The Digitization Debate
We hear a lot about how many librarians and IT folks figure that with all of the nifty technology we've got nowadays, they'd much rather run their libraries off in the ether, behind the scenes without having to deal with that nasty, germy face-to-face business we have in walk-in libraries now. Most of the rhetoric surrounding \that has to do with the fact that hey - doesn't it increase access if you put it online? Then you don't have to deal with building hours! Or staff time off! Or worrying about creepy porninators coming in and bothering everyone! Jolly good!
These are the same folks who believe that digitization is a panacea for all building-laden woes, that if can be made available online, the physical access to something is just a ridiculous redundancy. As it was stated in the Billings Gazette: "phasing out services associated with the library as public space" is part of the plan. *sigh* Those pesky patrons again, bothering us in person, when they could just do it via IM so we could work from home in our pjs, with coffee. Besides, everyone knows that the days of library as public space are dead and gone, right? I mean, the New York Public Library, the Louisville Free Public Library and the rest of them are really just making libraries look bad, catering to all these folks in person. How old-fashioned!
(Please note I am not against digitization - I think it's a fantastic development that will serve us - and our patrons - well, long into the future. I do have a problem with using digitization as an excuse to dehumanize the library, as though the personal satisfaction of coming to a place dedicated to knowledge for the chance to sit with a book and simply enjoy a day, or to get some actual work done away from home and office, are negligible factors that deserve no credit when making library plans.)
As it turns out, Montana's library folks forgot all about doing their demographic research before letting folks know that they were on a schedule to make the state library fully virtual by January. Now folks are up in arms, claiming that having access to only administrative offices and the Talking Book Library are simply not enough. Even better, the Library apparently never sought public comment on this radical change. Way to go, elitist Montana librarians. Getting rid of newspapers, nonfiction and print reference - hey, it's all online anyway, right guys? Gah. Even freshmen in college are taught to know better!
The Pew report states that 'internet penetration' (whatever that means) has reached 73% for American adults. That means that by digitizing and eradicating your physical library presence, you are disenfranchising 27% of adults. Most of those, given the demographics and the digital divide, will be minorities, elderly, or in rural or poor communities. While you could make the argument (I haven't seen it yet, but I'm sure the more PC folks would never utter it aloud) that these folks would never be the ones using the state library anyway, that's not really your judgment to make. The whole point is that, as librarians, if we were to have a professional creed to live by, it would be "availability to all." Not "Availability to those who can afford a Dell or iMac," not "availability to those who are familiar with IE7 and Firefox."
What does this mean? This means that even as librarians are getting trained with nifty new digital skills, some of them still haven't had it beaten into their dopey heads that we're here not just for the NetGen patron, or the eldering yuppies with all their gadgetry. We're here for everyone, and NOT everyone is comfortable with knowing the only place they'll be able to find something is online. I wonder if the power ever goes out during tough Montana snows - that'd definitely put a kink in their 'access everywhere, every time' thinking. This is what happens when you forget that you serve people. Especially as a state institution, you don't really have the right to disenfranchise anyone without letting the governor know about it!