Stop me when this sounds familiar:
"So you’re a librarian? Let me ask you something."
"I already know the question - who needs librarians when we have Google? Who needs libraries when we have ebooks?"
This conversation has happened to me so. many. times. At cocktail parties, on the subway and even at border control as a customs officer was inspecting my passport. Depending on my mood, I find these questions startling, frustrating and encouraging. The first two because I often have trouble believing that we are still, somehow talking about this, the last because (on a good day) it gives me the opportunity to talk about how librarians are in fact only more necessary in a world of big data, surveillance and information inequality. The library is one of the few, maybe the only, genuinely accessible public spaces for DIY education, community building and civil discourse. All three of those factors can converge on issues of where technology fits into building a good life. To prove my point, I’m going to discuss three news stories that demonstrate the need for information professionals who have the training and expertise to explain to the public why information and digital literacy is crucial, and the roles that librarians can play in crafting those literacies.
The right to forget - This week, Europe’s highest court declared that Google and other search engines must respect the right to privacy of individuals whose data can be found online (read: everyone), and that those rights may outweigh the freedom of search engines to link to information about them. Already, hundreds of claims have been made by individuals who want to curate online information made available to the world wide web via search engines. European librarians are ideally situated to explain these issues to library users and assist in the process of exercising the “right to be forgotten.” Elsewhere, librarians can use this ruling as a way of explaining to patrons what it means to have information about themselves online, policy initiatives around data protection, and introduce tools for protecting privacy.
Net neutrality - One of the biggest policy issues in the context of online technologies, the FCC voted this week to begin the process of setting new rules for online traffic that would allow broadband providers to charge companies different rates to delivery content at faster speeds. I am fond of watching people’s startled faces when I say things like, “it’s weird how you talk about the internet as a singular. There isn’t just one internet, there are many!” Usually, I’m talking about how search engines only index a fraction of the web, or about how different groups of people use the internet so differently that they should be considered as distinct entities. But net neutrality actually threatens to give different groups of people different levels of access to the internet with real and troubling implications for issues of social justice. Consumers faced with these choices should be able to make use of their local library to get high speed internet access that they may or may not have at home, but they should also be able to learn about why they may not have access to high speed internet in the first place, who their broadband provider is and to whom that provider is accountable. These discussions should be taking place in the library already!
The Internet of Things - The pollsters at Pew released findings that offer a number of predictions about the “Internet of Things,” which refers to a world of ubiquitous computing, where everyday objects are linked and talk to each other, where typical examples include a refrigerator that tells your phone when your food is expired, or an item of clothing that updates your doctor about your biometric data. Before the Internet of Things becomes more of a reality than it already is, librarians could do an incredible amount of awareness raising about the opportunities and obstacles of this shift. Programming around interconnectedness of devices! Kids programming on cyborgs! Positioning the library as a place where people can turn for questions of how technological change shapes their lives, making them sometimes better and sometimes worse, is one of the best and most vital resources a social institution can play in its community.
For my librarian friends, I know we all have colleagues who would be completely ill equipped to facilitate these conversations. And I’m not at all suggesting that libraries embrace an all-digital future and set aside their print collections, that’s not what I’m about. What I am saying is that when people ask questions about why librarians are necessary, they imagine libraries as full of books and librarians as ladies wielding stamps and shushing people. (Still. Somehow. I have no idea why this stereotype is so sticky.) I’m calling for conversations that imagine something radically different, and it shouldn’t take that much imagination because we’re already part way there!