What an exciting book!

“Surely you jest,” you say.

“An exciting book about libraries? That’s an oxymoron!”

Well, OK, maybe not quite exciting. But it’s a fine book that has a lot of important things to say and will stimulate your thinking. BiblioTech: Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google, by John Palfrey, provides a nuanced argument against the common view that libraries are no longer necessary.

Palfrey agrees that the Internet has replaced the library as the primary source of information for most people. But that doesn’t mean that there’s no role for libraries — far from it! Instead of thinking of “the library as place,” Palfrey advocates thinking of “the library as platform.” Through such innovations as the Digital Public Library of America, generally referred to as the DPLA, with the world’s coolest URL (, you can get access to a wide variety of materials no matter where you live. The DPLA refers to itself as a platform, in the same way that Palfrey advocates for brick-and-mortar libraries. They exist in synergy, not in competition. Inter-library loans are the first step in that process, but they require unwieldy transfers of physical materials.

Therein lies one of the major themes of this book. Libraries need to collaborate, not compete. Only in that way can they both serve the public and survive the current funding crunch. It’s appalling that communities, schools, and colleges keep cutting library budgets, but we don’t have to just throw up our hands and give in. Why do we need libraries when we have Google? Pure and simple, it’s a matter of democracy. If democratic countries are to survive, information needs to be equally available to all people, not just to those who can afford computers and the instruction on how to use them wisely. Libraries provide the public free and universal access, and they provide skilled librarians who can help patrons find what they are looking for. Donald Trump and Ben Carson may believe that amateurs can run the world, but in fact we need the skills and wisdom of professionals.

Another major theme is the need for reforming copyright law. It turns out that the copyright holders for a majority of material that’s still under copyright are unreachable. Under current law, that places libraries in an untenable bind: they can’t make electronic copies without permission of the copyright holder, but they can’t find the copyright holder. In justifiable fear of large monetary penalties, they refrain from copying.

If the legal issues can be successfully addressed, why do we still need hard copies at all? Palfrey provides several answers. Some readers don’t like reading from a screen; sometimes we want the feel and the smell of turning real pages from a real book; sometimes the structure of the book itself and even the typography and the binding provide added value; sometimes we need to browse through the stacks and count on serendipity to make unplanned discoveries. On the last of these, software is being developed to reproduce the browsing experience in an online virtual library, but we’re not there yet. A virtual reality equivalent would be fantastic!

Palfrey refers to the process of “hacking libraries,” which he is at pains to point out refers to the original meaning of “hacking,” not the modern popularization that refers to illegal and illicit activities. This is merely one of the ways in which he bridges the old and new worlds. Palfrey’s own history makes this bridge unsurprising and reveals how I found his book: formerly a law professor and library director, he is currently the Head of School of Phillips Academy, Andover, from which I graduated 100 years ago. (I said this to a class the other day, and one student believed me. Sigh. Or maybe he just pretended to believe me.) Actually, I graduated from P.A. exactly 50 years ago, and boy was it different then! “Boy” is the relevant interjection, since the school was all male at the time and our headmaster was a Marine colonel. (The title was Principal until 1928, then Headmaster until 1994, and now Head of School.) The transition from John Kemper in my days to Ted Sizer in 1972 marked one huge change, and the appointment of Palfrey in 2012 certainly marked another. Palfrey is basically a democratic socialist, like Bernie Sanders, since he passionately wants libraries to provide the same sort of services to all that police, fire, and postal services do. The Phillips Academy that I attended in the earlier ’60s couldn’t even have imagined such a thing!

One last comment: I didn’t read BiblioTech as a physical book, nor did I read it electronically on a computer screen or a Kindle. I listened to it as an audiobook in the car — a third and important format. It worked well, but the narrator (Tom Zingarelli) annoyed me by mispronouncing a lot of words, such as Copley, Woburn, Gloucester, accessible, and San Rafael. Why didn’t the publisher make sure that the Zingarelli knew how to pronounce these words, several of which are admittedly peculiar? You may wonder why I care. What difference does it make? The difference is that each mispronunciation takes me out of the world of the book I’m listening to and interrupts the flow of the narrative. That flaw isn’t nearly as bad in the case of non-fiction like BiblioTech as it is when it occurs in reading a novel — since a novel by definition immerses you in a fictional world — but still it should and could have been avoided.

Anyway…read the physical book, or listen to it, or read it off a screen; make sure that libraries are well-funded and that electronic access continues to grow!

Categories: Books, Teaching & Learning