21st Century Libraries – Books or Programs?

Downtown library-2018

Recently I’ve been intimately involved in the efforts of our local Santa Cruz County library system in planning the use of funds from a county-wide property tax measure to maintain and renovate library buildings in its ten-branch library system.

The flagship of the system is the downtown Santa Cruz library branch, pictured above, which functions as the headquarters for the entire system, with other smaller branches placed in local neighborhoods throughout the county. In 1968 the city demolished the original 1904 Carnegie Library building and replaced it with the current building, now 51 years old.

The plan put forward by the City of Santa Cruz is to abandon this building in the city’s civic center and build a new library in the ground floor of a five-story parking garage in a location three blocks away.

Proponents of the proposed building project cite a need for a “21st Century Library,” following the lead of the American Library Association’s Program on America’s Libraries for the 21st Century (AL21C) which was focused on monitoring and evaluating trends in technology and society to assist the library community (the ALA program was “sunsetted” in 2014). It’s important to note that this policy emphasis in library services is entirely internal to the professional library community and is not in response to trends in library patrons’ needs or expressed desires.

The technological focus of the 21st Century Library movement is, of course on computers, internet access and digital and digitized materials. This reflects a wider social trend in the embrace of computer technology and the ubiquitous presence and use of “smart” cell phones. The perception communicated by proponents of this view and policy is that the technological and social trends cited mean that libraries should no longer be chiefly regarded as repositories of physical books and materials, but should be more service oriented and provide programs, events, learning opportunities and entertainment to their patrons.

At a recent meeting of the Santa Cruz City Council Downtown Library Subcommittee, the question was asked by the moderator: “If cost restraints on renovating or building a new library become reality, what would you be willing to give up?” Shockingly three of the eight professional and volunteer participants in the room stated they would be willing to give up books and printed material collections and keep digital access and programs.

In a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, What the 21st Century Library Looks Like, Shannon Najmabadi ponders these recent trends in public and academic library philosophy and policies.

“Libraries have reported spending less on print materials and more on electronic resources, including online journals and databases.

“As books are moved off-site, a question remains: What happens to the body of knowledge they contain? Irene M.H. Herold, a recent president of the Association of College & Research Libraries, says a downside to removing books is that patrons won’t be able to stumble on interesting material just by perusing library shelves.”

In addition, in my experience, thumbing through printed material to find something specific is infinitely different from searching for it on the internet. The serendipity factor is eliminated in a computer search, and, thus, any unforeseen opportunities to learn and incorporate something entirely new and unexpected are foregone.

Research suggests that digital reading results in lower comprehension and retention than reading physical books and printed materials. This, coupled with the emphasis on programs and events in libraries, many of which are noisy and obtrusive to otherwise quiet library spaces, further reduces the utility and effectiveness of digital library holdings.

From my perspective as an incipient 70 year-old, these recent professional technological and social library trends serve to reduce public literacy, critical thinking skills, and cultural and historical understanding of youth and adults alike. These skills and social awareness are absolutely necessary for functioning as a contributing member of our democratic society.

Hearkening back to the Library Committee meeting where three of the eight participants immediately expressed a willingness to get rid of books, I feel as if I’m shouting in a crowd of silent onlookers in a dark public square, watching jack-booted thugs hurl armloads of books onto a roaring bonfire.

Big Cyber, Censorship and Freedom

serveimage.jpgRecently I’ve witnessed the increasing senseless sacrifice of innocent electrons as social media posts abound decrying the activities of Big Cyber (Google, Apple, Facebook, Twitter, etc., etc., etc.) as they respond to popular outcries of “Fake News!”, Russian influence on elections and other dastardly doings in cyberspace.

Let’s set a few things straight.

First of all cyberspace is not real. It’s an invention of human beings that only exists on computers, cell phones and other electronic devices. It only lives when we turn on those devices and choose to partake of the content thus delivered.

Secondly, The Internet, and all that therein lies, is available to everyone, not just liberals, Progressives, intellectuals, environmentalists, anarchists, terrorists, academics and Tea Party-ists. Everyone. Rich people, businesses and business people, governments, NGOs, non-profits, smart people and dumb people.

It’s kinda like a box of chocolates…

When we choose to partake of the Internet and its contents, we choose to expose ourselves to all that it contains, some of it to our liking and some of it not.

Thirdly, The Internet is global, beyond national borders, beyond cultural and societal boundaries, beyond language, beyond space, beyond time. What one may consider right and proper in one’s own cultural milieu, may turn out to be improper, abhorrent or even illegal in someone else’s.

All of these realities impose a certain onus on the part of Internet travelers to exercise a modicum of self-responsibility when interacting in Cyberspace. One cannot expect The Internet to respond to one’s expectations, cultural norms and personal sense of morality.

It’s a Zen thing. I am. The Internet is. I am not the Internet. The Internet is not me.

I go to Facebook occasionally, mostly to keep track of my younger relatives who display much of their life on this social medium. I don’t put my personal information on Facebook, so there’s nothing there for Facebookers to sell to others. I’ve turned off all of the features beloved of many Facebook acolytes, blocked advertisements, turned off apps, eschewed connections, isolated Facebook following in my browser, and generally put Facebook in a sealed box that only I can add to or take from. Same same for Google and Apple.

I use Firefox and Thunderbird for browser and email client, open source programs with plentiful security features. I use ad blocker and anti-tracker extensions so my surfing and download history is unrecorded and stays in my own control.

I don’t look to Facebook for news nor to choose which web sites I see and interact with. Same same for Google and Apple. I don’t store data in The Cloud, nor do I depend on Cloud based apps. I back up locally and keep my files to myself.

In other words, I take responsibility for my own cyber security and anonymity. I’m not concerned that Facebook and Google have deleted some accounts that don’t meet their specifications. They are corporations after all, not government entities. And there are a myriad of opportunities to access the exact same content in other Cyber-venues.

I am far more concerned with increasing trends in local, state and federal government entities toward secrecy and lack of transparency, and the influence of growth and development interests in fomenting public policies. Privacy is the right of individuals, not governments. More on this later.

The actions of private corporations do not pose a threat to democracy and personal liberty. We all have the power to choose whether we interact with corporations or not. Human beings in corporations have the power to choose whether or not to accept employment in corporations, or to continue when corporate activities offend their sense of propriety. No one forces us to bend to corporate bidding.

Freedom consists of freedom of choice and the intelligence to choose wisely for one’s own benefit. When we give others the power to choose for us, we abrogate our responsibilities to self-determination, self government and freedom.