John Palfrey, Biblio Tech

Eng. & Comp. Sci Library, U Toronto.   Wikimedia Commons.

A former librarian at Harvard Law School under Dean Elena Kagan, John Palfrey was what librarians call a “feral” – a librarian without formal library science training. (He’s since gone to Philips Academy as Head of School – again a feral, without formal high school experience). He is clearly loyal to libraries: he does not see them as potential profit centers or dismiss the books on their shelves as irrelevancies in a digital age.

That said, he promises “tough love” for libraries. Sure, he says, ebook-reading has plateaued. Yes, we’ve witnessed an outpouring of love for paper, for bindings, for detailed colophons, for book-craft and the country’s remaining bookstores. But this is the last summery day before the frost: the weather is changing rapidly. Though librarians across the country have initiated some extraordinarily imaginative projects to reengage the public, tech companies – Google, Amazon, Facebook – have far deeper pockets. Their projects don’t just encompass a library or a library system; their projects reach the entire online world, fundamentally recasting the social meaning of information and knowledge and literacy. Libraries just can’t compete with such resources and relentless focus.

Palfrey insists that libraries must, right now, remake themselves in ways permanently valuable to their communities and and to the nation, creating new experiences to compensate for the loss of oak tables, narrow stacks, and the fusty odors of old leather and paper.

If he’s right, the threat to libraries isn’t from technology per se. It’s from tottering state and local budgets. I just learned that Douglas County, Oregon – where I spent my summers with an uncle and aunt – has closed all its county libraries for lack of funds. The county’s 100,000 people are now unable to borrow books, read the magazines secreted on the web behind paywalls, or, if they’re young, learn that reading is more than a skill: it’s magic.

The library in Roseburg, a small but solid facility newly-built back in the 70s, is now just an occasional meeting venue. Technology companies make more information available, but don’t (and can’t) make it visible.

How does Dystopia begin? As an item on the agenda of a regular Wednesday meeting meeting of the County Board of Commissioners.

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