Monday, May 30, 2011

Public Library Relevence In the Digital Age

Arguably, the central issue plaguing the public library community in the 21st century is the role of information technology in library service, and, more broadly, the role of the library in the information age. Since their inception, public libraries have envisioned themselves as providing selective, high quality resources to the public. With recent technological advances, however, the need for public libraries is being called into question.

The public library movement of the nineteenth century drew on a strong vein of philanthropy and a popular enthusiasm for self help. It was seen as an educational resource, allowing the poor and working classes better themselves, as well as an alternative to the racy and shallow offerings popular in paid subscription libraries. In practice, however, public libraries were patronized primarily my members of the middle class, and they quickly began to take the interests of their readers into account, evolving an occasionally problematic dual mission of improving, informing and enlightening the public, and satisfying the popular taste.

The public library is frequently touted as a pillar of democracy and one of the central tools of individual self improvement and personal advancement in America. However, current technological pressures are threatening that vision. Many argue that, as more content moves online, and as computers, mobile devices, wireless internet, and digital readers become cheaper and more ubiquitous, public libraries are rendered less significant. What, after all, is the value of a repository of information when both informative and entertainment media are increasingly available from numerous other sources at little or no cost?

This is, to a certain extent, a valid criticism. If libraries exist to furnish the middle classes with cheap and free media, then they are indeed being severely out maneuvered by private sector competitors. It is revealing that patrons will download material elsewhere or even purchase it themselves rather than waiting for a library copy to become available. Equally telling are the Amazon customer reviews that essentially boil down to, “this is interesting, but not worth buying; get it from the library.” Has the library, then, descended from a gateway to understanding to the nation’s source for ebooks not worth their $14.99 list price?

All this has led to a great deal of anxious speculation, justification, and prediction about the future of public libraries. Librarians rightly assert that public libraries are more than a mechanism through which the government pays for its citizenry to have access to certain information. Public libraries function as filters, offering carefully selected material, as well agents of expansion, introducing users to new genres and mediums. They are community spaces. They are home to jobs and education programs. However, few would disagree that collections are at the center of library service. Without a body of information that is both valuable and valued at the heart of the organization, what good are a few literacy and computer classes? If library collections are loosing their value, maybe libraries are too.

Two points should be considered here. First, there's more to library resources than mystery bestsellers and a bunch of educational DVDs. Public libraries provide access to information that is either not available online at all, or which is part of the invisible web (the proprietary parts of the internet where access is restricted and frequently expensive--examples include academic journals, databases, etc.) These resources may not see as much use as Dan Brown's latest, but they include much of the most significant, up-to-date information available and they're virtually inaccessible to individuals.

It's also conceivable that we are looking for relevance in the wrong places. Improved information access is always a good thing, but, given the level of access among the educated and empowered middle class, maybe it is time for libraries to focus more exclusively on providing equal access to everyone else. It’s possible that, while libraries might be loosing relevance in the segment of the population they have traditionally (if accidentally) served, they could have an opportunity to gain relevance in the sector they set out to serve in the first place. Perhaps, as technological advances narrow libraries’ market, librarians should reconsider and readdress that first fundamental audience--the underprivileged.

This is not to say that library resources should not be accessible to everyone. Merely that, like a business targeting its core audience, libraries could be more effective and reach more people by tailoring their services more specifically. Libraries won’t win affluent users away from the corporate media providers by offering pale imitations of their services. Indeed, it’s likely more efficient and cost effective to find ways to partner with these corporations. But, perhaps by developing targeted, research-based services of their own, public libraries can meet the needs of core users more effectively, achieve measurable goals, and even attract new users.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Room by Emma Donoghue

This is longest 300 pages of mostly-dialog I've ever read. I think it literally took me six weeks, from my birthday in mid April to now, at the end of May, to work my way through this one. I actually considered putting it away without finishing, something I almost never do.

Not because it isn't good. It's actually pretty amazing--creative, insightful, revelatory in this incredibly sneaky, deceptively simplistic way, an incredible piece of craftsmanship. It's good the way Schindler's List is good; well done, but mostly not enjoyable.

The story is narrated in the first person by five-year-old Jack, a child raised entirely in Room, an 11x11 foot backyard shed where he and his mother are held prisoner by a man Jack knows only as Old Nick. At the beginning of the story, Jack feels safe and comfortable in Room--his daily routine includes meals and exercise, reading and chores, play time and no more than two television shows. But the realities of his situation are beginning to show through the safe world his Ma has created for him. At night, after Jack has gone to sleep in Wardrobe, Old Nick comes. Some days Ma is "switched off"--she stays in bed all day, and Jack is allowed to watch all the T.V. he wants. When Old Nick begins experiencing financial difficulties and providing fewer supplies, their situation becomes even more desperate.

In constructing Jack's voice, the author gives herself some latitude, but her characterization is true to the narrator's age overall. Like most five-year-olds Jack argues with his mother and has occasional tantrums. He experiences and expresses curiosity, anxiety and fear in authentic and believable ways. His constant one-on-one time with his mother has given him an advanced vocabulary as well as reading and math skills several years ahead of his real age. His emotional development, however, is complicated by the fact that he's only really ever known one other person. This makes for an interesting juxtaposition and leaves plenty of room for growth later in the novel. My only complaint is that Jack always seems to know why he does things. In my experience, this is not the case with most children--or many adults for that matter. His capacity for self-consciousness and analysis is probably pretty unrealistic.

This is a well written, thoughtfully constructed book well worth reading. It's harrowing and difficult, but it does end on a hopeful note.