Week 1: Libraries and the Internet

Many believe that the world wide web now provides access to all of the world’s accumulated knowledge. A simple Google search will provide all the relevant information a person may desire about a topic. They do not know that valuable information will never become available in machine‐readable form and that much digitized information is only available for a price. Spalding & Wang. (2006). The challenges and opportunities of marketing academic libraries in the USA: Experiences of US academic libraries with global application.   Library Management, 27(6/7), 494-504. doi:10.1108/01435120610702477
This quote may be a little dated in internet-years, but by and large it’s still true, and still relevant: libraries have had trouble when it comes to marketing themselves against (and on) the Internet. This broad point has been tackled by tons of people before me and is an important topic on its own, but it’s as good a place as any to start a discussion on libraries and online video. When thinking about why this has been the case, I want to draw attention to two big reasons:
  • The pace of technological advancement
  • “Market forces” (lookin’ at you, Capitalism)
I don’t know that either of them is particularly more to blame than the other, but all three have played a big role in libraries’ digital struggles. I’ll start with technology, but before I dive into it I want to set the stage a little bit & do some housekeeping because it’s relevant: I’m a white, male millennial who was privileged enough to grow up in a house that had one or more computers in it for as long as I can remember. My dad was an electrical engineer by trade, and took my brothers and me to computer shows on weekends. The earliest memories I have of computers involve me struggling with DOS so that I could open Windows 3.1 and play the demo disks that we’d pick up at those computer shows — ballpark 1993, I’d say. (I was six, and I’m very sorry to whomever that makes feel old).
Hello darkness, my old friend Image source
As I grew up, the technology in the house did, too: I remember the thrill of going from 56k to DSL, and how when my dad installed a 7GB hard drive to replace our 2GB one, we unironically named it “bigfoot,” thinking we’d never have to replace it because who could ever use 7 GIGABYTES of data. I also remember how, when my dad put a password on our home computer, my older brothers and I acquired the manufacturer’s password to our computer’s BIOS so that we could get onto it, no matter how often he changed it. Why does all of this matter? Well, it’s a bit of a disclaimer, for one.

The Pace of Technological Advancement

I bring all of this up because yes, hello, I’m the mythical digital native that folks envision(ed) millennials to be (setting aside for a moment the fraught-ness of both “millennial” and “digital native”). I watched computers become Moore and Moore powerful at the same pace that I developed into adulthood. I lucked out when I joined the Navy in 2008, six months before the stock market imploded, so I’ve always had money to buy my own tech with.
Source: Pew Research
And while I’ve been able to keep apace of tech developments as they happened (an advantage of economic privilege and likely the neuroplasticity of the adolescent brain — see section 7 of this link), this is not so for lots of people for whom the intersectional lottery has bad odds, as well as for many industries. See, for example: the dot-com bubbleRIAA & Napster, Myspace, and governments worldwide. So all of that is to say, when it comes to having trouble adapting to changing technology, libraries are in good company.
There is a public outcry today—as there should be—about NSA surveillance, but the breadth of that surveillance pales in comparison to the data that Google, Apple, Facebook, and legions of app developers are collecting. Vivek Wadhwa, “Laws and Ethics Can’t Keep Pace with Technology.” MIT Technology Review, April 14 2014
This is absolutely not to say that the internet killed libraries, though — public funding can be a blessing. And the internet won’t kill libraries, even though it might leave them in a bad way here and there. I think that as various businesses tanked completely because the internet was not their golden goose, public (and private) funding let libraries as an institution stay afloat, re-orient, and eventually recover. But the speed of tech innovation is brutal, and it is hard for libraries to keep up. It’s easy to forget that when I’m as spoiled as I am by VPL and UBC and all of the amazing things they do. Admittedly — guiltily — I was the kind of person who, until attending a talk by Creative Commons’ Cable Green in 2014 in the last year of my undergrad, felt that the Internet largely made libraries obsolete because “you can find anything online!” Because that’s all I’d known, I didn’t meaningfully consider the possibility that “technology as panacea” as an idea was actually the cause of a lot of problems in tech. So while I held the majority opinion that libraries were good things, I didn’t really think that they were for me. Because I was able to ride the wave of technological advancement rather than be drowned by it, I didn’t see libraries’ value to me, and so I didn’t consider their value to others.
 :/ My face inwardly for much of Library School as I realized the errors of my ways.

… Because Capitalism

Now, my experience growing up with technology is the exception — but in terms of economics, I’m pretty comfortably average. The United States Census Bureau reported in 2016 that 12.7% of Americans lived in poverty. Not a small number, but conversely it means that 87.3% of Americans don’t. This is important, because when you have the money to buy a book, or go see a movie, or own a computer or smartphone, or put your children into preschool and kindergarten, you’re probably not as likely to try and find out how to get these things for free. If paying for high speed internet doesn’t interfere with your ability to feed or shelter yourself (assuming it’s even available where you live — in 2017 only 45% of internet connections were broadband – see P. 14), then you’re probably going to pay for high speed internet in your home. First of all, it’s convenient; and second of all, it’s almost required as more and more government services migrate online. Since governments generally (ideally) concern themselves with safeguarding their citizens’ human rights, this makes access to the internet almost a prerequisite to your humanity. Which is █████y. Once a person does get online, they get access to Google and the doors are opened. Google’s business is selling ads, and it succeeds at that by knowing what people want. It learns what people want by running an, admittedly, really efficient search engine (among other things).
“If an item does not appear in our records, it does not exist.” -Jocasta Nu, the problematic Jedi librarian
What Google’s search engine really excels at though is making people feel like all the world’s information is at their fingertips, even though that’s not the case: public records, legal casework, paywalled items, and anything else not indexed by a search engine are invisible to its users. But because people feel like Google puts the world at their finger tips, they end their searches early either believing that the information they want isn’t out there — or arguably worse, believing that they found what they were looking for, when what they found is actually, purposefully wrong. This may sound like a technology problem, but I’m chalking this one up to capitalism: Google as a private company aims to make money, and to do that it has to position itself as the destination for answers. While they do a lot of good, plenty of harm comes with that, including to libraries and their patrons in the forms of lost patronage and poor search habits, respectively. Is that to say that librarians are the true keepers of truth? Definitely not (see Jocasta Nu above), but librarians, unlike search engines, are self-aware beings that can at least be mindful of their own biases and work to control for them. The other angle worth discussing in regards to capitalism pushing libraries into an imagined conflict with the Internet is labour.  Simply, the Internet makes people doubt libraries’ utility, which in turn calls into question how much money a library REALLY needs to operate. When people see the library as just a place to borrow books from, they miss the bigger picture: libraries as champions of literacy, drivers of employment, literal and figurative shelters from storms, centers of community, and places to just exist in safety, without the expectation that one has to buy anything to earn the right to take up space. Thus, when the bigger picture of what libraries do is missed, the funding gets missed along with it — public funding can be a curse. People in power who think that the library is an outdated luxury cut the funding that pays staff salaries. This leads to greater work precarity among library staff, a general decrease in library staffs’ quality of life, and fewer services offered. It might mean cuts to the marketing that brings community members in, in the first place. And that becomes the start of a vicious cycle. This, in spite of the fact that the research has been pretty clear about libraries contributing back between $5 and $10 of value to their communities for every $1 spent on them (research like this sitting behind paywalls  likely doesn’t help things). Basically: capitalism distorts how people see what libraries have to offer, and that warped perception causes problems.

Other things

There are likely other factors at play. One that comes to mind that I’d like to explore is the idea of entrenchment: cultural, political, or hierarchical. I’m a little leery of jumping into exploring that though, because my experience working in libraries is limited to the research assistantship I’ve been doing part time for about a year now (and has been really lovely, tbh). Suffice to say though, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect that in some situations, there’s been resistance to libraries doing more on the Internet, especially around the mid-to-late 90’s (I was definitely sure the internet was pretty rad, but also I was 10). In every field, in every workplace, “it just isn’t the way things are done” is something that gets thrown around. Sometimes there are good reasons for that, too — risk aversion, lack of resources, perceived costs associated with change, or the amount of time someone has until retirement. I’m sure that before the Internet got as big as it did, plenty of people didn’t really expect it to become the powerhouse that it is now, and so they didn’t act on it. They just happened to be wrong, is all.
This was an incredibly long first post (I’m aiming for 1k words and this is just shy of 2k), and also not quite the same format that I’m fixing to use for the rest of them. 😬 But hopefully it’s useful! Next week, I think I’ll look at some of the libraries on YouTube and see how the platform’s being used.

If you’ve got any feedback for me, you can gmail me at pmusser, or tweet me at @the_musser. I know there are tons of blogs out there, and so if you took the time to read this entire thing I’m curious about your motivation and what you thought of it. 

Thanks kindly, and don’t forget to ask questions.

One thought on “Week 1: Libraries and the Internet”

  1. As one whose librarian-ing began in DOS times, I cannot emphasize enough how liberating and future-positive it was to open Explorer for the first time. As the internet grew, we were convinced that serious searching would be enhanced and improved, but also kept in its own lane. Why? Because we were analyzing things with our information authorities’ hats on. We also assumed that people would always value authoritative information most highly above all.
    While I do think some libraries and some librarians resisted the internet because it started filling up with tin hats pretty quickly, I am happy to challenge those who say libraries were/are resistant to adopting tech, because we were among its early adopters in terms of automating processes and some functions.
    However, I think that we were slow to imagine that people would accept just any information from the internet simply because it was easier than going to a library, or that they would put up with advertising on the internet because it made that information “free” to obtain. I’m sorry to say that I also think librarians might have been afraid their jobs could be automated. Articles would appear in our literature like “Robot at the Reference Desk?” would appear. But most of all, we did not substantially alter librarians’ training to include programming or even very much tech knowledge or leadership until quite recently. That change has helped to bring more librarians with the right skills and mindsets into libraries. The unending feast of the internet has made us aware that we have the power to put library discipline into it. Editing or adding Wikipedia articles to make them accurate and working to make genuine scholarship openly available are just two of the many librarian-y things we are doing now. It has taken us some time to best understand how librarians can incorporate our traditional work into the internet, rather than trying to figure out how to incorporate the internet into our work.

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