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Local libraries change to adapt to the post-Google world

August 20th, 2011 · 17 Comments

Anyone reading this blog likely loves words. Many of you, I know from personal emails, particularly love words in books.

So the transformation of libraries in the last decade (pushed by the information flood available from Google, pulled by the cool book-marketing ideas of places like Chapters) has not gone unnoticed: more space for computers, more money spent on ebooks and videos and video games. And, as the about-to-open Surrey central library makes clear, more space for people just to hang out.

Here’s my story on that, which is just the beginning of a much longer conversation I know is out there about the place of books and the place of people in libraries.

For me (and I suspect many like me), the transformation of the book world has been both painful and wonderful. I love physical books. My house is filled with them: stacked on the floor, in a room that was supposed to be a spare bedroom and now looks like a small Amazon warehouse, in the living room, stuck in nooks I had built in to the kitchen. I once read that the final stage of obsessive book-collecting is buying books in languages you know you will never learn. I haven’t quite reached that stage yet, but I do still have my copy of “Beginner Swedish” that I bought after spending a couple of weeks on a beach with my temporary Swedish boyfriend.

On the other hand, I bought an iPad and I am adolescently, irrationally in love with it and the way the New Yorker looks EVEN BETTER on the screen than in print, the way I can download a book anywhere (key, when you’re the kind of person who reads a book a day on vacation), the way I can read late into the night without disturbing my princess-and-the-pea husband by flipping pages or, god forbid, keeping the light on.

My rational mind says, Celebrate all reading. My emotional mind loves the physical feel I had in old-fashioned libraries, where I felt surrounded by knowledge in its physical form and a community of people drinking it in. As he said in my story, architect Bing Thom has tried to preserve that feeling in Surrey. I await the results.

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  • Joseph Jones

    Think of us as knowledge and information curators …

    A new focus on teaching … how to work with all the different kinds of technology.

    There is something profoundly contradictory in these two fragments.

    I left the formal practice of librarianship less than a decade ago.

    Many who work as librarians today have little scope for anything besides perpetual grapple with an ever-shifting multiplicity of interfaces — interfaces so often left to the whims of techno-idiots.

    When you discover the limits — what the internet and even the library cannot or will not provide you — only then can you claim to be doing research.

    All the rest is froth in the surf.

  • Bill

    It would seem inevitable that printed books will follow vinyl records, cassette tapes, cds, and VCR’s in giving way to the digital format and minimial space will be required to display physical books. The Surrey library demonstrates this is already beginning to happen and as space is allocated to community services. Perhaps we should be planning for the future and consolidate community centers with libraries and avoid duplication of services as the book distribution function of libraries diminishes.

  • Bill Lee

    But consider the widely syndicated cautions of columnist Nicholas Carr (“Is Google Making Us Stupid?” later a book “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains ”
    …” In a study last year at the University of Washington, a group of graduate students was given Kindles, and their use of the devices was monitored through diary entries and interviews. By the end of the school year, nearly two-thirds of the students had abandoned the Kindle or were using it only infrequently. Of those who continued to use the e-reader regularly, many had “switched to a different and usually less desirable reading technique,” researchers said.”

    Meanwhile consider Spain, (speaking of books in languages some don’t read yet). They were the great hope of e-books as all best sellers were selling on e-books some years ago. Despite that, the economy and the market tanked.
    See English summary at

    And as for “more e-books” John Naughton found the basis of Amazon’s “more” is cheap self-publishing. ” Now anyone can ‘write’ a book. First, find some words…”

    What the public hitching-posts called libraries need these days if more chairs, more electric sockets (and the power to supply them) and longer hours and better locations . Thus the Montreal Public Libraries in firehalls and the like.

  • Bill Lee

    Going to visit the Multnomah Libraries while in Portland? And both the Northeast Portland Tool Library and Southeast Portland Tool Library.
    Shouldn’t the newly guaranteed twice-a-day Talgo train to Seattle, Portland have dome cars too?
    And is your travel trunk big enough to contain your haul for Powells on Burnside?
    Hmm each book a half-kilo. One metre of shelf is 40 books, 9 shelves high to the celling per book bay = ??? kilos/pounds 3 or 4 metres wide walls of the smaller rooms….. hmm

  • Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking.” – Albert Einstein

  • Hazu Chan

    Yes Frances, but…

    Are books dead, and can authors survive?

  • Yes by formal training and for large chunk of my career I was a librarian, but not in public libraries. In the engineering and legal sectors.

    Much as some people want to slay the physical library (ie. Mayor Ford is threatening to shut down several branches in Toronto, etc.), it is very ironic that the icon /concept of “library” continues to be used some product designs for electronic tools /technologies. We can’t seem to let go of that imagery, can we?

    For every bula blog reader here who has a library card, ask your local library how you can access their electronic research databases which cost thousands of dollars annually of license access fees.

    Vancouver Public Library card holders, your card number below bar code, will give you bar code number access to way more meaty information for “free”, as a taxpayer/resident.

    Wonder how else libraries can get this message out in this increasingly fragmented world of multi-channel information tools and technologies?

    If anything, public libraries nowadays would be game to host local bloggers’ groups to meet face to face occasionally. There are many ways to extend the concept of information-sharing with the library to facilitate it by providing face-to-face meeting space, etc.

  • spartikus

    to way more meaty information for “free”, as a taxpayer/resident.

    Shhh…you’re giving away secrets for blog fights, Jean!

  • IanS

    I too was reluctant to turn away from physical books, shelves of which I’d accumulated over the years (to the horror of my wife, who doesn’t like my clutter). However, I picked up a kindle a little over a year ago and haven’t looked back. There are so many benefits, such as the ease of having hundreds of books in one little package, the immediate delivery, the convenience for travel, the lack of clutter. Nowadays, I buy a dozen kindle books for every physical book and I suspect that ratio will grow higher as time passes.

    As for the age of google research, I have mixed feelings. One on hand, it makes it much easier to access information. There are now so many facts easily available to anyone who can formulate a search. On the other hand, in my experience, simply accessing facts doesn’t really aid in understanding and, in fact, can give the false appearance of understanding. It’s now so easy to sound knowledgeable without actually knowing what you’re talking about.

  • gmgw

    @IanS #9:
    Re your comments on Google research: Most librarians would concur. The biggest challenge facing libraries and librarians in the digital age is staying relevant in the digital age. In other words, who needs a librarian if we have Google (and e-books, for that matter)? What librarians are doing more and more in response is casting themselves as not only gatekeepers of the digital universe but also as interpreters of data. It’s one of the crowning ironies of the age that we live in a time when more information is available to us then at any other time in human history, much of it in easy-to-access-from-home formats. What we are increasingly lacking, however, is evaluative capacity; in other words, the ability to distinguish between “Good” information and “Bad” information. In an age when Wikipedia is the gold standard of research for most high school and even university students, a shocking number of people can no longer discern when they’re being misinformed– or just poorly informed. People have become so accustomed to cherry-picking information from the Web in short, easily-digestible spurts that they seldom stop to evaluate not only sources of information, particularly alternative sources, but even the quality of the information itself. This helps to explain why neo-Fascist demagogues like Limbaugh, Beck, Hannity et. al.– to say nothing of the opportunistic politicians they promote– are able to exert such enormous influence on the thinking– if we can call it that– of so many mainstream Americans; they have become accustomed to being lied to, and they don’t even mind all that much, if the lies are rendered easily palatable and delivered in an entertaining manner.

    Librarians, in their bid to avoid becoming even more of an endangered species, hope to be able to play a role in steering people clear of the many traps and deceptions on the information highway. Essentially they stand ready to (informally) train people to think and to evaluate. Inculcating critical thinking on a mass level is a tall order, to be sure; but given that as the world digitizes, there is less and less demand for the services traditionally offered by librarians, this may be among the only roles left for them to play.

  • IanS

    @gmgw #10,

    I don’t necessarily disagree with any of that, though I’m not sure how much a librarian can be expected to train people, even informally, to evaluate information. Once you go beyond categorizing sources as being more or less reliable, that falls more into the realm of teachers.

    I guess maybe that’s your point, though.

  • It is distressing that even with key physical evidence people will not believe in the ‘truth’. Example: it’s a sad state of information disbelief in face of Internet information overload, that some Americans could not believe that their own President (Obama) was an American.

    That there had to be a photo of his birth certificate on the ‘Net. And still some people believed he was Muslim (although, so what if he was?) , when Obama gave so much of his personal history, same story over and over to the world.

  • There are certain techniques and key information sources that librarians do teach users. But users pay attention best when they know their advice/opinion requires some form of legal compliance or there is a serious risk that if the wrong advice is based on unreliable/non-validated information, it could be a threat to public safety, personal injury, financial loss or public embarrassment.

    Yes, like what a lawyer would hint at or an engineer.

  • IanS

    @Jean #12,

    That’s not an internet phenomenon; that’s just human nature. As we see over and over again, facts are poor tools when it comes to challenging people’s beliefs.

  • spartikus

    The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science

    Love this quote:

    In other words, when we think we’re reasoning, we may instead be rationalizing. Or to use an analogy offered by University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt: We may think we’re being scientists, but we’re actually being lawyers

  • West End Gal

    What a waste of Globe&Mail paper this article was…

  • Bill McCreery

    Teachers spend a it of time today (in BC) actually teaching critical thinking. I am not sure how successful their efforts are. It would be interesting to see some evaluative perspectives on that.

    So now there are teachers, librarians, community centers