Just about everyone remembers the delight of going to the library as a child. Winding through the aisles, running a finger along the spines of books, tracking down a book by call number, and even the musty smell of the stacks all have positive associations in people when they think of the experience of going to the library. Although author John Palfrey shares these fond memories, he is also wary of libraries resting too heavily on these feelings of nostalgia at a time when libraries are in danger of being seen as obsolete in the face of a digital revolution. In his new book, BiblioTECH: Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google (Basic Books, 2015), Palfrey carefully examines the world of libraries as it is and as it has been historically, offering fresh perspectives and insights into how and why libraries, librarians and others must work together to ensure that they stay relevant now and into the future.
John Palfrey is currently Head of School at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. He is the former director of the Harvard Law Library and founding chairman of the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA). From the start of the book, he is very clear about his status as a “‘feral’—a nonlibrarian who ends up working in a library” (p. 15). Recognizing his somewhat controversial role as someone who is not a librarian writing about what libraries and librarians should and should not do, especially at a time when many librarians are worried about the future of their careers, Palfrey is sympathetic. However, he defends his position, urging that the profession at large ought to welcome the involvement of those from other fields who care about the fate of libraries, especially during such a transitional time for libraries.
BiblioTECH is broken down into ten chapters, examining the many aspects of libraries (e.g., customers, spaces, education, law), each section building upon the previous. Nearly every chapter begins with an anecdote relating to that chapter’s focus drawn directly from Palfrey’s experiences as Library Director, DPLA chairman, and/or school principal, which helps to set the stage and engage the reader in what could otherwise be quite dull subject matter. It is also clear that Palfrey has done his research. He cites numerous survey statistics throughout the text and includes extensive “Notes” and “Selected Bibliography” sections at the end of the book. Furthermore, Palfrey also references numerous current specific examples of innovative and successful libraries and librarians as evidence for many of his arguments throughout the text.
In the book’s introduction, Palfrey makes it clear that his target audience is, “all those who do not work in libraries and who should be taking a greater interest in the fate of these essential knowledge institutions on which we rely more than we seem to realize” (p. 17). He describes his book as a “celebration of libraries” as well as administering “a dose of tough love” (p. 18). Throughout the book Palfrey makes the case for what libraries can do for people of all ages, while also proposing some potentially uncomfortable changes for libraries if they are to survive the twenty-first century. He also reiterates that as citizens and library users we must support our libraries during this transitional time both legislatively and financially.
One of Palfrey’s main points that is echoed throughout the book is that libraries must be redefined for, what he calls a, “digital-plus era” (p.226)—a period where materials are born-digital and then rendered in a variety of formats, both analog and digital. Palfrey advocates replacing the concept of the “library as place with the library as platform” (p. 114). Instead of operating as discrete, even competitive, entities, libraries should function as nodes in a highly networked digital environment. This will require a great deal of collaboration and cooperation with partner institutions (e.g., archives, museums, historical societies) as well as with publishers, technologists and even other for-profit organizations to create a vast, shared, open digital infrastructure. Palfrey suggests the library community look to the construction of the Internet over the past few decades as a model: how many individuals built it together over time, not just one, and how it required massive cooperation across public and private lines to succeed. He cites the development and success of the interlibrary loan system (ILL) as an analog example of how this digital networking of libraries is achievable.
In addition to redefining libraries as platforms, Palfrey also explains how the roles of librarians should also be redefined in his networked model. “Highly networked librarians,” he states, “are those who have developed new skills and who remain open to new ideas” (p. 137). Unfortunately, he laments that this openness and these new skills have not been consistently taught or encouraged in the library world, much of which can be blamed on ever-dwindling library budgets. He further explains that it is not that the skills and experiences that have served librarians well for centuries are no longer relevant; in fact they are. However, they are just not the only relevant skills. Palfrey continues by advocating for aggressive, strategic investments in the professional development of institutions’ existing library staff in addition to the need for more forward-thinking library schools.
Palfrey also asserts that “the basis of this redefinition must be demand-driven”: it is vital that libraries and librarians align what they do with what their communities need from them today and in the future and, “not in nostalgia for how things may or may not have really been in the past” (p. 227). He argues that being better aligned with community needs will also help when making the case for funding. Palfrey also explains that both the physical and the analog should still be accounted for in this process of redefining libraries. It is clear that, despite eBook usage growing exponentially, the need for printed materials is not going away anytime soon. Furthermore, libraries are essential “third places” (p. 208) outside the home or office that are truly open to the public without any for-profit motive.
All in all, I found BiblioTECH to be longer than it needed to be. Palfrey restates many of his ideas over and over again instead of just stating and expounding on them once. In the book’s last chapter, Palfrey even offers a summation of his ideas in ten steps as a specific path forward for libraries to ensure their survival now and in the future; this felt unnecessary after having so much redundancy in the text already. Perhaps this book would function better even more trimmed down as a long-form magazine article in publications such as The Atlantic, Wired, or The New Yorker. I also found the audience for BiblioTECH unclear. Although early on Palfrey explains that this book is not targeted for librarians, he uses too much library jargon (e.g., “ILL”, “cultural heritage institutions”) to truly be for the general public. However, while the language is too specific, the suggestions Palfrey proposes are quite broad and not practical enough to simply be implemented by library professionals.
All of that being said, I do still believe that BiblioTECH is a timely, heartfelt, and important book. Despite his redundancies, many of Palfrey’s underlying suggestions to ensure libraries have a bright future—collaboration, adoption of new technologies, innovation, finding a “twenty-first century Andrew Carnegie” (p. 213)—are spot on. This book is a good starting point for anyone looking for some compelling arguments to advocate on behalf of libraries, and the resources at the end of the book will surely help guide further research. It is my hope that the publication of BiblioTECH will lead to important, meaningful discussions between librarians and those outside the library community who support libraries, both financially and otherwise.