Frail, Fatal, Fundamental

22 Mar

Norman, M. (2012). Frail, Fatal, Fundamental: The Future of Public Libraries. Public Library Quarterly31(4), 339-351. doi:10.1080/01616846.2012.732491

Australian librarian Mark Norman counters the assertion by Phil Torrone of Make Magazine that public libraries should morph into makerspaces by grounding the reality of public library services in a world in which many people still don’t have internet access of any kind, much less the broadband access that would necessary to easily download plans for a makerspace 3D printer. (My colleague Jennifer Thiele would note that many libraries don’t even have broadband access!)

Later he notes that his own teenaged sons would only use a library for “access to an audio recording suite, a media lab for editing videos to upload to YouTube, and film-making classes—and someone to teach them how to use all this technology” (p. 348). He dismisses their tech request by noting the expense.

Norman discusses the service desk-free library model that some librarians are calling for, calling these visions “futurist” and dismissing them by noting futurists are often wrong. He brings up many valuable points, asking “What will we stop doing so we can pursue something new?” (p. 342), and noting that digital content providers such as Freegal are making a large profit while mining our patron data and advertising to them. His point about funding problems is both painfully obvious for public librarians, and well-taken:

How can we keep saying “We can do that” or “We should be doing that” without sustainable and committed budget growth? Something has to give.

But he undercuts his arguments with justifications for library service fees, couching justification for storytimes in neo-liberal ROI language.

“So why don’t you charge for Story Time then?” It is a good question. No service should be exempt from critical analysis. After all, should not parents be responsible for their children’s growth in literacy? Think how much each Story Time session costs…

Luckily for toddlers everywhere, Norman decides that storytimes can be an investment to “refresh our aging user profile.” The benefits to the toddlers and families, and thus to society at large, are not really discussed–the benefits for libraries are central here.

Norman champions the line of thought that public libraries are inefficient and replicate services. True. But doesn’t every one of the communities we serve need the services he mentions–the storytimes, the ILL, the core collections? Arguments for centralizing libraries miss a central tenet of library services: they are local, available not just to those with long-distance transportation options.

He then uses a strawman argument about frivolous objections such as “My users wouldn’t accept moving from a four week loan period to three weeks” to justify a centralized, efficient library system. To be fair, such arguments are also put forth when any sort of joint library venture is proposed, by librarians seemingly afraid of change.

Norman closes his article with a phrase that will give John Buschman an aneurysm, stating that the future of libraries will involve winners and losers:

And the losers? Will they be libraries limping along on protracted discussions of the common good?

What is pointedly missing from Norman’s article is the discussion of the very common good he blithely dismisses in this final sentence. Phil Torrone of Make Magazine lives in a middle-class world in which “everyone” has internet access, and Norman’s own sons have all the books, games and movies they could use at home. This is NOT the world of many library users. I argue that makerspaces could benefit the users without their own personal internet access, books, etc. by offering them the means of production, transliteracy skills, and the all-important sense of community support. But this argument must be grounded in exactly the “common good” framework that Norman dismisses. A better discussion of the future of public libraries would involve a discussion of the ghettoisation of public libraries by those lucky enough to have the resources to purchase their own information, and foolish enough to think libraries are ONLY about that information. This discussion will take into account how people of all socio-economic statuses benefit from libraries.

In the end, Norman does not discuss the “frail, fatal, fundamental” nature of libraries as his title proclaims–especially how libraries are fundamental. And what is frail?our funding? What is fatal? technology? or the self-focused apathy of middle and upper classes who have what they (think they) need? Norman does not clarify–these answers are my own.

–Shannon Crawford Barniskis