-foot-tall bird native to the island of Mauritius near Madagascar in the Indian Ocean became extinct in the late 17th century due to an aggressive human population.

Today humans are coming up with technologies that have the potential of supplanting the traditional roles of public and college libraries.

When I was in elementary school in Rialto, California, back in the early ‘60s, I loved to read baseball biographies and science fiction and the best place to get them was the school library. The books were free, an important consideration for a family on a limited income. Frankly, I don’t recall going to a bookstore during my elementary school days.

Bodleian Library, Oxford University
Vague memories of a public library in Corona, California, percolate near consciousness, but the strong, undeniable memories belong to the county library system in Washington County, Ohio during my high school years. I didn’t really do research in the main Washington County library or the branch in Beverly, but I did check out science fiction and historical novels and the occasional nonfiction book about a historical event or person.

In college at Ohio University, I relied on Alden Library on the College Green for research papers, combing the stacks for obscure articles and books on long-forgotten Pacific island societies.

I don’t recall buying books at bookstores until I was in high school and would visit a locally owned store in downtown Marietta, Ohio, where I would purchase science fiction paperbacks. That would have been about 1968. I do believe I bought my first fantasy novel in that bookstore, a Conan novel. Back then local bookstores ruled; I don’t recall frequenting a chain bookstore until the early 1980s at the Lake Square Mall in Leesburg, Florida.

So what has changed?

I’m writing this in my office using my Dell laptop. I can keep up with my married or soon-to-be married nieces and their mom – my sister Jody – when they use their cell phones and tablets to post to Facebook. Niece Nicci says she just finished a kettlebell workout with her fiancĂ© Tony. In a few minutes I’ll have to return to writing news stories, and when I do I may need to google to dig up some background for a story. In the old days that would have required a trip to the county or college library.

Libraries are having to adapt to the Information Age and the Online World. In the ancient world onward they were the storehouses of knowledge. The intricate details in award-winning novels and nonfiction books didn’t come out of brains or thin air. They were painstakingly gathered inside libraries. For example, authors who specialize on periods of American history spend hours and hours conducting research in the archives of the Library of Congress.

More and more nowadays, that research can be conducted online from their laptop in their office. It’s not happened yet, but I can see a day coming when libraries everywhere will have their books and research materials on their websites. Their patrons will be able to freely download a book or magazine to their e-readers for a week or two. The only people who will drive to a “physical” library will be those too poor to afford a computer or e-reader or elderly person who won’t learn these new fangled ways.

Libraries are also getting swept up into the conservative vs. liberal debate that has turned discourse into a mud-hole catfight. Libertarians and tea-partiers don’t like the idea of using tax dollars to support anything beyond basic services – not even libraries. In Florida during a debate, one guy said, “…most librarians are little more than unionized pawns for the social activist bosses of the American Library Association. Today ALA controls 62,000 members, and through its czarist accreditation program of many libraries, largely dictates what books are available for the most impressionable members of U.S. society, our children.”

When someone uses the word “czarist” to describe a library association with no power, you can’t help but conclude that public discourse has indeed entered the loony bin.

Ideological arguments against libraries by their very nature are impossible to refute. Any attempt to refute a basic tenant of ideology will fail … the believer will not yield to evidence.

In 20 years, public libraries may be almost entirely online, with only a token building open to the refuseniks who will not use computers or electronic reading devices. And that token building could very well disappear along with the refuseniks.
In some places it’s already happening. Every year in Duplin County, North Carolina, the county commissioners try to zero out money for the libraries. So far the money has been reinstated. So far….