Friday, April 21, 2017

Booknote: BiblioTech

John G. Palfrey (narrated by Tom Zingarelli), BiblioTech: Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google. Old Saybrook, CT: Tantor Audio, 2015. ISBN: 9781494584726. (Published in print by Basic Books).

Genre: nonfiction
Subgenre: audiobook, LIS, technology.
Format: audiobook
Source: Overdrive collection of the Madison County (KY) Public Library

For a brief time, this book got some hype among librarians. I read it, and to be honest it was seriously underwhelming. Written by what some in the library profession call a "feral librarian" (i.e. someone who is not a librarian nor has the degree who ends  up working  in  a library as "librarian" or often a library administrator), the author's main thrust is about the digital future when all sorts of things will be in the cloud, and we can't get there fast enough. Libraries need to change to embrace that future, but they face obstacles such as the will of their communities to support libraries (because people love to say  how much they love libraries until you ask them to help pay for them). These ideas and more are not really new. To be honest, a lot of what he writes in the book is stuff that has been talked about, written about, argued about, debated, so on for years now. I even double checked the book's release date to make sure I was not reading something from ten years ago or so. The book's copyright date is 2015, but it sounds like something written way back. If you are a librarian who has  kept up, then you pretty know everything in this book. If you are an informed public citizen with  some interest in libraries and the digital world, you probably know a lot of this too. However, if you are not aware of any of the issues the book presents, the book does serve as a basic primer. Thus I have mixed feelings in reviewing it. On the one hand, it  tells me nothing new or that I did not know already. On the other hand, for the less informed who need a crash course, this is a decent start if you can get over a bit of the condescending tone the author adopts at times. By the way, I read this as an audiobook, and the narrator they chose manages to embrace that condescending tone quite well, and no, that is not praise.

Book starts with the often usual "sad note" of libraries with old buildings, and how people now have more choices (i.e. the Internet) but nothing so far on  how many people, for various reasons, often cannot access the  Internet, unless they do so in their public library of all places. This will come later in the book. Book is arranged into ten chapters that cover various topics ranging from how libraries are changing in light  of digitization and Google to issues privacy and copyright. Book eventually ends with  the note I mentioned of hoping we move to that cloud future as soon as possible. It was a note I found  ironic since that was the week that some Amazon techie did a typo and pretty much knocked down their virtual cloud and a huge chunk of the Internet. That note and that event made me feel very reassured. Now do not think I am opposed to progress or technology, far from it. Libraries are still going to be about books, including books in print as well as e-books and other resources, and they will also be about services like teaching children how to read, information literacy, providing access to the Internet to those who need it, job search assistance, and I can go on  and on. Not everything is online, and no matter how many wet dreams technotopians have, not everything will be online, or if it is it is not going to be free and easy to access, and it certainly will not be for everyone given issues of privilege and digital divide. While the author does discuss some of those issues, in the end it's the overly enthusiastic pitch for the cloud and everything online that wins the day.

In the end, for all the hype this book got at one  point, I was not impressed. If you do not know about these issues, then the book is a pretty good primer. It is a probably a book that should be given to a few not so informed voters before they go vote on a library levy for instance. The author does admit the book is more for non-librarians, but it is mostly for people who do not have a clue. Librarians definitely have talked about this, and are often in the forefront of changes even if they do not always get the credit.

I am rating it 2 out of 5 stars, but barely, and mostly because of its value as a  basic primer. Having listened to it  in audio, I think it may work better than having to read the text. It is pretty dry as a text, but  at least the narrator keeps it moving, even if he comes across as a bit smug, which  I  think reflects more the book's author than the narrator.

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Additional reading notes. This particular set of notes may seem a bit informal; I was jotting down responses and comments I had about the text as I was reading it. I may have added a small comment here or there, but this is mostly what I jotted down as I was reading. You can either read on, or stop reading since I already gave you my assessment of the book:

From the book's introduction:

Nice line. Libraries are being forgotten/in danger because society  has forgotten how essential they are. And here we go with the option of "easier" access online. We will see  if  he goes into other things libraries and librarians do, especially in educating patrons who need help in navigating that "easier" access. (He does go into some of it later in the book).

Still, the thing about the easy access on your mobile, as we often say, not everything is on the Internet. Question then of how much does the easy access encourage just good enough mentality of information, even when better information may mean a bit more work searching for it, or lo and  behold, going to a library because they pay for the expensive information sources that are not on Google. As I listen, these and other questions arise. At this point, I am not sure if the author will address them or not, but as librarian, I do hope he does for a more complete picture. I hope this book is more than  just some eulogy or jeremiad about libraries and their "imminent passing" (which keeps failing to materialize).

Another good line: "Democracies can work only if all citizens have equal access to information and culture that can help them make good choices whether at the voting booth or other aspects of public life." Libraries are the ones who do this.

So far, just the usual libraries have more tech, and more people use computers than they look for reading materials. I have heard this line of argument before, nothing new here. I even made a note to myself check when this book came out because it is appearing to be a bit dated.

Author was a "feral" librarian (i.e. a non-librarian who ends up in libraries. In his case, library director at time he wrote the book. He was a law professor before). Claims he got his knowledge, well, like many  of us do: read the library literature and talked to stakeholders and people concerned with libraries, and of course, his job as a library director.  Take that with whatever grain of salt you feel is needed.

Librarians DO chafe with good reason. Very often they DO lead change, and others take the credit or the glory after the less glamorous work was done.

He does sound a  bit hysterical at times. Yet I wonder how much  the appeal to democracy and nobility  of citizenry really work to appeal to the  audience which, as he claims, is outside libraries. The book is not really for us. It is for those outside libraries who need to be supporting libraries with  more than warm fuzzy feelings and goodwill. Then again, he is just starting the book. BTW, that intro took him almost a half an hour of reading time. Quite depressing at times.

From Chapter 1:

Libraries are screwed,  and  they are because they depend on the codex, which  he sees as dead or obsolete. I think a few other  authors may have an issue with  that notion, not to mention all the books in print that are still sold and circulate.

Nostalgia can be dangerous the author states. To an extent, I have to agree.

Yes dude, we get it already. Shift to digital, blah blah, preferences in format changing, blah blah, libraries in difficult spot of making choices. This honestly reads like the most basic of primers for someone who just has no idea of what is going on in the world today overall. I remember when this book got a bit of hype when it came out, but even then, much of this would be known to us. I just wonder how many non-library people actually read this and understood it.

Actually we STILL have to make decisions of purchasing  proprietary  data, often cannibalizing other funds and accounts to do so. He runs a library. Does he not know this?

From Chapter 2:

Again, not  much new here, and some of it pretty depressing. While surveys  show that students who get librarian assistance will use better resources more often (databases versus just googling), fact is most students ask the librarian  as the last option. Thus their research may not be as good. It is the reality we face.

Digital divide. Discussion of problems being able to afford fast speed Internet despite it being so necessary. So, guess where a few of those people go to get  it? Their local public library. On  a side note, ultimate irony in a library  I worked at is a few distance students had to drive  to campus anyhow because they could not run their CMS on their computers at home  to do the class assignments.

Actually, the McDonald's or Starbucks thing of not having to buy to use the wifi varies by place. Yes, he actually went there and used the line of kids just going to the fast food place because they can get better wifi and better hours the building is open. He almost made it sound like it was some panacea.  Many  of these places now do have signs against loitering (our local McDonald's here certainly do), often meant to deter those teens the author refers to trying to get on the free wifi be it for homework or just for fun.

From Chapter 3:

The author honestly has a combination of doomsday hysteria with condescension that does get a little grating after a while. The reader, who is not the author, seems to reinforce this. Narrator has a somewhat authoritarian voice, almost like some school principal, that is not exactly comforting.

Second Life, which he notes libraries there mostly shut down, was nothing more than a brief novelty  for what  was known then as Twopointopian Librarians. As for Virtual Reference, same, a very rarely used service overall, so not surprised places have given it up. I was at a workplace that had it, and it was rarely used. If  nothing else, this book just reminds of a lot of the big deals big shot, and some not so big, librarians made over things that proved to be ephemeral and often without much substance. Libraries, for all that fussing, have often been pretty resilient in maintaining their core values of service to their communities and doing so in basic ways.

A not so good line: I don't think a library as an information gas station is the best image. Yes, he actually used that line. Today, gas stations are highly impersonal, and outside of the convenience stores they have (where they make their real money), you cannot expect any type of motorist assistance if you were to need it. Some of the analogies this author presents are not exactly accurate. 

I honestly wonder what kind of illiterate person living under a rock needs to hear about gaming in libraries or makerspaces by now. As he mentioned at the start, this book is not for librarians. But it does seem to be setting the bar pretty low in terms of who should be reading the book. Then again, given things like the results of the 2016 election, you probably DO have to set the bar pretty low. However, for me, this is getting a bit tedious.

From Chapter 8:

Nice line: digital savvy should not be limited to only those who can pay for it. He does get a  nice line or quote here or there, but  overall, the book becomes quite boring after a while. And  I am a librarian. I am honestly not sure how that general reader he is aiming at is going to handle this.

Holy shit. Young people learn in new ways. They learn in new flashy techie ways. Librarians need to adapt. Blah blah. Heard it before. More I hear, less I see the hype of this book.

From Chapter 10:

Book was released in 2015, but it sounds like it is talking about a decade ago. So much of what it has is either already dated, or at least (most) librarians should know it by now. Aside from low information people, most of what is here has been known for a good while. But this may well be a decent primer for those low information people who, for whatever reason, do not know of these issues, and they should know, especially when they need to vote on things like their local library funding. At the most basic level, this book could be considered a primer, so for those who need it the book may be good. But for the rest of us, this is just terrain we have been over and over.

So basically, in his vision we all go digital, just keep print as back up or for those "weirdos" who may still prefer print, which by the way, most surveys, like this one, still show majority preference for print. And in the process, of course, libraries yield ownership in favor of licensing things they may or not lose at a publisher's whim. To be honest, this is not exactly revolutionary but rather a statement of the obvious status quo we have now and wishful thinking from a technotopian.

The idea that the business world will somehow innovate for the good of the public is laughable at best since experience has proven again and again they mostly do not. But that is the libertarian wet dream. As for the cloud based future, again, questions of access and privilege come to mind, not to mention when the Internet goes down, as it often does in rural areas like where I live or when some Amazon coder does a typo (see link to that story above), no access to your precious cloud. The issue that I find no one mentions is that reliance on all that tech for the sake of convenience, cool factor, so on, does leave us seriously vulnerable. Formats change, and suddenly some materials can be inaccessible. As I mentioned, net goes down, access is gone as well. Not everyone can afford the broadband while new techs require increases in speed of the net. Yes, it is the future, but it is not all as optimistic as this author or others make it sound. The book in the end is a bit of a jeremiad 

At least he concedes for things like preservation and fair distribution of information and knowledge that the public sector should lead.

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This book qualifies for the following 2017 Reading Challenges:

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