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It's time to rethink libraries. (newslily.com)
27 points by blhack on Sept 20, 2010 | hide | past | web | favorite | 47 comments

His library might be dead, but that's not the case everywhere. My nearest library (Aurora Colorado) is generally packed full of people anytime I go there. And while there are certainly plenty of people on the library computers, a lot of them are browsing the book stacks and checking out plain old books.

The idea that the Internet contains everything you can find in a library is (at present at least) absolute bunk! The internet is great for enthusiasts to read more about their favorite subjects, but for a beginner learning about a new subject, books (physical or ebook) still rule.

And it would be a huge mistake to believe that everyone can afford a computer or an ebook reader. There are still a lot of people even in the US or other first world countries where $100 for an ebook reader is completely unrealistic.

Libraries are a great asset to communities and to democracy exactly because the price of admission for library users is so low. You don't need credit, you don't need any hardware, just a desire to learn.

This was my initial reaction as well. The key fallacy (and I hesitate to use such a "strong" word) is here: "Do I want to read a novel? I can have it delivered to my kindle in a matter of a few seconds and still not get out of bed." Not everyone can afford a Kindle, and most of the older texts kept by a library are not in eBook format.

Interestingly, the "Internet age" has actually returned me to my library because of accessibility and cost effectiveness. My town is a member of the Fort Wort Public Library System, or MetrOPAC. It links together all of the Fort Worth libraries, along with several of the suburbs'.[1] The card issued by my city works at a couple dozen other libraries, and allows me to get a card at roughly ten more. MetrOPAC's card catalog is online[2] and even lets me have books or other material brought from another library to my own.

It sounds like the "broken" library is the one the author went to. Because it is a publicly-supported institution, things like a HPC cluster or other specialized tools are impractical (though I'd be there every waking moment). Providing the knowledge to seek these out IS what a library can do. My library is always packed, and even though my city will get about $400,000 less in tax revenue this year (declining property values), the library is fully-funded and is getting a small budget increase because the citizens use and value it. That's what a library should be, in my eyes.

Edited to add: Oh, and our wireless Internet access works well. ;)

1 - http://www.fortworthgov.org/library/branches/ 2 - http://fwl.ipac.dynixasp.com/ipac20/ipac.jsp?profile=

Yup, we've got a similar system here in Aurora, CO. From the Library catalog system (online or in the library), you can search not just the Aurora system, but a number of local affiliated libraries. You can get book from any of the local or affiliated libraries delivered to the library of your choice. Then you just walk in, grab the books with your name on them, zip them through the self checkout and you're good to go. My local library has become so damn convenient for me it's definitely increased my usage.

(I wrote this).

I'm not saying that libraries should be abolished, just that they should be expanded. My point is that the world has changed, and it would be great if the libraries caught up.

Absolutely don't get rid of books, that's not what I'm saying at all.

To me, libraries represent an academic resource for the community. I would just love to see them be an even greater resource than they are now. I think the idea is fantastic, and I think that history agrees, I just want to see that fantastic idea expanded a little more.

So what would I like to see happen? Get rid of the dead trees, but don't stop there.

It sounds like you want to get rid of books ("dead trees"), but maybe you got a little overexcited. I just went to the library today, to return and check out some books. It's a nice break from the time I spend behind a computer, and e-books don't interest me that much.

But while I was there, a group of toddlers were engaged in a singalong, and several people were browsing the web on library computers. Now, some libraries are better than others (for some strange reason, our local library only has one terminal dedicated to searching the catalog, so you have to wait if someone else is using it and you can't simply use one of the web PCs without signing up for a session, plus there's no wifi), but the trend is definitely toward improving the library as a community resource. The bigger problem is the lack of funding and other resources. If you want to help your library develop along these lines, volunteer, donate, vote and/or simply ask accordingly.

You make a good point. It was mistaken to say "get rid of the dead trees", what I meant was "get rid of the idea that the main focus of your establishment should be dead trees."


Eh. Maybe books are not quite dead yet, but they do have a terminal disease. We all can see it, I don't know why we tiptoe around it.

Books still have many things going for them. Once they are produced, the only infrastructure they require is literacy and something to keep them dry.

Once you have a book, you can do almost anything you want with it, including give it or sell it to someone else, who will have the same rights you had. Copyright does apply to books, of course, but with books, the concept of fair use is well ensconced, and not encumbered by EULAs and "click-wrap" terms of use.

So yes, books may well be terminal, but if they die, we risk loosing something more than just a stack of dead tree we can hold in our hands.

I can't see that you disagreed with me, & I don't disagree with you either. Something's always lost in these 'revolutions', but we always gain more than we lose. That's why we're switching mediums in the first place.

Instead of lamenting that your library isn't a Hackerspace, you should rejoice that you have a Hackerspace in your area...http://www.heatsynclabs.org/ Joining my local Hackerspace (http://www.thetransistor.com) has been one of the most enjoyable things I have done.

I go to heatsync all the time, I love that place. The only reason I go there, however, and one of the only reasons I even know it exists is because of my exposure to technology. Getting more stuff out there and in the hands of kids (and here is the important part: telling them that they can use it however they want to) is what I would love to see.

One very important thing that happened to me during my schooling was an amazing teacher that I had for an off-campus computer course that I took. I'm sure that this could have gotten her in a lot of trouble (which is a problem, in my eyes) but when she would leave after class, she would leave the computer lab unlocked for us. This meant that my friend Aaron and I could stay there as late as we wanted working on side projects and seeing what we could make our linux machines do.

It was so important for me because it wasn't a class, there was no point to it, it was just 50 very nice workstations and a sortof agreement that if I didn't permanently damage anything, I could use it for whatever it was that I wanted.

Now, how does this relate to my wanting to "rethink libraries"? Well, first of all, I want this type of resource (meaning resources to learn with) available to more than just children, but also I want this type of resource to be available with the understanding that you aren't going to get in trouble if you use it for something other than what is in the book.

Think about novels: nobody tells you what they mean, or what you're supposed to think of them. That is why the library model (as opposed to the lit class model) works so well. You can go there on your own time, read whatever you want, and think whatever you want about it. I think that offering people the same experience for more than just books is beneficial.

What I do not understand is that people seem to be against this sort of thing. Why? I'm not saying to do away with books at all (although I did say "ditch the dead trees", which was a bit over-zealous), I'm saying to rethink libraries so that they include more tools for learning.

As self-centered as this may sound, not all people are as curious and intelligent as you and I may be. The mere fact that you would choose to stay and explore after school speaks volumes about you. I used to spend my lunches in the school science lab myself. Most people are deadly dull, and a slight barrier of entry to gain access to the really cool stuff helps to keep the morons away.

O.k. I didn't get that, thought you were saying books were obsolete.

Given your clarification then, I do agree with you then, although in fairness, I'd have to say I think most libraries have been trying to embrace the digital age for quite a while.

Agreed, the Mountain View library is always packed. I mostly go with my daughter because it's a great place for kids. But I also like to be able to read books without having to buy them.

I came to say the same thing - my local library is certainly not dead. Full of both kids and adults - yes, some are playing on the computers, but a ton are also reading and checking out books.

My wife is a librarian and I do think there are some points that have been glossed over.

Book are still super important. In fact not everyone can afford to buy books. Esp in large metropolitan area where there is any sort of impoverish population. They can't afford book let alone a kindle.

That neuroscience journal might not have been on the racks but I'll bet there is a good chance it was in one of the online databases that libraries pay good money to have access to. Feel free to check out the prices online and I'll bet most will pass on paying for it your self.

Also illustrated Children's Books are something even parents in Suburbia take advantage of as children go through them quickly and they are very expensive to buy.

That said many libraries hold on to books long past their relevance. And more space and time should be devoted to public events, like video games, and education, like the class my wife teaches "how to sigh up for email" and "learning to use the mouse".

Indeed. I feel offended when I have to spend (usually) over 5 GBP for a Kindle edition of a 20-year old book, and get a poorly formatted, poorly indexed piece of text that someone at a publisher has spent perhaps 20 minutes looking over, judging from the quality of the product, when I can go to a library and borrow it for free, or go to a second-hand bookstore and buy it for 50p.

The prices of books on Kindle are simply scandalous for the quality of the product and the lack of a secondary market. You're lucky if you get both a table of contents with hyperlinks and chapter markers that work; if you're unlucky, you end up with something the length of a Dostoyevsky that you have to binary search through with page number gotos.

My wife is a librarian. I love libraries, browsing around, finding stuff on chance. I also love ebooks (I've developed a pretty horrible O'Reilly habit since I got my iPad).

Most of what you say is true here, but it sounds like where you went kind of stunk. - libraries need to cease being book warehouses and start becoming community centers and resources. A good library will have computer classes, solid wifi, and an engaged staff working to help out the community around it.

That community is most likely not a bunch of HN readers who want to use a free beowulf cluster and all the other really cool stuff they can't justify buying for themselves, but I could see a tool lending library being quite popular in most communities.

As much as I like ebooks, the dream of "no dead wood" is probably not going to happen anytime soon - there are a whole ton of books out there that aren't available in digital format, or are out of print but still sitting on shelves somewhere. Frankly, the DRM scheme of having content restricted to ink on paper is a relatively reasonable form of copy protection, IMO.

>libraries need to cease being book warehouses and start becoming community centers and resources.

Yes, exactly! I actually disagree with you that library goers aren't the HN types that want computing hardware... perhaps they are and just don't know it. TO me, giving community members access to hardware is the exact same thing as giving them access to books has been for the last 150 years or so. Books were traditionally something that most people couldn't afford, but would be good for the community to have, so people go money together and bought them. I think that computers are the same way now. Yeah, I personally might have some decent compute hardware in my house, but most people probably don't even know this type of thing exists. I would love to see more people exposed to what I personally think is the future of...well, everything so that they can learn about it.

I definitely echo the community center sentiment.

More specifically, I envision the future library as a place that teaches people how to learn: - How to use online searches intelligently - How to use online crowd-sourced resources - How best to use online communities to gain knowledge - How to find relevant online classes

Though I agree with some of the above comments that people will continue to benefit from the physical books, I do believe that libraries will transition to a Netflix model, where they have access to a limited number of e-books that can be loaned to e-readers for a limited time.

I agree for the most part, but the expectation of a Library having a CNC mill or a miniature cluster seems a little strange and specific to your personal interests.

Holding reading classes for younger children and poorly literate adults, community events centered on lots of different subjects, art appreciation, reading groups... I think those are all slightly more feasible and in line with what a general public would enjoy in a library.

Now, if we're talking about the concept of a Hacker-centre... I think there are a few of those in the larger cities and some college campuses.

Indeed, and a public miniature cluster is just a tragedy of the commons waiting to happen. Either it gets monopolised by one person, or nobody gets more than a tiny fraction of a CPU-day per day making it less useful than your own laptop.

Well wait a second, couldn't the same thing be said about books? Or public basketball courts? Or study rooms or anything that is made publicly available and isn't unlimited?

Yes I could build a cluster in my house if I wanted one, but 15 year old me couldn't, and 15 year old me would have spent his entire childhood in the library if the one described here existed.

Not really. A library can easily buy more books than everybody in the surrounding communities could possibly want at any given time, which is why if you go to the library you'll see books on the shelves. Books are cheap and I can't use any more than a few at a time.

But any legitimate cluster user can easily use an entire mini-cluster, all the time, on their own. (I know I can!) So the demand for the resources can easily outstrip the supply, for any reasonable value of supply.

A decent M-node cluster with a good backbone costs N thousand dollars per node, where N is some surprisingly high number. If you have more than M users it's pretty much useless for everybody since I can't do anything I can't do on my home computer, and if you have fewer than M users it's a damn poor use of library money to buy an expensive cluster that hardly anyone's going to use.

PS. This thread reminds me that my library books are a week overdue, I should return them right now. Thanks!

But it doesn't specifically have to be a cluster. The point is to make libraries more than just a warehouse for print, but a place for continued learning.

Wouldn't this have also been how old time-sharing mainframes (i.e. in universities) were used? And if not, why not?

I'm not sure what libraries are like in your town, but all those services you mention are the bread and butter of public libraries here in Ontario. That sort of targetted programming is by far the best way to get people in the door.

That's what any good library is like. The OP seemed to be indicating that his library was a total ghost town though.

That's a shame. A lot of municipalities see their libraries (and museums) as low-hanging fruit in times of financial distress. Often they're pared down to a bare minimum of services: circulation.

This is troublesome for many reasons, but the most important, in my opinion, is that libraries generally see an upsurge in use statistics during economic downturns.

People go to the library to learn new skills (literacy, resume help and proofreading, etc.), to look for work, to escape into a good book and the company of their fellow man, and to just get away from their troubles. Programming should, and often does, provide just the targeted help they could use most.

Until we had our son I would have largely agreed with this article, but our local public library has been an incredible resource for board books and kids music CDs for him (now 2 years old). My wife checks out at least a dozen new books and a couple of CDs every week for our son, which we read to him several times a day, and consequently he loves "reading" his picture books and listening to music.

Call me old fashioned but I don't think that that babies and toddlers can get the same experience from an iPad or Kindle-esque device that they do from physical books.

I worked in an major academic library from 2000 until 2007. Libraries know about the changing landscape and it's the basis of pretty much everything librarians discuss these day. A number of the big academic libraries have added cafes and digital centers. At the university where I worked, most of the network of computer labs throughout campus were put into the library.

There are also services that people aren't really aware of. For example, the article's author mentions that he wanted an article from a 1978 issue of a neuroscience journal that his local library doesn't have. But doesn't actually matter if the local library doesn't have it because practically every library in the US offers an interlibrary loan service and will get you a copy of the article from a library that does have it.

Still, there are a couple things holding libraries back. One is that librarians traditionally have entered the field because they were attracted the old, book-centric library model. Even at the beginning of this decade at my library there were many people who were very much opposed to even the idea of google. There is very low turnover in many big libraries (academic libraries are filled with staff members who have spent decades in the same jobs) and the pay is so low that it's difficult to attract skilled technology workers.

Furthermore, libraries are usually strange, bureaucratic organizations. They operate sort of like businesses, but they have no revenue and, therefore, most metrics and benchmarks always felt somewhat contrived, and therefore office politics had a more prominent role in decision-making processes. It's also very, very difficult for most academic libraries to fire people, so they attract people who are looking for jobs with good benefits that they can coast in. I'm guessing public libraries are similar.

The result of all of this is that libraries often make bizarre decisions about technology. Librarians hop on mainstream technology fads in ridiculous ways. For instance, when I left in 2007, the most prominent issue discussed on library blogs was how important it was to have a presence on Second Life.

Eerie. Having been in/around Tempe for the last 16 years, as soon as he said "There's a coffee shop here in Tempe..." the first one that came to mind (of the many, many non-starbucks coffee shops in this area) was the exact one he meant. I've certainly logged my share of hours there studying, reading something interesting, chatting with friends, etc.

And going by that, the nearest library (likely the one he is referencing--and i went there a lot in middle/high school back in the 90s) is about a mile from the coffee shop and all in all is in a pretty suburbanite, middle class part of town. It's pretty fair to say that for an area with a good median income, high but not extreme property values, etc, something like a public library is going to be hit hardest by the advent of the internet, since the "public" is going to be pretty thoroughly plugged-in.

Not that it's a bad idea to consider bringing libraries along into the newer age...

Haha :). Has the internet always been as bad as it is now?

To be honest, the library I was at (Yep, right up the street from xbean), seemed to be very well funded, clean, in outstanding order. I'm not saying that there is anything wrong with the execution of libraries, just that I would love to see what I believe is the idea behind them expanded to include more than just books (and movies, and magazines, and music).

The obvious move would be to replace the bookshelves and books (among other texts and publications) with a bunch of computers and free/paid Internet access. But the biggest problem, I think, would be making sure that people are actually using those new resources for what they are meant to be used for and not for something else like updating their Facebook status or watching Charlie Bit My Finger on YouTube.

I agree that libraries need rethinking. I've found that even those Librarians who are inclined to do such rethinking can be surprisingly conservative.

Even so, the authors needs a different point of reference needs a reset. I've never been in one of Seattle's libraries that hasn't been a bustling hub of activity. There are lots of public computers, for people who don't have their own. People are studying and working on their laptops, and some people are even reading or checking out books.

Personally, most of my use of our libraries via the web, particularly to access the O'Reilly Safari Library. One of the awesome things about libraries is librarians, because they believe in things like the democratization of acess to information. One result is that often times, the licenses on online databases acessed through libraries are often less restrictive than you'd get on your own.

Awh, thought this was going to be about binary compatibility and DLL hell. This is good too, though :)

While it has taken a great deal of flak for breaking somewhat with traditional library organization and architecture, I think Seattle's library is nearly what he is calling for: a geographic place focused to a large extent on services and not simple booklending.

TED Talk on the Seattle Central Library design process: http://www.ted.com/talks/joshua_prince_ramus_on_seattle_s_li...

Architectural diagrams (and some wild hyperbolic language) at: http://www.archdaily.com/11651/seattle-central-library-oma-l...

I'm not sure we'll ever find everything he has in mind in one place, but there was an article on CNN recently that talks about a business that's attempting to fill the need of some of what he suggested. It's a place called TechShop, and it aims to provide membership-based access to tools, and other resources necessary to get into product creation.

The article about it is located here: http://money.cnn.com/2010/09/14/technology/techshop/index.ht...

My use of the library has vastly, vastly increased since the web has enabled our library catalog to get online, to pool many of the libraries in our county into one giant catalog, so that finding and ordering a book (or other media) is simple and fast.

SO MUCH of what I want to find is simply not online yet - Google books has a long way to go.

WorldCat is great too. I usually start there since it has the best interface, and if the book is only outside of the local system I can consider if it is worth the bother of an ILL.

I don't see why libraries need to transform into community centers. Why not let them concentrate what they do best: collecting and storing information, especially books. While I think such community centers as described in the writing could even stand on their own feet, but imho they would also fit better to schools rather than libraries.

edit: While I think at it, opening schools for general public sound more and more better idea.

>edit: While I think at it, opening schools for general public sound more and more better idea.

Not sure if this was supposed to be a joke about the public school system or not... If it was, the public school system, unfortunately, comes to an abrupt end when you graduate from high school. You can continue learning if you want, but you have to pay huge amounts of money to do so.

What I'm advocating here is effectively an expansion of libraries into sortof-schools for both kids and adults that want to do stuff beyond what is being offered in their classes.

Not a joke about school system. What I meant that schools facilities would be more fitting for community centers, so it would be imho more sensible to open school facilities for adults to use (of course equipping some rooms appropriately) rather than expanding libraries.

A problem that I have with this is that the school system is too rigid.

Maybe it was different for some people, but when I was in school, it was very much "you are allowed to do this specific thing with this resource, and nothing else." One school that I went to, my junior high school, actually had an outstanding tech shop. We had a CNC mill, CAD stations, a pneumatics lab, some robotics stuff, a wind tunnel...lots of absolutely amazing things. That said, I never got the impression that I could use the CNC mill for anything other than writing my name on a piece of plexiglass (a souvenir that I still have.)

(I actually moved away from this school mid-term and never got to do the wind tunnel, or the pneumatics lab)

What I'm talking about is taking the shop that I had in middle school and putting it in a library so that everybody can use it.

Why would it need to be moved to library? Wouldn't it be easier just let schools open doors and let everybody use the equipment etc where it is?

Well, first, this stuff mostly doesn't exist in schools. Around the valley, maybe, but in Iowa where I grew up (the place I left to after the school I was talking about)? No.

Second, why not put this stuff in the Library? It is absolutely a resource that the public could use.

I worked at the Clarkson University library for three years and learned the software used to manage library databases is a huge contributor to the problem. I'd love to do something about it if the chance presented itself.

I love the image conjured up by the term "baby cluster". Just don't think about what's sticking the babies together.

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