And why Tim Coates is fundamentally wrong and I am fundamentally right. Let's take a look at that word "bookseller". It is a seller of books and the role is defined by the product for without books you cannot have a bookseller. With a small number of exceptions such as Amazon you have to have a physical building and space within which you can house your books in order to sell them. The role of the bookseller is to sell the books. I'd like to stress that there is absolutely nothing wrong that - exactly as it should be. I go into a bookshop because I wish to purchase a book. The activity and the item are inextricably bound together; if I do not have the book I cannot therefore buy it. It is the responsibility of the bookseller to attempt to sell me a book and unless I have a specific title in mind their major role is to sell me a product which is as close as possible to my original requirement. Indeed, a measure of their success is the amount of money they can make from the activity of selling me the book and so a good bookseller can easily be defined as somebody who makes more money than a bad bookseller. The ultimate satisfaction of the customer is by necessity of less importance, although it can of course be argued that the happier a customer is the more often they will come back to the bookshop. However, the reason they will come back to the bookshop is because they wish to purchase another book.
To a bookseller therefore a book is not only a product it is their livelihood and one that should be, understandably, protected. It is their job. My job however is that of librarian. My interest is not predominantly in books, it is in knowledge, the correct dissemination of that knowledge, and the appropriate choice of knowledge from an appropriate container. Now in many cases that will undoubtedly be a book, and indeed in the past that has been the only container for the knowledge. (You will forgive me if I subsume magazines and journals into this very large category.) The role of the librarian is to use the appropriate tool to disseminate knowledge, and in the vast majority of cases financial transactions are not part of the process. Indeed in its purest form the person requesting the knowledge does not need to know the format that it originated in, unless there is a particular need for purpose for that knowledge if the librarian is doing their job correctly. I am happy to provide information and knowledge to the person who has requested it by finding that in the most appropriate place; a book, journal, newspaper, video, or the Internet. Knowledge is the commodity of the librarian while the physical item is the commodity of the bookseller. It is therefore unsurprising if an individual who has spent most of their life working in a book selling environment finds it difficult, or indeed impossible to differentiate between the book and the knowledge which is contained within it. We also need to consider what a friend of mine once referred to as the "attraction of the artefact". Most of us, and I include myself in this, like holding books, inhaling their scent, collecting them and I think we can all argue that there is a certain thrill in physically opening a book at page 1 and starting to read. However, while we may have that emotional attachment we do need to take a step backwards. Some books are very precious because they are touchstones for memories, people, or an occasion in our lives. At which point the book ceases to be a simple collection of pages bound together and takes on an emotional role. Other books however never attain that importance as physical items as the many remaindered shops testify. As an entertainment device the physical item is undoubtedly part of that entertainment therefore, but as a container for knowledge it is less important. As an author I am interested in the knowledge that I can provide is made available to as many people as possible as quickly and as effectively as possible. In the past this obviously had to be via the book, but this is no longer important. If an individual is able to access my work online I am perfectly happy. Indeed, by attempting to bind the knowledge into the covers of the artefact I have effectively rendered that knowledge dead. I am unable to change it, correct it, alter it, or update it. If the knowledge is available online though this becomes much easier. So for a librarian and an author the book can be as much of a hindrance as a blessing when it comes to our main role which is in my opinion the dissemination of knowledge.
Let us now turn our attention to the physical building. I am happy to be proved wrong in this but I believe that libraries are named after librarians rather than it being the other way around. This is an interesting counterpoint to the book/bookseller naming convention. If you have a building full of books you may have a warehouse, you may have a bookshop, or in my own case you have a garage which is filled to the brim with carefully catalogued books in boxes. What you do not have however is a library. If you have a librarian in an otherwise empty room I would contend that you still have a library. Our profession is not defined by the item, our profession is defined by what we do. The library is not a collection of books it is a collection of containers which contain knowledge. This may certainly be in the form of books but it can also be in the form of newspapers, databases, journals, three dimensional realia or access to the Internet. It is the role of the professional to find the appropriate knowledge and pass it on to the person who has requested it. We are not, nor have we ever be, limited to the building since we have always been able to call on inter-library loans for example. Consequently if we do not have the correct knowledge available we do not try to palm off the incorrect knowledge to the enquirer. It may be acceptable for a bookseller to sell a book to a user even if it is not the correct book but because it is the only book they have in stock. Once again I do not see any problem with this. However, I do see a problem if a librarian tries to give the enquirer the incorrect knowledge. So as librarians we have never been constrained by our physical space while booksellers are defined by it. We have always sought to move beyond those confines and the early development of CDROM technology was spearheaded by librarians who were excited with the possibilities that were inherent in the medium. The Internet is a further extension of that and it's worth stressing again that our quest is for the appropriate knowledge, not the appropriate book which is how a bookseller would inevitably try to define the enquiry. The librarian deals with the intangible, while the bookseller deals with the very physical and very tangible item. I would say that we have rather more in common with musicians than we have with booksellers for a musician is primarily concerned with the music and the sounds that they can create and rather less with the way in which those sounds are captured. So the librarian has been constantly adapting what and how they do their job over the last 3000 years and a good librarian is one who is able to use knowledge as effectively as possible while the role of a good bookseller has not changed in the last 600 years and that is to sell as many books as they can.
The role of the librarian is to hunt and track down the information where ever it may be and so physical constraints are irrelevant. To that extent I suppose we could somewhat fancifully, and I do apologise for this, described the difference between the two professions as the librarian being hunter and the bookseller being farmer. The bookseller, constrained by their space, trying to cram as much in as they possibly can to sell or to harvest for the most money they can get. It is therefore unsurprising if a bookseller is overly concerned with physical dimensions but there is also another limitation in inherent in this viewpoint. The only people who matter to the bookseller are those that they physically see. Although the book that they sell may not be for the person they see in front of them that is all they have to work with. They have to work with that because they are constrained by the space and the product that they are selling. The purchaser has to physically obtain the item and in most instances they will still do this by physically appearing in the bookshop or building. For the librarian this is not a constraint. An enquirer can ring up and asked for information and it can be provided there and then. Indeed we can take this even further because I would contend it is not really the role of the librarian to interrogate the enquirer as to why they want the information that they don't. It would be quite exceptional for a librarian to have to choose not to provide the information. It is part of our moral, ethical and professional duty to treat each customer in exactly the same way. This cannot be said of the bookseller because if the person standing in front of the bookseller is not in a position to purchase the item they can rightly and legitimately be turned away. Therefore we have to provide a service irrespective of the physical location of the enquirer. I will of course accept that with the provision of some materials these can only be made available to appropriate members and this may include a location criteria. However, in the majority of cases somebody does not need to stand in front of us and so it is beholden to the professional to make provision for access to knowledge to people who are housebound, who are infirm, at a physical distance from the library, who are shift workers and so on. If we do not provide this knowledge provision we are failing in our job. The worldview of what is essentially a life long bookseller is of course going to be different since while they may indeed provide books for the housebound and so on they are provided by an intermediary and not by the bookseller directly. It is therefore going to be next to impossible for a bookseller to appreciate these ethical, moral and spatial concerns.
Allied to these issues are those of opening hours. Opening hours are one of the ways in which the bookseller defines their job and their activity. A good bookshop is by definition going to be open for as long as possible so that somebody can purchase a book. However, for the librarian the situation is rather different for, as we deal with knowledge, if we can provide that knowledge in other non-physical formats they then do not become time defined. The role of the website and the role of the electronic book become ways in which we are able to extend our reach, our influence, and the way in which we can do our job. A library does not need to be open 24 hours a day to be able to make knowledge available. A library is able to do that if they can provide electronic access to data and books. So for the librarian an electronic book is in many ways a more effective way of doing the job of knowledge dissemination. For a bookseller quite the opposite is the case for as they are so constrained by the physical item it is much harder for them to appreciate the difference. We do not deal with the physical in the same way that the bookseller deals with the physical and we should not be constrained by their approach. Consequently a good way of spending money is to provide 24 hour access to knowledge, and sometimes this will be at the expense of providing access to the physical items. I do not see a problem with this.
Let us now look at the role and the attitude towards knowledge itself. For the librarian there is no good or bad knowledge, there is just knowledge. If somebody wishes to know about the recruitment of extremists via the Internet for example it would make sense to take them directly to a website owned by the Klu Klux Klan. Knowledge is simply knowledge; it is the application of that knowledge which is important. It is the role of the information professional to get the correct knowledge to the correct user in the most effective way they can. However, I would contend that for the bookseller there certainly is good and bad knowledge because they will be defining knowledge in financial terms, which is to say can they sell this book? They need to have a concern, again quite rightly, of the importance of an individual title and if it is unlikely to sell, as in the case of a book about the recruitment tactics of the Ku Klux Klan, within their worldview that will be bad information. It is bad information because they cannot make money out of it. This is one of the reasons why I am concerned when I see suggestions from people such as booksellers or commercial organisations who seek to run libraries. Their world view will be completely different to that of the librarian. The role of the librarian should in many ways be anarchic. It is our moral obligation to ensure the free flow of information irrespective of cost or container. The librarian should constantly be asking how can I make that information transaction work faster and more effectively for the enquirer, and it should not, as in the case of the bookseller, be how much money they can make out of this. It should be a moral imperative that we resist attempts to censor knowledge because that is our stock in trade and to censor knowledge is to belittle both ourselves and the people that we work for, our clients, customers, users or patrons whichever term you prefer. Librarians in the United States have risked going to jail because they were not prepared to submit to the authority of the Patriot act. This is not a concern for the bookseller in the majority of cases since they only able to sell the books that they have available. I am not seeking any particular high ground, moral or otherwise but what I am doing is pointing out that there is a difference between a profession and a trade such as a bookseller.
I am extremely proud of the profession of librarian. It is a vocation and a calling. We are one of the few professions before which all other professionals are prepared to show their ignorance. One of the key roles of the librarian is to empower other people. We do that by having power ourselves, and our strength is in our knowledge of where to find, assess, and make available information. A librarian is capable of doing their job with very few physical possessions, and we are now in an environment where we can work effectively in a professional capacity with a computer and Internet connection. A bookseller without books is someone standing in an empty space looking rather ineffectual and stupid. This is why we have moral codes, ethics and professional codes of practice. Booksellers have cash registers. To allow a bookseller to tell what librarians to do is like asking a skateboarder to advise a formula 1 team. They both deal with forward locomotion but there the similarity ends.
I will not however go so far as to say that librarians always get it right. Clearly we do not. In the past it is my belief that people have entered the profession for entirely the wrong reasons. The role of a professional librarian should be that of somebody who is prepared to shout long and loudly for the free flow of knowledge. All too often however librarians are self-conscious and unwilling to make a fuss. They are prepared to allow other people to define their jobs for them and to tell them how to do those jobs. The best librarians that I know are those who have the confidence to try things that are new. They have the confidence to fail, because they understand that failure is in and of itself the successful outcome of a learning experience. They have the confidence to take what they have learned and embrace it to do their jobs more effectively.
We are at a crucial point both in terms of the profession and within terms of society as a whole. It is very tempting and I completely understand this, to continue to do in the future what we have done in the past. There is always a level of safety and security in the familiar and there is a sense of danger and insecurity in doing something differently. Unfortunately however if we continue to re-trench into those safe areas we are not in fact retrenching we are digging our own graves. What we have done in the past no longer works. If it was working we would not be looking at the cuts in library services which are now being proposed throughout the country. Successful defences against cuts in services will be made by communities which are able to see the role and the value of the library as being above and beyond those of the collection of books. Libraries must continue to develop and to innovate in order to remain relevant in the ever changing society within which we find ourselves. We need to look at ways in which the community can be used to enhance and protect the library and in order to do that we need to continually prove our relevance to our communities.
So what do we do? We look to our key strength which is providing knowledge in the best and most effective way that we possibly can. This is not by buying more books, it is by providing better access to data. This is not by having better buildings it is by ignoring the buildings and reaching out into the local community. It is by involving the community, and when I say that I mean the entire community; both those people who can come into the library and those who can't. To do anything else is an insanity, but it is unfortunately an insanity which is shared by people who cannot get beyond the concept that a library is about books. A library is not about books. A library has never been about books. A library is about reading, knowledge, and about adapting to a new status quo. A library and librarians are about change, while a book, bookshops, and booksellers are about the past. If we are about anything as a profession it is about asking and answering questions and of being of service to other people. If booksellers are about anything it is about selling books, and I would stress once again there is nothing wrong with that except and until we have a situation where a bookseller attempts to tell a librarian how to undertake their profession.
[Edit to add: Mr Coates has kindly linked to this post as he wants to increase the awareness of it, which is very flattering. He's keen to promote discussion in this subject area, and you're all of course most welcome to add your own comments here. However, I would also suggest that you add them to his post as well, so that readers of both blogs can see them. It's also helpful if they're here as well, since Mr Coates has a slightly tempramental spam filter, so at least we know that they've been posted. Unfortunately I can't link to the specific post on his blog, so you'll need to look for one titled 'The real argument about public libraries']