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Why Library, when you could just forget the Past, Present, and Future of your Community? by Eli Neiburger

By Mkajewski | 18 October 2013

So, we people of the library tribe are in a bit of a pickle, right?  We did such a good job building our brand over the millennia that no matter how much we retool the operations behind the scenes, when people hear library, they think BOOKS.  Money can't buy that kind of market position! And that's the problem.  It is a market, we have a position, and it is suffering disruption by disruptive disruptors.  The book is dead, long live the ebook. Right?

Well, not so fast.  You'd think that after the cavalcade of media formats that libraries have dabbled in over the past century, we'd know how to pick a winner when we see it. From staples that had their time and then vanished almost completely from libraries (like VHS tapes, Vinyl Records, or Cassette Tapes) to the flashes in the pan that libraries invested in at their own peril (like 8-tracks, Laserdiscs, or Playaways), we've seen it all come and go, and we ought to be sanguine and discerning about where to invest public money.

But along comes the ebook, looking like it plans to do to books what DVD did to VHS, and it rides in on a short little explosion of consumption among our best customers, and we lose it.  We start making plans for how we'll use all that shelf space we won't need anymore, we invest public money in completely terrible technology and licenses, and we forget all about our beloved format's secret origin story, its superpower that sets it completely apart from almost every other format libraries have ever collected:

The book is noncommercial.

As the only media format you can find in a modern library that's pre-industrial in origin, the book began before the beginning of a commercial market for text, and frankly, it will survive after the end of a commercial market for text, because it was born of necessity, not market opportunity.  All these other formats, from the wax cylinder to the DVD and most especially the ebook, were products of a market, and creations of industries that sought to corner it.  As libraries got caught up in the 20th century media boom, and started offering value to people who weren't necessarily scholars, we rode the economic gradient between publisher and reader to create value from sharing.

And that's really the heart of the pickle.  Libraries are not in the book business.  Libraries are in the sharing business. And there is no ebook model for sharing.  Well, there is, but it's so scary to Big Content that they call this dominant method of information transfer on earth by a name used to describe barbarians who kill you and steal your boat.

But we've trained our users well. Library = Books, so if Ebook > Book, then Y LIBRARY?

The answer is right there in our roots.  While libraries had a small window (geologically speaking) where they were able to cheaply purchase and freely share containers filled with commercial content, the digitization of mass media will simply shut that window, relegating libraries to the edges of the commercial content market, where we can at best beg for scraps from the massive dinosaur gorillas who have eaten the creativity business.

And there is our opportunity, and glimmer of hope.  The commercialization of creativity formed in the age of the container. It depends on the physicality, singularness (singularity? nah, that's a different post) and scarcity of objects for the business to work.  The models that we see emerging now from Dinosaur Land, especially in the book space, depend on a rigidly artificial system to make digital objects pretend to be physical.  They just can't make money without that.

And there's the beauty, and the Y, of Libraries.  Libraries don't have to turn a profit to survive. Libraries need to provide value in excess of their cost to survive, and that can be a little dicey because it's hard to measure, but Libraries don't have to know there's profit in something to make it happen.  We just need to know that there is value. And the beauty is that as the content industry is reinventing its old models to try to reclaim the magic of a pre-networked world, Libraries can thrive, and provide unique, unbeatable value to their communities, by making things happen that are of high value to their community, but would never turn a profit.

Local History. Photo Archives. Podcasts of School Concerts. Works by unknown local authors. Self-directed education.  Reviews and criticism of local events the paper doesn't cover anymore. Digitizing city directories, campus oral histories, or yellowed school lunch menus.  Libraries are beautifully positioned, with the tools, the expertise, and the audience, to provide things to their communities that would not exist if the library didn't create them.  From the documents of the past, to the happenings of the present, to the creators of the future, Libraries can provide a permanent home, online and off, for the creative and informative works of the community, without buying a single ebook license.

While we have a difficult transition ahead, library workers know the future is bright, because millennials and younger have already grown up with this more expansive, and less commercial, view of what their library can be, and what it can offer them.  The challenge now, is surviving the generational transition from political leaders with a narrow view of Y Library, and fostering a culture with a broad view of how community information fits into their lives, and how their Library can be the place where that information survives, and thrives for the future.


Eli Neiburger joined the staff of the Ann Arbor District Library as a helpdesk technician in 1997 and has been responsible for AADL's technology program since 2000.  As Associate Director for IT & Production, Eli is responsible for technology planning, software development, digitization, events, marketing and acquisitions.

He's the author of GAMERS... in the LIBRARY?! published in 2007 by ALA Editions, and a contributor to O'Reilly's BOOK: A MANIFESTO, and WELL PLAYED, a journal of videogame criticism produced by The Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon University. Eli has spoken across the US and Europe about gaming, libraries, publishing and the web, and is the Chairman of the Jhai Foundation, working to bring internet-powered telemedicine and economic development to rural villages in the developing world.

Follow Eli on Twitter @ulotrichous


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