Palfrey: Libraries matter more than ever in the age of Google

technology / Article

At 6 p.m. June 8, Author John Palfrey will be talking about his new book, Bibliotech: Why Libraries Matter More than Ever in the Age of Google, in Miami and via Livestream.  His book is a call to arms for communities to fight for libraries and their digital transition, or risk losing an important piece of American democracy. Below is an excerpt from his book. RSVP to attend the discussion at Miami Dade College’s Idea Center, or watch the stream June 8 at

John Palfrey

 Libraries are at risk because we have forgotten how essential they are. In the era of Google and Amazon, those with means can access information with greater ease and speed than ever before. As a consequence, in cities and towns across the world the same debate rages each year when budget time rolls around: What’s the purpose of a library in a digital age? Put more harshly, why should we spend tax dollars, in tough economic times, on a library when our readers can instantly get so much of what they need and want from the Internet? As the bulk of funding for police, fire departments, and schools – all necessary services – has become the responsibility of state and local governments, municipal leaders have been forced to ask a question that library supporters aren’t prepared to answer: are libraries necessary?

We keep having this debate because we have a very simplistic and skewed idea of why libraries matter. For most of us, libraries are good for one thing: getting information.

But most information today can be readily accessed in digital form, through computers or smartphones. How many times recently have you had a debate with a friend, only to resolve the dispute within seconds simply by pulling out a mobile device and looking up the answer? Most of the information that we need in our day-to-day lives can now be found in both analog (meaning “physical”) form and digital form. Most of the time, the digital variants can be accessed by anyone, easily and quickly, from anywhere, using a mobile device. Acquiring the physical variants often require more effort – an actual trip to the library, for instance.

The point is not that books, magazines, and DVDs are dead – far from it. At places such as the redesigned Boston Public Library, popular publications and media materials in physical form circulate rapidly from prominent spaces close to the building’s entrance.

The point is that people’s information habits have undergone a sea change—a major shift toward the digital. Libraries are trying to serve a wide range of patrons at many different points along an “adoption curve,” with all-print at one end and all-digital at the other.

A related shift is also under way: libraries must increasingly compete with commercial establishments that offer free wireless Internet access and a place to gather, such as Starbucks. In the midst of all this change, libraries of all sizes and types are forced to make the case for their own relevance. The problem is that libraries need to provide both physical materials and spaces as well as state-of-the-art digital access and services.

Our views about what libraries offer are firmly entrenched, which makes the task before library supporters even harder. If most knowledge is accessible in digital formats, on devices that can be carried anywhere, what is the purpose of a traditional library collection of books, journals, magazines, movies, and music? If the Internet is the primary access point for this information, what is the purpose of preserving physical spaces where people can come to find it? If libraries are nothing more than community centers in cities and towns and on college campuses, then what do we need librarians for? Put in negative terms: Are libraries and librarians anachronistic in a digital age? Who, after all, are they serving, and how? Libraries are more than community centers, just as librarians do more than answer questions you could easily ask Google.

From the opening of the Boston Public Library, the first public library, to the expansion of public libraries across America through the Carnegie libraries, the library as an institution has been fundamental to the success of our democracy. Libraries provide access to the skills and knowledge necessary to fulfill our roles as active citizens. Libraries also function as essential equalizing institutions in our society.

For as long as a library exists in most communities, staffed with trained librarians, it remains true that individuals’ access to our shared culture is not dictated by however much money they have.

For many citizens, libraries are the one place where the information they need to be engaged in civic life is truly available for free, requiring nothing more than the time to walk into a branch. The reading room of a public library is the place where a daily newspaper, a weekly newsmagazine, and a documentary film are all available for free. In many communities, the library’s public lecture room is the only place to hear candidates for office comparing points of view or visting professors explaining their work on climate change, immigration, or job creation. That same room is often the on place where a child from a family without a lot of money can go to see a dramatic reading or a production of a Shakespeare play…

Democracies can work only if all citizens have equal access to information and culture that can help them make good choices, whether at the voting booth or in other aspects of public life.

Libraries, then, are core democratic institutions today just as they were in the 19th century. The knowledge that libraries offer and the help that librarians provide are the lifeblood of an informed and engaged republic. This role for libraries is just as important in big cities like Boston and New York as it is in every small town in every democracy.

From the rise of the public library system in late-19th-century America, libraries have been the place where any citizen could go to pursue his or her own interests, free of cost.

The disappearance of libraries as we know them would affect the way our children are educated – for the worse. It would undercut the ability of immigrants to any free country to adjust well to a new system, find jobs, and join the ranks of literate working-class and middle-class citizens. Libraries provide public spaces where people can congregate, share their common cultural and scientific heritage, and create knowledge. Librarians, along with archivists, maintain the historical record of our societies and our lives. By failing to invest in libraries during this time of transition away from the analog and toward the digital, we are putting all these essential functions at risk just when we need them most.

The path forward for libraries and librarians is not mysterious. Visionary leaders like Amy Ryan and her team at the Boston Public Library are charting the way forward.

A reinvestment effort by Siobhan Reardon at the Free Library of Philadelphia has resulted in a $25 million grant to reimagine her city’s library. Many other librarians – in school libraries, universities, and special libraries, at technology companies and nonprofits are likewise showing the way.

The key is very simple: to focus on what digital media and the Internet make possible, not on what they undo. This perspective enables library supporters to find and exploit the ways in which the digital and the analog come together, where they reinforce one another.

The Internet and digital media are enabling new kinds of services that make a real difference for all library users: for instance, librarians can find, at no cost interactive materials ranging from original historical documents to the notes from recent city hall meetings. Physical libraries have never been more vital, interesting, useful places. The people who work in libraries are helping other people make sense of the overwhelming mass of information online and making it immediately relevant to their lives.

We need both physical libraries and digital libraries today.

Physical spaces and digital platforms will both play an essential role in providing access to knowledge in democracies around the world in the near future. If we don’t maintain physical libraries, we will lose essential public, intellectual spaces in our communities, places where people can meet face-to-face, and if we don’t build digital libraries connected to them, those physical spaces may become obsolete as big companies such as Google and Amazon increasingly meet our need for knowledge. Physical and digital libraries are interdependent: each can make the other more effective and valuable.

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