Book Reviews: by Robert E. Buntrock

I was prepared to write reviews of two books for this issue of the CIB, but current developments on the title subject caused me to postpone those until the next issue. The first development was a review of “BiblioTech” in CHOICE.1 Rather than wait for a review copy from the publisher, I checked the book out from nearby Fogler Library at the University of Maine (my card from Bangor Public Library is good there). To illustrate the value of a bricks and mortar library and shelf browsing, I found another related book, “Are Libraries Obsolete?” next to it and also checked it out. A week later, while reading the Wall Street Journal, I came across a related article making the subject even more timely.2   So here goes.

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Herring, M. Y., Are Libraries Obsolete? An Argument for Relevance in the Digital Age, MacFarland. Jefferson, NC, 2014. 258
p. + vii. ISBN 978-0-7864-7356- 4 Softcover, $25, Ebook ISBN: 978-1-4766-1591-2.

The author has more than 35 years working in libraries and has previously addressed the subject of libraries vs. the Internet. The book, “Fool’s Gold”3, was not reviewed in CHOICE nor was it in the UMaine Library, so I had to order it from another library. Interesting that CHOICE, published by the Association of College & Research Libraries (a division of ALA), did not review this book. The article,4 “10 Reasons” was available, fortunately, open access.

This book, “Obsolete” is an update of both. The approach is middle-of-the-road, bound to offend more extreme views on both sides of the issues, but necessary. Of course, the implications involve both libraries and librarians.

Updates of the “10 Reasons,” elaborated in succeeding chapters are:

  1. Everything is not on the Internet.  Improving, but still not everything.
  2. Searching the Web: not easy.  Again, improving, but still not great.
  3. Quality control or lack thereof.  With a few exceptions, lacking.
  4. What you don’t know really does hurt you. Temporal rather than permanent, incomplete information, etc.
  5. Mass digitization and wide distribution. Not always desirable or available, campus wide, statewide, etc.

At this point digressions are made to newer, but very important aspects of the issues including copyright, open access, e-books and sharing, depth, and ubiquity.

Chapters in part two cover reading and literacy, privacy, and piracy. Part three has a chapter on current trends in libraries and librarianship and interactions with technology. The final chapter presents two scenarios: 1) Yes, libraries are obsolete or soon will be, and 2)  No, libraries are not obsolete and never will be. The chapter concludes with a discussion of what will produce either scenario, allowing the readers to answer the title question for themselves. An epilogue, chapter notes, a selected bibliography, and an index conclude the book.

Key thoughts include how information leads to knowledge leads to wisdom (one of my favorite maxims).  Instead, doubling of the amount of information (including the good and the bad) leads to a halving of knowledge and a quartering of wisdom. Spoiler alert: libraries are not obsolete, but maybe we’re making them so.

Recommended to anyone who uses libraries of any kind, is concerned with their use and fate, and not just those who work in libraries. Besides friends and supporters, libraries and librarians have plenty of enemies, including possibly themselves.

References:

  1. CHOICE, 2015, 53-1061.
  2. Barker, S., In Age of Google, Librarians Get Shelved, Wall Street Journal, Jan. 11, 2016, p. A13
  3. Herring, M. T., Fool’s Gold: Why the Internet Is No Substitute for a Library, MacFarland, Jefferson, NC, 2007.
  4. 10 Reasons Why the Internet Is no Substitute for a Library, American Libraries, 2001, April, p. 76-78; modified in American Libraries Magazine, January 20, 2010. http://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/2010/01/20/10-reasons-why-the-internet-is-no- substitute-for-a-library/  (accessed Jan. 2016).

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Palfrey, J., BiblioTech: Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google, Basic Books, New York, 2015, 280 p. + vii. ISBN 978-0-465-04299-9 Hardcover, $26.99.

The author, currently the Principal of Phillips Andover Academy is a former law professor and former director of the Harvard Law Library, who has written an excellent book championing the continued existence of libraries of all types. Faced with the increasingly common canard that all information is digital and on Google (and therefore libraries are non-essential), Palfrey makes cogent arguments why this is not so, and will not be so, and he lists plans for libraries and librarians to create and preserve the alliance of digital and analogue or print information and resources as well as the constructive evolution of physical libraries.  Beginning with the 160 year old history of the founding, spread, and evolution of public libraries, free to all holders of a library card, Palfrey recounts the stresses, financial and otherwise, on libraries of all kinds. Public libraries are covered the most, but all libraries are involved. Libraries, especially public libraries, are the cornerstone sources of information to provide for and nourish healthy processes of democracy.

Chapter 1, “Perfect Storm,” sets the stage for evidence proving the title. The public’s nostalgic perception that libraries are needed less or not needed at all must be met and surmounted. Libraries should be stewards and not just collectors of knowledge.  Problems with digital archiving include data rot and temporal formats. Chapter 2 discusses customers, especially kids and students, and how they use libraries. Chapter 3 discusses the evolving physical spaces of libraries.

Chapter 4, “Platforms”, uses DPLA, the Digital Public Library of America, http://dp.la, as an example of a platform currently providing digital access to more than 11 million items from libraries, archives, and museums. Several states have such platforms, but a national one is even better.

Chapter 5 discusses how to build the future by constructive “hacking.” Chapter 6 discusses networks, including the human networks of librarians. Preservation via collaboration rather than competition, is the topic of Chapter 7. School libraries, facilitating connected learners, are covered in chapter 8.

The 500-pound gorilla in the room, copyright, and its effect on lending and users, especially of e-resources is discussed in Chapter 9. The conclusion Chapter 10 summarizes the discussions of the preceding Chapters and outlines a 10-step program to reform libraries to make them essential.

  1. Define libraries as platforms
  2. Make libraries networked institutions
  3. Redefinition is demand driven, provide the services the customers need
  4. Redefinition must account for the physical aspects and the analog/print resources
  5. Do those things that need doing
  6. There should be a “common cause” established between librarians (and their customers) and authors, agents, editors, and publishers
  7. Library spaces functioning like labs
  8. Teamwork of librarians and IT experts on creating an open, shared infrastructure and procedures
  9. Preservation should become increasing collaborative
  10. Funding, both public and private, must be ramped up

Chapter notes, an annotated bibliography, and an index conclude the book.

Exemplifying the plight of many, as an active user of information resources without an institution other than my two public library cards, I’m hindered by the restrictive, even Draconian use and lending policies of e-resources.

Highly recommended to similar audiences as for the previous book, possibly more to librarians and funders. As a former member of the group of those who work in libraries but are not librarians, Palfrey’s terminology of us as “feral” (applied by librarians) is particularly apt.  (My previous motto was “I’m a chemist, I work in a library, and I’m not a librarian”.  This is not a putdown of librarians, but rather a statement of the varieties of expertise.)

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This is one of the few times I’ve reviewed books that I’ve borrowed from libraries (fittingly enough) rather than owned. Since I was able to obtain a loan of the previously cited Fool’s Gold, I’ll provide a brief review.  In for a penny, in for a pound …

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Herring, M. Y., Fool’s Gold: Why the Internet is No Substitute for a Library, MacFarland. Jefferson, NC, 2007. 199 p. + vii. ISBN 978-0-7864-5393-1  Softcover, $29/95.

This book is intermediate between Herring’s original “10 Reasons” 2001 article4 and his 2014 book. Fool’s Gold is somewhat dated, but is one of the better presentations of the inadequacies of the Internet. Although the Internet has improved somewhat (and also degraded), the conclusion “no substitute for libraries” still stands.

The author insists he is not a Luddite, but he constructively criticizes both the Internet and libraries. In this vein, often humorous, he posits that the Internet has become an object of worship and the text contains several one liners. For example, “Google uber alles”, “e-books not ready for prime time,” and “forget the needle (your research), just tell me which haystack”. He defines information as “random data” as opposed to knowledge (I wouldn’t go that far, to me information resides between data and knowledge).

Chapter 1 covers the information on the Web: disinformation, misinformation, and fraud, and Chapter 2 covers the presentation of so-called information on the Web. Chapter 3 covers Web porn, the funder of much of Web material. Chapter 4 covers “link rot”: the half-life of links is on the order of 18-36 months, and the excessive power of Google to control content is discussed in Chapter 5. A critique of the rise and proliferation of e-books and their perceived value is in Chapter 6. Chapter 7 covers the fiction of the “Paperless Society” and the shallowness of the Web is covered in Chapter 8, “a mile wide and a mind- numbing inch deep.”  Web content is mostly modern, the previous 10-15 years. Chapter 9 is a summary and conclusion including “the Web is no panacea,” “the wow Factor does not equal knowledge,” “mental junk food,” “our information swamp,” and “the material on the Web is not free.” These observations are contrasted with “Libraries: Treasure Troves of Information” along with strategies for their improvement. Chapter notes and an index conclude the book.

Similarly recommended as for Herring’s other book reviewed above.

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In summary, these three books and associated material cover topics well known to librarians and information specialists, but are not recognized by much of the public including our customers and clients. Given that both misleading laudatory paeans of Google and the Web proliferate as well as gloom and doom requiems for libraries and librarians, the general subjects are quite timely and worthy of the attention to us, the public, and funders and legislators.

When it comes to disrespect of librarians and information specialists, I am reminded of the discussions on “disintermediation” publicized more than 20 years ago which I and others countered in presentations and publications. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Robert E. (Bob) Buntrock
Buntrock Associates
Orono, ME