The replacement would be Net connections and other technology in the “Internet library” room of a community center. Gone would be librarians and shelves of paper books; instead Balboa would rely on remote reference services and electronic ordering from the surviving branches.
Money or lack of it isn’t the only explanation here: many patrons are shunning the paper books.
“They come specifically to use the computers,” the Daily Pilot quotes Cynthia Cowell, the Newport system’s library services director.
Will more shutdowns like the possibility above happen if the Harvard-hosted Digital “Public” Library of America positions itself as a public library replacement, wittingly or unwittingly? And if people think, “Who needs public libraries, when the DPLA and friends will handle things remotely”?
See why we’re interested in franchise and branding issues of public libraries—and a genuine public national digital library system respectful of local tastes and needs, including the promotion of books of all kinds, especially among the young? Give them a wide variety to read, and the right mix of content and face-to-face guidance and encouragement, not just a quiet place to study; and academic achievement will go up. Simply put, the Balboa neighborhood deserves a real branch, an actual public library, even if the physical size shrinks.
In the context of the Newport Beach proposal, Dave Kiff, city manager, correctly acknowledged to the Pilot: “People identify [book stacks] with the library.” Publibs are far more than that, in fact. But it’s the popular perception.
LibraryCity.org is all in favor of taxpayer-friendly libraries by way of cost-justification and other thrift, but whatever the medium, it is essential for public libraries to keep serving local communities—through localization of national digital collections, civic-related activities in person and online, local story-telling hours in libraries and on the Web, local content like videos and oral histories, cooperation with local writers and bookstores, and other means.
For now, here’s something for the good people of Newport Beach to ponder. If physical books vanish from children’s lives away from the classroom, how much mindshare will books claim? Can family literacy programs, modernized schools, and other efforts take up the slack through a focused public initiative at all levels of government, linked to a well-stocked public national digital library system? We would hope so. To borrow two words from a ZDnet headline, let’s not let “libraries die”? Instead, as we see it, let’s reinvent them. Carefully.
Granted, the replacement for the Balboa branch won’t kill off access to paper books entirely—what with the remote ordering system—but the proposal comes across as another step along the way. As library advocates, we’re very uncomfortable with it. Many young library users would be more likely to check out books in front of them, or on their computer or handheld screens, as opposed to having to wait.
A public national digital library system could better help cities and rural areas cope with the paper-to-digital transition than could a less than adequate foundation-and-nonprofit-dominated effort. As we keep saying, the DPLA either needs to drop the “Public” from its name and focus on scholarly content and other highbrow materials; or else it needs to team up with an institution like the Library of Congress on a genuine full-service public system with appropriate public and private funding sources, governance, and priorities, including tight integration with local libraries and schools in Newport Beach and elsewhere.
Yes, we love DPLA advocate Robert Darnton’s “Republic of Letters” vision of Americans everywhere—no matter where they live—being able to download high-quality editions of Vergil, Homer, Shakespeare, Dickens, and more recent treasures; and we’re also happy that as a result of our efforts and those of others, his group is at least somewhat more aware than before of the need for general library services and content online. But realistically, Professor, unless you’re part of an organization like the Library of Congress, shouldn’t “Public” vanish from your group’s name to protect the actual publibs, so that real librarians in, say, the Balboa neighborhood can spot a teenager playing video games and suggest a related book? Maybe even one that will inspire the same 13-year-old to go on to Jules Verne and ultimately Dickens? As an eminent authority in the evolution of European culture, you know that most history does not happen instantly, and that good causes usually do not succeed without the right people on the scene. Neither does learning.
Related: Tom Peters’s post on the DPLA’s shortcomings, as well as a collection of writings on the national digital library debate—plus a L.A. Times columnist Michael Hiltzik’s thoughts on the Google Books decision and the possibilities of the DPLA as an alternative.