Sunday, March 17, 2013

What should the library's primary priority be in this time of austerity and digital media?

Since December of 2012, there has been several feature articles in newspapers that have been reflecting on the question of the relevance of the presence of physical libraries in this era of digital media (Kaufman, 2013). Some of these highlight debates on the need for libraries ("Do we still need libraries"), others feature the extreme lengths at which libraries are going to maintain their viability (Doll, 2013; Fletcher, 2013; "Library turns to pole dancing"). In this post, I want to challenge my fellow professionals and upcoming neophytes to think about the question of what should the library's primary priority be in this time of austerity and digital media?

Libraries are indeed conducting experiments with what services should they offer, attempting to diversify their services so as to make more valid their perceived fickle existence that is dependent on the flow of resources from government and other institutions. Some of the extreme services that libraries are developing to get customers or users in are indeed to me appalling, including slaughtering of animals (Fletcher, 2013), the promotion of pole dancing among young adults and playing ping pong with books ("Library turns to pole dancing"). In my view, such libraries are selling their souls for worldly gain. Instead, I would recommend that libraries get entangled, not in recreational matters to sustain interest in our institutions, but like East Kazakhstan Oblast Pushkin, focus on helping young job-seekers find work or develop small businesses. As Hamilton (2013) writes "Libraries can power global development". For me, the priority of libraries in an era of market economies is to spur economic development. In fact, we owe it to our roots in the philanthropy of entrepreneurs, to ensure that we become spaces for creating further entrepreneurs or helping to educate the labour force to sustain innovation and continued economic growth.

At the job talk/lecture of Dr. Bill Irwin at my faculty (March 15, 2013),  Irwin made a number of observations and comments on the point of the priorities and purpose of libraries that I would love to raise here. Irwin mentioned that public library plays roles in the economy, community development and the development of creative culture among others. With such diversity of roles, Irwin raises the point that there seems to be a different sense of what a library is for, what a library is about and what is its purpose. Irwin is also developing a new framework for evaluating the impact of libraries: other than economic. His motivation for doing this: economists do not understand the value of libraries and their methods for evaluating the value of libraries do not capture all of a library's sociological value.

However, while I do agree about measuring the library's value sociologically, I am also confident that libraries can capture their economic value and present it in the language and terminologies that economists can understand and appreciate. After all, those who usually have the power and the funding to support libraries are usually quantitatively or economics minded. Further, libraries, if we apply organisational theory, are organisations that require resources outside of our control. We are dependent on other organisations: publishers to supply us with our information resources, government (or other administrators) to pay the salaries of our workers, and customers to give us our raison d'etre. Hence, our continuity and existence depends to a large extent on our ability to survive and continue depends on our ability to negotiate exchanges between these several others in our environment. Applying evolutionary biology to libraries as organisations or systems, we see that we need to create some variety and diversity, while changing or adapting in order to ensure that we can continue to exist in our dynamic environment.

However, I am convinced that the path that many libraries are taking is not in our own interest. Paths to making the library an institution that provide entertainment as our major service is in my opinion the wrong direction. Libraries should not continue to feed consumerism habits and users that are uncritical consumers of entertainment products. Leisure and recreation, while a part of our mission, should not be the primary mission or goal pursued.

Rather, our future existence will depend on a great extent on our ability to court the favour of the market economy and of neoliberals. This is best done, when we can help facilitate the development of new businesses and enterprise development. As such, our primary experiments should be in services and resources that will help us to help our users earn an income, start their own enterprises, gain employment or create jobs. In the past, it was the philanthropy of entrepreneurs such as Carnegie that helped establish public libraries. This continues in the present, will Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that also helps to fund public libraries. As it was in the past, so shall it be in the future, that our existence depends on how much entrepreneurs view us favorably and are willing to contribute their funds for corporate social responsibility to library services and programs.


Do we still need libraries? (2012, December 27). New York Times. Retrieved from:

Doll, J. (2013, January 8). Ask a librarian about the odd things happening at libraries. Atlantic Wire. Retrieved from:

Electronic Information for Libraries  [EIFL]. (2013, January). East Kazakhstan Oblast Pushkin library, Kazakhstan: Impact assessment results. Retrieved from:

Fletcher, O. (2013, January 7). Check these out at the library: Blacksmithing, bowling, butchering
to draw crowds, some facilities offer much more than books. The Wall Street Journal (U.S. ed.) Retrieved from:

Hamilton, S. (2013, March 12). Stamping out poverty as well as books? How libraries can support development. Guardian (UK ed.). Retrieved from:

Kaufman, L. (2013, January 22). Survey finds rising reliance on libraries as a gateway to the Web. New York Times. Retrieved from:

Library turns to pole dancing to entice new readers: Midlothian council staging free dance fitness class and 'booky table tennis' to encourage people to borrow more books  (2013, January 18). Guardian (UK ed.). Retrieved from

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