Libraries are about much more than books—but, please, Seth, we NEED those ‘warehouses’

imageSeth Godin, the marketing guru, has written many gems. He has popularized such useful ideas as permission-based marketing—as opposed to a stream of obnoxious, unwanted messages from Fortune 500 spamsters we’ve never even done business with.

But, Seth, as much, as I admire your good work and know you mean well, the implementation of your latest advice would dumb down both America’s public libraries and the students and others who rely on them.

I get it. Libraries are about much more than books, and in the Chronicle of Higher Education and elsewhere, I’ve said the same. Librarians should lead people to information they need in their personal lives and for school and work. I myself love the concept of embedded librarians, which is exactly what the much-besieged school librarians are already. In fact, in keeping with Nate Hill’s outpost idea, I want to see mini-libraries sprouting up in shopping malls, complete with onsite librarians and video trailers to promote popular library offerings. And for years I’ve made the pitch for libraries as gathering places for students, civic activists, you name it. Going beyond you, I’ve talked up family literacy in an e-text/e-book context—so students can benefit from the influence of the ultimate role models, their parents.

So far, in our appreciation of the importance of librarians and the need to modernize their roles, I suspect we’re very much in sync on the whole. Like you, I’ve got the ultimate qualification of the moment. I’m a nonlibrarian, and real librarians are now saying they want to hear voices beyond their profession. But as an advocate of digital libraries and e-books since the early 1990s, here’s where I think you’re dead wrong—in believing that Gutenberg-type project and Amazon-style retailers (and maybe rental services?) will end the need for libraries to be, er, “warehouses” for books.

I want to see a wide variety of e-books and, for now, p-books—both popular and otherwise—around which libraries can build their people networks and outreach efforts. And I want them to be free to promote literacy. Even recreational reading just might make the difference between a booklover and an ignoramus. Let library collections shrink, don’t make a smooth transition over the years from P to E, and you’ll reduce the possibilities, especially for cash-strapped kids and parents on the wrong side of the digital divide. And don’t tell me that schools can be substitutes for libraries. I want students exposed not just to different books but to a variety of potential guides and mentors. Mere “clerks”? Hell no. Remember, too, that parents can’t be role models if they don’t read books in the first place—“library-free” always helps. Along the way, also please keep in mind that libraries are  also about the transmission of culture, not just scraps of “information.” A major mission of libraries should be the promotion of interest in long narratives—both fiction and nonfiction.

If nothing else, Seth, remember the potential of networked books, and of libraries as sources of permanent links—which would be good not just for the libs and the public, but also for publishers and writers. We can’t trust the private side. It cares less about long-term archiving than about quarterly profits.

Rather than encouraging public libraries to back off from their warehouse role, you should do the opposite and encourage the creation of a well-stocked national digital public library system (separate from but cooperating with a Scholarly Digital Library) to focus on the needs of students and other public library users by way of the right mix of both content and services.

Related: Seth Godin misses the point on libraries again, by Bobbi Newman, a South Carolina librarian who shares my interest in literacy and digital divide issues.

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on “Libraries are about much more than books—but, please, Seth, we NEED those ‘warehouses’
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