I won’t say that he caught me from the start (mostly because I was 5 minutes late for class. Thank you very much flat tire), but Leonard Kniffel editor of American Libraries, did grab my attention very early in his talk on the Googlization of the library when he noted that parading celebrities and high profile people sharing cutesy memories of libraries when they were children may be entertaining, but it can be also be damaging. Why? Because it feeds nostalgia. And viewing libraries as quaint is a short step to viewing them as unnecessary. Yes.

The majority of Mr. Kniffel’s talk focused on what he called the “Googlization of Libraries,” the fate of libraries in an age of global information. The impact of google in particular and the web in general is a favorite topic among the hand wringers of the library world. It’s been addressed (fearfully) by Robert Darton in the New York Review of Books. And positively by those in library blogging world. Mr. Kniffel, though, takes a similar but slightly different path.

Throughout his lecture, he repeatedly describes the alleged conflict between the web and libraries to be a false dichotomy. His lecture was filled with a parade of statistics, anecdotes and quotes from an impressive list of individuals he’s interviewed during his time at American Libraries. Now normally I’m not a big fan of statistics, they tend to obfuscate more than the illuminate. . .But I’m only human, so here are a few that I will probably repeat to my family over Thanksgiving:

  • 60%(!) of adults have library cards
  • Librarians answer 7.2 million questions per week
  • It costs about $34 per person per year to run a library
  • Bill Gates said that if given the choice between books and computers, he’d chose books

I like that quote about Bill Gates specifically. I think we tend to forget that even the most computer savvy individuals enjoy a good book. Linus Torvalds of Linux fame himself just the other day said that reading is his only hobby. But, wait, I’m being sucked back into the false dichotomy.

Mr. Kniffel like many advocates for libraries in the age of google notes that books themselves are a form of technology and libraries have been engaged in technology since the beginning. Even now, in the age of google, libraries are a haven for those seeking technologies. To throw out another stat, libraries are the #1 point of access for people without internet at home. An assumption underlying much of Mr. Kniffel’s talk is that libraries are more than their contents. Libraries are an idea, a place, a service. He noted that libraries should see themselves first and foremost as educators. I’ll admit, I’m sympathetic to this idea. However, I do not exactly like the semi-enlightened image that comes with someone who is seen as an educator. I’d like to think of us more as facilitators. After all, the newspapers have been tripping over themselves with stories of how libraries are a haven in these hard economic time. And we all like to commend ourselves for creating access to differing points of view so others can make decisions. So whether we are facilitating the writing of resumes, the debates of politics, or the renting of old seasons of Seinfeld, we are playing a specific and important role.

Mr. Kniffel ends his talk with a few points about technology. One is that it’s important to remain cautious while looking ahead. Microfilms, as he pointed at, have been found to be very deficient when compared with hard copies (they don’t preserve color, they can digitize a fold. . .forever), but they save on space and thus allow more information to be stored longer. So it is important to ask why are we implementing technology, what do we hope to preserve, what do we want to enhance. Next he answered the statement question of why libraries if it is all on the internet with another question, with all medical information on the web, why doctors. The answer followed shortly when he explained how it’s been found that though children are able to find information and utilize technology quickly, they still, not to surprisingly, act their age when evaluating sources. Bring on the educators. (I’m sorry, facilitators).