I've seen a few people link to a recent article entitled "This Librarian Is Not Impressed With Your Digital, No-Books Library" by Adam Feldman and it's an interesting read - I'd encourage you to take the time to go through it line by line. Particularly if you're going to read this post, which is my response to what Adam is saying. I will however quote appropriately throughout to try and give you the flavour.
Adam starts by saying that books "are an essential and invaluable architecture of human discovery and understanding." Books are great - I have no issue with that comment as far as it goes; a book can be a very useful container of information, but equally they can be filled with bias, they can contain inaccurate information and they can get out of date frighteningly quickly. Books can be all those things; they can be invaluable and also worthless - sometimes both at the same time depending on who is reading them. It's not the format that's important surely, it's the words and images contained within them. It's the role of the information professional to decide which books are appropriate for which community and to weed them on a regular basis. The value of 'a book' lies not in the artifact, but in the content and its presentation. When we try and view 'the book' as some sort of magical item that's when we run into problems.
Adam goes on to make the point "In dense Philadelphia, where I work, our book-filled libraries are busy from open to close." That's excellent to hear - that's exactly what a library should be, which is filled with busy members/users/patrons (take your pick) reading for knowledge, entertainment, enlightment and so on. But are they there because of the books, or because of the activity that they wish to engage in? There is of course a bit of both - I'm certainly not going to say that the books themselves have no value, because that's nonsense - people do like to read physical books (as do I), but a lot of what people want to do is gain something from the experience; information, a better understanding of something, factual information. A fact in a book is the same as the fact on the screen - a fact is a fact. Surely we need to look closely at what the community wants and needs; you could argue that you have a vibrant community of young musicians, and they're all keen on reading about music or taking out CDs (less likely these days, but you get my point), so that makes for a busy library. However, might not those same young musicians come into the library if they know that they have somewhere to practice, that they can be taught by the librarian ways to save their music, to record videos, to get their music out into their wider community? Simply saying that a library is busy isn't really in and of itself a particularly important thing - surely we need to look wider than that, to what the community actually wants the library for? And more than that - what we, as information professionals can do for them, which is often introducing them to something completely new. We have to be beacons, to be experimenters and to be able to communicate what we have learned to those members of the library.
I will disagree with Adam when he says "Some comfortable folks among us are coming to believe that everything we need to know about the world can be skimmed in a compulsively reloaded feed, algorithmed and tailored to all our narrow biases" because I have never seen this, either in libraries that I have visited in the UK or abroad, or more importantly in the hundreds of librarians that I work with each year. Rather what I see are information professionals who want to see how they can best harness different technologies to improve the lot of their members, and to make their activities better and more effective.
I really disagree with the point "Honestly, sometimes very little of gravity is happening on those computer terminals in urban libraries anyway. It’s often a lot of socializing on Facebook. It’s also cell phone videos of fights on Youtube." I don't believe that it's the right, or indeed the responsibility of the librarian to make assumptions based on what they see people doing. I think that it's an arrogant and patronising librarian who says that socializing on Facebook is of little gravity. That 'socializing' might be two people on separate sides of the world conversing about the death of a loved one. It might be two teenagers working out where to go on a date, it might be... it actually doesn't matter what it might be. We are not here to tell users what they can do, we're not here to judge them either. Surely we are here to ensure that whatever people in our library community want to do, they can do quicker, better and more effectively?
I think Adam is exactly right when he says "The potentially uplifting electronic resources that we do have — the expensive subscription databases — remain unknown to most computer users." But whose fault is that? It's not the fault of the library user if they don't know something exists and what it can be used for - it's the fault of the librarian for not making it crystal clear and promoting the resource correctly. He goes on to say "the complex webs of intellectual property law and vendor contracts guarantee that this “e-branch” is a pale shadow of the spectrum of human publishing represented by a real-life library curated by librarians who know their communities". A 'real life' library? I don't agree that something that is digital is somehow 'less' than something physical, and we're on very dangerous ground if we try and distinguish between the two in that manner. A librarian who knows their community should be in the best place to decide what's helpful for the community, and that surely should be based on the activity of the user first, and then followed up by the best way to assist. Furthermore, are we always going to see ebooks being used, paid for and downloaded in the same way into the future? That's a very brave person who says that it is. We cannot interpret the future by looking at what we have today - we need imagination and vision, and yes, we need to be prepared to take risks, to try things out and to learn from our mistakes. By regarding what we have as a 'pale shadow' we run the risk of then ignoring it, not seeing the potential of future development, and not properly working on behalf of our communities.
I absolutely agree with the statement "The meaningful life-changing core of the neighborhood branch is and remains the radical, flexible, dynamic education model that librarians build using every electronic, physical, and human resource at hand" We need to use the appropriate tool or resource at the best time for the user who requires it. Ranganathan put it best with his third law "every book its reader", but that can I think be equally applied to any other resource that we have at our disposal as well. We therefore, surely - need to use these tools, to experiment with them, to understand how they work and to interpret the best way they can be used to assist our communities. But then, we have the contradictory statement "Sure, there are virtual versions, but the analog experience fills our programming rooms in a spectacle that has to be seen to be believed." Yes, children need to learn how to read books, but they also need to learn how to survive and thrive in the modern and future world, and that's going to be by utilising both books AND other tools and resources. I'm not saying books are better, or worse, just that they are increasingly 1 approach, and we need to teach our young the wide variety of approaches.
Moving onto another element of teaching Adam says "Browsing shelves with us as guides accomplishes this in a far more satisfying way than browsing hyperlinks alone" No really, it doesn't. A friend of mine was once asked by a small child for the 'section in the library on the use of pigeons in World War One'. Not the books even, but the section. Browsing shelves that don't have the content the child needs is dispiriting at best, leading to a negative view of the library at worst. No library can ever have everything that a member wants or needs. Granted, it may be a good starting point, but as a beacon for excellence, the information professional needs to be the one curating good content, teaching the value of the resources found and providing a fully rounded set of resources. Trying to denegrate those online resources as 'hyperlinks' is really rather pointless - a hyperlink is nothing, it's the content on the page that the link takes you to which is important. I don't see the value in saying that one container of knowledge is better than another; they are just what they are, and one person may get what they need from the printed word, another may get a better understanding from viewing the video that the hyperlink points them to.
In his final paragraph Adam goes on to say "The digital-only library is far from a utopian information commons, where the voices weighing in on every conceivable topic may be heard" Actually, that's exactly what it is. You can quickly and easily jump from one point of view to another, quickly and almost effortlessly. As long as the reader understands that there are biases to information, that they will come across a lot of incorrect data, that material can be used for lots of different purposes, they are going to be in a far, far better position to appreciate what's available than a user who has much more limited access to information, however good the library's collection of physical artifacts is. He then goes on to say "Rather, that utopian commons is the traditional, albeit well-resourced, urban library with several generations worth of collection expertise and strong bargaining power against the electronic vendors." No. Absolutely not. A physical library is at the mercy of the publisher, the editor, the price of the book, the currency of the book and the abilities of the author to actually find a publisher in the first place! In a published world, not all voices are equal. Neither are they on the internet of course, but I have a far better chance to view the range of views by reading blogs, Facebook status updates and websites.
I completely agree with the final point that Adam makes whichi is "Librarians, whether public employees or private academics, are as a profession collectively fighting to make sure that when someone wants to know, there are no barriers to satisfying that emergent curiosity" However, that's not what he article is actually saying. There is a constant criticism of the value of the digital as opposed to the 'real world', of container over content and a limited view of what's appropriate or best for a community. It's an odd statement that Adam makes here, which is so contradictory to everything else in the article that it puzzles me.
It doesn't matter if we like it or not - the provision and availability of information is changing faster than we are able to comprehend. We need to embrace that change, not to fight against it. Yes, of course we'll have books for a long while to come, but if we're to work with our communities, and particularly our children and students, we need to embrace digital as a tool and effective resource, not to decry it as a pale shadow. We need to concentrate on the community and the activities of that community and by having a wide understanding of all the tools assist them in the most appropriate way. And that's increasingly going to be digital.