Let's Not Get Physical

By Kate Sheehan |

In the watered-down simplification of high school life that appears in teen movies (made by adults), libraries are the home of nerds. Jocks exist in the physical realm, while nerds dwell in the landscape of the mind. Anyone who has been to high school (or perhaps seen The Breakfast Club) knows that teenagers don’t live in a world so facile and rigid, but libraries, during and after we’re done with high school, are seen as temples to the intellect.

Libraries are, our surveys keep telling us, perceived as book-based places. We may want people to see us as being about information and community, but when I’m looking for a library I’ve never been to before and I can’t find it based on the architecture (surprisingly easy in New England), I look in the windows – the stacks are a dead giveaway (and can be seen easily from the road). I’m not sure what information looks like from the side of the road.

Our long history with information in the form of books has tied us to the physical more than we may realize. The northeast has been walloped with a series of snowstorms in the past month, and I’ve been thankful for a job I can do from home, but more than that, I’ve been thankful to work for an organization that has created a culture of working from home. Because our service desk operates by phone, email, and IM, my coworkers and I can (and do) work from almost anywhere.

The actual ability to do work from anywhere is not that new. Nor is it particularly unusual for libraries. Most librarians write reports, work on collection development, read professional literature, and check email from home. But the culture in libraries often doesn’t count work done offsite as “real” work. Certainly part of this is rooted in the culture of service. Service is at the heart of what we do, so public-facing time is held above all other activities.

Until recently, the information that libraries traffic in has been physical objects. Books, magazines, movies, music, pamphlet files, journals – all things. The shift to information and content without an actual container has not been smooth for anyone. Consumers are willing to pay for actual newspapers, but balk at paying for online access to the same content (of course, paying for access instead of ownership is a huge part of this issue, and a subject for another post). Personally, I buy music digitally when I assign lower value to it. Music I’m buying only because its high tempo makes it good for the gym comes from iTunes. But albums from artists I’ve followed for years? Those I like to hold in my hand. However, while this preference used to feel normal and reasonable, it’s starting to feel more and more like an out-of-step, possibly pathological, quirk.

The culture of information consumption is changing from a physically-rooted activity to one dictated purely by the information itself. Libraries are at risk of being a casualty of this shift. Ebooks are certainly at the core of this issue for libraries, but also the expectation of ubiquity is not built into library culture (yet). Problems that used to be standard in our computing lives – data lost in crashes, left on other computers, bookmarked in other browsers – are now perceived almost as personal failures. Solutions (Instapaper, Dropbox, SugarSync) are offered, maybe with a hint of pity. Yet when I tried to renew my library card without the actual card (I only had the keychain tag), I ended up having to buy a new card. Of course I understood where the library was coming from, but a teeny part of me kept thinking “Twitter can verify people’s identity online, why can’t we?”

Coming into the library shouldn’t be a punishment. When I was in high school, I worked at a large office supply store that shared a parking lot with a large chain bookstore. My parents picked me up from work one day and said that they had consistently noticed that people were happy going into the bookstore, but looked aggravated going into the store I worked in. I told them that I thought the bookstore was someplace people generally went for fun, while my store was for chores. People had to come in, they didn’t want to. We want people to want to come to the library. Just like we want people to come to library conferences when they’re happy and able to do so. However, when they can’t or don’t want to, they shouldn’t be penalized for it. Getting someone to walk through the door isn’t always a win.

At our MidWinter wrap up webinar, Tom Peters and Jason Griffey both mentioned the increasing movement towards libraries as providers of services instead of content. How many of those services will be physically based or driven by the idea of information as object? The growing movement within ALA to find a way for librarians to attend a conference without going bodily to the conference is hopefully the harbinger of a shift in library culture away from the physical world to wherever the minds of our patrons happen to be.