Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The End of "The End of Libraries"

On Sunday, October 14th, yet another "End of Libraries" piece appeared. Per usual, it was written by a white male with no use for libraries, because every single time this trope appears, that's part of the author's demographic background. Beyond that, it's a crucial part of the author's background. It is overwhelmingly affluent white men* who argue that because they do not use something, it has no value for anyone. Libraries. The Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program. Affordable health care. It's the same argument.
It’s hard for me to even remember the last time I was in a library. I was definitely in one this past summer in Europe — on a historical tour. Before that, I think it was when I was in college. But even then, ten years ago, the internet was replacing the need to go to a library. And now, with e-books, I’m guessing the main reason to go to a library on a college campus is simply because it’s a quiet place to study. (Source)
Every single one of these articles has a version of that paragraph in it, right down to the part where the author admits he hasn't been in a library recently and makes "guesses."
The people who write these posts will never stoop to doing actual research about library usage. Even when they work for Google, as the most recent author does, they'll never use a search engine to make their argument. They'll just talk and talk and talk. Libraries don't factor into their lives, and since being a (straight) white male is the default setting for life, libraries don't factor into anyone's life. Privilege is nice, isn't it?

As such, what follows isn't for the authors of these pieces. It's for fellow librarians, who will be rebutting if they so choose. Think of it as a clearinghouse of elevator speeches, if you will. And if a white man happens to do some actual research before writing yet another "Death of Libraries" piece and stumbles across this, all the better.

Andy Woodworth starts us off. You should follow him on twitter and read his blog.

Pew has done some excellent work on this topic, too, and has data in easy to use formats.
Wikipedia's page on "Trends in Library Usage" is also well done.
The New York Public Library system's 2012 Annual Report is chock full of data about how its libraries are thriving.
If you prefer information in infographic form, we have that, too.

Fully 91% of Americans ages 16 and older say public libraries are important to their communities; and 76% say libraries are important to them and their families. (Pew)

The notion that libraries are in decline is a fundamental misunderstanding of what a library is. As physical institutions, libraries have been with us for over nine thousand years now, dating back to Ashurbanipal. When people write about the decline, end, or death of libraries, they are instead writing about a historic blip in the concept of libraries: the Carnegie-founded public library, which is less than one hundred and fifty years old. And as one can see from the links above, they aren't dying, either, though it would be nice if we voted for people to fund them.

Also well said on the topic: this.
Elsewhere on this site, relevant to the "death of libraries."

I'll leave you with some food for thought:
* The author of this post is, for the time being, a financially secure white male.


  1. SUPERB! Well said -- Author of this comment is a financially secure, though unemployed and eager to be employed in a public library again, white female.

  2. And it always seems to be adults, what a coincidence! I often wonder how many of these articles are written by adults with children. "We never use the library even though Junior reads 60 picture books a month! I just shell out $20 a pop for each one." or "Sure, there's seven WIMPY KID books and six DORK DIARY books and twelve Rick Riordan books and nine volumes of BONE and eight Suzanne Collins books but little Sally just needs every single one, so I just buy them all!" Much less all the endless programs we offer for children. My library has a music and dance class for ages 0-6. Our SMALL (and affluent) town also has TWO separate offerings of a very similar program that are fee-based. Those programs often sell out and *yet* we still get attendance of 40-80 people at least 4 times a week. Hmmm!

    Thanks for this breakdown - this is the part where these authors hop up to tell us librarians about how we don't even really know what libraries "are". Ah, the predictability.

  3. The original author, as a Google employee, need only speak to some of his coworkers, many of them classmates of mine from Library School, to find justification for the profession and, indeed the institution. On the other hand--he does make it obvious that we need to expand the publics understanding of our purposes. As an "affluent" member of the community he plays an important role in the funding of the library even if he never uses it. He also, no doubt, votes for resolutions and local government officials that have huge effects on the continued effectiveness of libraries and our mission to assist ALL members of the community.

    And while we are changing and making strides to adjust to the needs and desires of a public that has increasing access to information at home, we could and should be doing more. What and how, I can't say, but I am thinking about it as many of us are.

    I know this is not a new comment and I have really very little to offer the discussion. Sorry.

    I am also a white male, employed, and a librarian.

  4. So true about the inability to do research making the case FOR libraries. Love this post!

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  6. If only libraries would not be swayed by these types of articles -and stop weeding all of their periodicals and reference works! I know funding is a problem, but they will rue the heavy weeding when companies hosting online resources are sold and their new parent discontinues those resources. I'm a retired 35 year reference librarian who uses digital but values print even more!

  7. "Per usual, it was written by a white male with no use for libraries"

    Not that I disagree with anything in your article, but why does it matter that it was a white male doing the writing? While it may be that the average affluent upper class individual is in fact a white male, the vast majority of "white males" are not part of the 1% (nor are the reportedly more anti-library) . You could just have easily identified him as a member of the affluent class of technocrats without the risk alienating a large portion of your readers in the first paragraph.

    1. Double D,

      It might not be important, but I think it is at the least noteworthy.

      My thought process: labeling the authors as affluent white men matters because the authors of "death/end/decline of libraries" articles are almost always white men. The mentality that because the authors do not use something, it must have no value is tied up in notions that to be a white man is the "default" mode of thought. This is not to say that all white men oppose library funding, or do not understand the utility of libraries in the twenty-first century (after all, you commented on a blog post written by a white man), but there is a pattern of behavior here, by some white men, that I think needs to be addressed. And it's not just libraries. It's other social services and public goods, too. And people of differing gender identities and sexual orientations. To wit, the same loose demographic group, white men, have shutdown the government of the United States, have mocked people on food stamps, and have called women "fake geeks" at various conventions.

      I suspect that this default mindset, of whiteness and maleness, plays a non-trivial role in these articles. White males have the privilege of being able to "guess" rather than doing research, and of not needing libraries.

      To the extent that there is an affluent class of technocrats out there, it is telling that no non-white and non-male members of that class have written these kinds of articles. And had I implicated an affluent class of technocrats, there is always the risk that one or more of them would have taken offense. ;)

      Thank you for reading and commenting. I hope it didn't drive you or anyone else away.



    2. As a white female librarian who was taught in library school to value all points of view, I find your "white male" comments offensive. You suggest that "white male" thinking is all the same, e.g. backwards and wrong. You show no factual support for your racist, sexist commentary. Could you share with your reading audience what data you have to support these comments?

    3. Mrs. Jeffrey...I'm confused. Where do you see Jacob saying that all "what male" thinking is the same? Not only does he clarify about what he was saying, but...you do realize that Jacob is a white male right?

  8. As a fellow librarian, this is what I wish I could say whenever anyone asks me why I'm working for a "dying breed." Bravo!

  9. I think you're teaching a pig to sing here. This guy's greatest contribution to life on this planet is going on about how Apple products are going to rule the world on Twitter.

    The most important part: "It’s hard for me to even remember the last time I was in a library. " He's failed to engage his brain in the simplest way, almost to the point of trolling.

  10. As an academic researcher and the daughter of a librarian, I love love love them (especially my local NIH funded library). I do have to say as a scholar that researches how research gets to policy makers, waving the library flag among librarians and library lovers isn't the greatest approach. Books and articles that provide evidence for library value but are only read by librarians don't help either. These affluent white males that you're bashing make and implement a majority of the policies around libraries, and if they see them as a "nice to have" versus a "need to have," library funding for the masses will always be in question and libraries may go the way of the arts, reserved for the privileged. Look at the case of Medicaid, health care for the people that need it most is constantly cut and beaten down despite compelling arguments supporting it. A concerted effort focused on the affluent white male decision makers that makes the case for libraries with specific facts (test scores, access to computers, research support) and accessible anecdotes (Senator X's daughter loves the library) without alienating the decision makers would be more relevant.

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  12. I won't argue the points that were made about the comparison to arguments made about other services to make our society better (ahem) and keep the rich from eating us. The points neglect a few things I'd like to bring up that I'd like all of us librarians to think about... even if some of it is drilled into us in Information school:

    1. We live in a culture where the best access to national news are two comedy shows on basic cable. News has become confused with opinion without research yet few of us have yanked the cable. How can we expect some who works for a company that would benefit from the loss of libraries to say anything different? If Google were smart, they would, like the Gates Foundation, create a fund for rural and poor libraries (hello, Detroit!), thereby ensuring people, who would otherwise have no access to their product, continue to use that product. Cynical? You bet.

    2. Librarians are the worst marketers in the world. THE WORST. We desperately want our patrons to lift themselves above looking at easy icons as they rush through the doors with their toddlers screaming, holding a book in chocolate covered fingers. They won't. It's up to us to change our game to meet the market. We can't whine that people don't appreciate our services if we aren't out there speaking their language. Suck it up and get out there.
    3. I didn't step foot into a public library until college because my parents grew up in extremely rural areas after world war 2 in places where libraries were either bombed out or never existed for public use in the first place. I came to librarianship AFTER spending 20 years schlepping in libraries. I didn't even understand it was a thing because I had no context. There was no one reaching out to poor, white immigrants who don't speak English. How were we supposed to know about a library? This still exists. Who knows what place this person comes from....
    4. Remember, public libraries as they exist in this time and place are a new thing. Before the baby boomers, libraries were very different. With world war 1 and 2 requiring significant sacrifice from people, there were few resources and little if any cultural context for people to use a library for basic services and entertainment. In the developing world, most libraries are not free and are therefore a luxury of the privileged and well educated. Story time and maker spaces are... well, a product of OUR entitled culture.
    4. From my reckoning, the article author is in his early thirties, probably without kids. There is still time for him, so don't roundfile him...
    You challenge should be to market to him in a way that makes him WANT to come to the library rather than be outraged. Just as books are not our only service anymore, so too must we be put on that marketing jacket and reach out to populations we don't think about... including the wealthy... and remember, just because someone looks white, doesn't mean they speak English, or know that they can access services in many languages for free...
    PS: Perhaps citing wikipedia is not the strongest place for a librarian to make a point... :P

  13. "The library is dead, long live our library." http://bitly.com/XTIOyj Libertarians, Singularitarians, Proselytizing Librarians: mostly privileged white males, come to think of it...

  14. Sometimes I feel tarred by a broad brush, when in fact, I am a straight, white male librarian. Other times I feel like a singularity.

  15. Jacob, thank you for this summary with links. I agree somewhat with those complaining about the whiteness and maleness of these writers but the real problem is social and economic narcissism and the fact that many of these people influence political leaders and budget discussions. (See "The Seven Deadly Sins of Narcissism" http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Narcissism#Hotchkiss.27_seven_deadly_sins_of_narcissism )

  16. One of many of my qualms here is that the TechCrunch writer accurately depicts what is happening with ebooks when it comes to pricing them for individuals vs. libraries but then he decides to blame the libraries for this. So it's the fault of the libraries that they're getting ripped off by major publishing firms trying to squeeze money out of everybody?

    My other qualms are too numerous to list. Thank you for providing the info in this post. Good talking points to use with those people who never use libraries.