Saturday, March 30, 2013

Discussion: Libraries and the Future of Print

1. This week's readings cover a range of assessments and predictions about libraries, librarianship, and print in the digital era written over the past 20 years - many of them complimentary, others contradictory. So, what is the role of libraries in society today, and in the near future? And of librarians? In particular, what do we make of this notion - referenced directly or indirectly in every article - that the contemporary library has moved from being a place for collections (storage) to a place for information (communication)? Likewise, that librarianship has moved from being an education profession to an information profession (most explicitly stated by Wiegand, p. 540)? And is this really an either-or proposition, as the Cmiel reading and Pew Internet report both point out (i.e.  modern libraries are balancing these two formats - the print and the digital - and these dual missions)?

2. A dominant theme in the writings about today's prevailing information-service model of librarianship, especially in public libraries (see: Cmiel, Bell, and the Pew Internet report), is that libraries today are best seen as a type of local community center or cultural center. First off, is this as new a phenomenon as these readings make it out to be? Next, what are the advantages and disadvantages of this model, including the related recent trend of seeing patrons as "consumers" rather than citizens?

3. What is the role of technology in the future of libraries? Does "print" (at least in the traditional, standardized form of the printed book) necessarily need to be present for libraries to exist and thrive? Big questions, to be sure. But to put it another way, are the values and principles of librarianship determined by the medium itself, as Young claims? Is digital information, and the way it is dealt with, fundamentally different from printed information? (See Young's claims on pp. 121-25 about print being "objective, normalized, and standard" while digital is subjective, fluid, customized, etc.) Or, as Cmiel points out, are these shifts as much shaped by social and cultural forces (e.g. broader trends towards task-centered reading, social reform politics)?

4. Each of these readings hits on the concept of "access" in various ways. For me personally, one of the more intriguing perspectives here comes from Losh, who identifies various ways in which digital technologies and database systems can actually result in a loss of public access to recorded information. This claim goes against the widespread rhetoric of the digital, which promises open-access, essentially unlimited storage capacity, search, etc. What are some of the problems that Losh raises with digitization (social, cultural, and political, and not just technological), and what are your thoughts?

5. Related to #4, how concerned should we be about private corporations, such as Google, partnering with public institutions (such as our own university) to digitize public records and other knowledge/information in the public interest? As Jean-Noel Jeanneney (quoted in Losh) points out, users must pay for their culture somehow. But are libraries so essential to the public interest that they should solely be the domain of the government (whether local, state, or federal), or should private money be allowed to finance digital library initiatives?

6. Beyond just the issue of private interests controlling and potentially manipulating digital information, let us consider the history of libraries outlined by Wiegand and the ways in which access to libraries has historically been limited by class, gender, religion, et al. Then consider the findings of the Pew Internet report in particular, and how libraries today provide particularly essential resources for African-Americans, Hispanics, and other minority groups. As library budgets get slashed and public institutions are forced to turn to private corporations and foundations for funding (and thus their priorities), what are our concerns about access in these terms?

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