10.26.2010

rage against the library machine

Yesterday in my "Foundations of Library and Information Science" class, we discussed the role of the librarian in the digital era. It's a fascinating and important issue for librarian students to unpack, as there are vast implications for public services, education, equal access - and our future employment. I can't do it justice here, but I will pass along this alternative vision: the robo-library.

Wall Street Journal:
New Library Technologies Dispense With Librarians

In this suburb of St. Paul, the new library branch has no librarians, no card catalog and no comfortable chairs in which to curl up and read.

Instead, the Library Express is a stack of metal lockers outside city hall. When patrons want a book or DVD, they order it online and pick it up from a digitally locked, glove-compartment- sized cubby a few days later. It's a library as conceived by the Amazon.com generation.

Faced with layoffs and budget cuts, or simply looking for ways to expand their reach, libraries around the country are replacing traditional, full-service institutions with devices and approaches that may be redefining what it means to have a library.

Later this year Mesa, Ariz., plans to open a new "express" library in a strip-mall, open three days a week, with outdoor kiosks to dispense books and DVDs at all hours of the day. Palm Harbor, Fla., meanwhile, has offset the impact of reduced hours by installing glass-front vending machines that dispense DVDs and popular books.

The wave of innovation is aided by companies that have created new machines designed to help libraries save on labor. For instance, Evanced Solutions, an Indianapolis company that makes library software, this month is starting test trials of a new vending machine it plans to start selling early next year.

Read it here. Even some of the comments on that story are surprisingly worth reading.

In this vision of the library, there is no serendipitous discovery of a new book - or a new idea. There is no one to help with research. There is no children's storytime, ESL classes, or resume-writing workshops. No quiet, safe space for teens and tweens to study after school. No free internet access for the millions who cannot afford it at home. No private internet access for people who need to research something without their family's knowledge. No help for those confused about computer use but too embarrassed to ask anyone they know for help. No place for seniors to read magazines.

Really, there is no library at all.

6 comments:

Nitangae said...

Indeed. Mechanization and digitalization in libraries is a great disaster, and mostly just an excuse for union busting, as far as I can tell. In UBC they have been reducing library staffs, replacing them with a number of people with library science degrees and a large number of expensive computers. The result: when I look through the shelves for a book on Chinese history I frequently discover books about Israel, or India, or the United States, with nothing whatsoever to do with Chinese history. The problem is that they are now so understaffed that the call-numbers themselves are frequently being assigned incorrectly. And books are forever dissapearing and being shelved in the wrong place - of course, occasional mistakes are understandable, but at UBC it is really severe. I tremble to think what is happening in the great computerized vault where the unpopular books are sents, to be pulled out by robots.

This is just to say that nothing replaces the unionized staff that UBC is currently trying to reduce.

Nitangae said...

Sorry to keep on ranting, but there is such a range of errors resulting from the fact that UBC library is severely understaffed. My wife went to get her card updated, and a book was taken out in her name because the library staff didn't close the computer. A few days ago I was in the library and somebody ran out of the library with huge bags, setting off the alarm, and because there was only one person working, nobody could do anyting about it. I am not complaining about the staff, but I am really angry at the well-fed and well-paid UBC admin who seem to think that the way of hte future is sticking a bunch of computers in front of the library, and cutting union staff. The result is absolute disaster.

When I was at U of Alberta the library - which was barely mechanized - almost never had any books go missing, nor was I ever told that I had not returned a book only to discover it in the stacks. At the U of Toronto, which began to digitilize while I was there, and was beginning the process of crushing the unionized staff, it happened a few times in seven years that they failed to record the books that I returned. It has already happened numerous times in the very short time I have been at the University of British Columbia - all thanks to restructuring, mechanization, and the general contempt of university admin for unionized working people.

L-girl said...

By all means, rant away.

I am not opposed to digitization per se (not that it would matter, because the technology is here, and will be used). Remote access is incredible - it's greener, empowering, saves tons of time, and is a godsend for rural and/or remote communities. Digitization enables us to have the world's knowledge at our fingertips - the dream of a universal library.

I use the UofT library from my home all the time. Without that access, I probably couldn't be in graduate school.

But when digitization is used as an excuse to cut services - services that can't necessarily be justified by bottom-line numbers, but are no less necessary - it has terrible consequences, as you say.

Like any tool or technology, it can be used for good or bad.

L-girl said...

Annoyed Librarian: Libraries Without Librarians

Lorraine said...

In this vision of the library, there is no serendipitous discovery of a new book - or a new idea. There is no one to help with research. There is no children's storytime, ESL classes, or resume-writing workshops. No quiet, safe space for teens and tweens to study after school. No free internet access for the millions who cannot afford it at home. No private internet access for people who need to research something without their family's knowledge. No help for those confused about computer use but too embarrassed to ask anyone they know for help. No place for seniors to read magazines.

No activity at all. Just transactions. That's the problem with what society has become. The assumption that every activity can be modeled as a transaction has been taken to its logical <strike>conclu</strike>extreme. The reference to "quiet, safe space for teens and tweens to study after school" especially hits home. I definitely owe more of my education to the Detroit Public Library than the Detroit Public Schools.

Nitangae said...

Lorraine, the same is true for with with Edmonton Public Libraries, which also gave me a place where I was free to be a geek.

Not only is everything now a transaction, but the idea of community is itself suspect. That is what really bothers WSJ about the idea of libraries as a place to sit down, with trained staff. First people treat each other like people, then they might actually want to organize together in opposition to restructuring, or poor housing.