Phillips Academy Head Argues Libraries More Important Than Ever In Digital Age

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Interior of the Seattle Central Library in downtown Seattle. The $165 million building’s unusual design and decoration attracts visitors from all over the world. (Manuel Valdes/AP)
Interior of the Seattle Central Library in downtown Seattle. The $165 million building’s unusual design and decoration attracts visitors from all over the world. (Manuel Valdes/AP)

Boston is home to one of the country's first great public libraries: the Boston Public Library. Founded in the middle of the 19th century, it is free to all, offering a public space and access to a world of books and ideas.

For generations, Americans have embraced public libraries as essential civic institutions — but now, in the age of Google, Wikipedia, Amazon and Kindle, traditional libraries face an existential quandary. With so much information so easily accessible, who needs libraries and their musty stacks of books?

We all do, according to John Palfrey, who says, in the digital age, libraries are more important than ever. He argues that they provide essential public spaces to everyone, including the most vulnerable in our society, where they can access information, think, write and learn. Without libraries, he says the gap between the information haves and have-nots will widen, threatening our civic culture and democracy.

Palfrey says it's time to re-invest in libraries, and to pursue a new strategy that will allow them to shape, rather than just react, to the digital revolution.


John Palfrey, head of school at Phillips Academy in Andover and director of Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. His new book is, "Bibliotech: Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google." He tweets @jpalfrey.


On why libraries are still relevant in the digital age:
John Palfrey:
"Part of it is the extent to which our culture has been foreclosed, in some ways. As there are fewer public spaces out there...having public spaces where people can come...together around ideas and around knowledge in a city or in a town, I think that itself is very important. I fear a digital age in which the people who can afford to download anything they want whenever they want on their Kindle get what they need, and that others don't get that — where publishers decide they're not going to lend electronic materials to libraries for fear of theft or other things, where libraries actually can't do what they've done, historically. So, that's the more important than ever part. I also think all of the information that's out there requires more curation. It requires more guides. It requires people who can help us find what we need, actually, and where it's not just about algorithms."

On libraries as curators:
"In some ways, this book I've written, 'Bibliotech,' is a love letter to libraries and to librarians. I think that both the institutions and the people who work in them are incredibly important...this is true in almost any field...Of course, you can do a Google search, you can find something, you can pinpoint something, but I actually think we need the serendipity of someone helping you look on a stack of books and find something that you didn't think you needed...I actually think there are many ways in which the personal role that librarians play is just as important in a digital age than it is in an analog age."

On looking at libraries in a nostalgic way:
"There's a real mistake if what we do is cling to a nostalgia about libraries only — especially — when the way in which young people are changing their information habits so quickly right now. So, what I say to libraries, in a way, is, yes you're as important as ever, if not more so, but you actually need to create a new nostalgia for this next generation, for all of us, and not to rely on too thin a reed, which is that old nostalgia. So, I think it's important, but I also think it's time for libraries to pivot toward this digital environment...which is to combine the analog and the physical with the digital in a way that is true to librarians' and libraries' history, but also brings in the new and interesting and sort of innovative approaches. One thing I fear is that, over time, libraries won't do enough [research and development] and they may get eclipsed by the likes of Amazon and Google and others, and I think that's the thing that libraries, as institutions, have to figure out, which is, how do they not become obsolete and just become something that people love a memory of, but not the actuality of."

On the risk of leaving curation to private companies:
"We need to maintain a public option. I think what's so great about what happened in 1850 when Boston launched the first major municipal public library in the world, right here, was there was something created for the public that meant that information and knowledge and books — and now CDs and DVDs and everything else — are free to all. And we really need that public option in a digital age. It's not actually that easy to do it, especially when things that are like Amazon and Google float to the top of what everybody — particularly young people, but not exclusively — reach to first...If you consider the importance of the divides we have in our society — making sure that those don't get exacerbated, that's very important, but I also think somebody making choices, making recommendations, helping us learn, who don't actually have a profit motive at their core, I think that's so important. So, in a way, libraries are an extension of schools, of other civic institutions, of — honestly — public radio or institutions like this in journalism that actually have, at their core, informing and engaging a community. Libraries are a key part of that."

On the number of kids going to libraries:
"The foot traffic going into libraries is not going down, it's actually — in many places — going up...Often, by going online and being engaged in digital things and reading online, you actually read more physical books, in some cases. With kids, I think part of the reason that kids are such great library users is that they're directed there. They're often directed there as part of school...for many kids, if they are given an assignment where they have to go online to look something up or create something online and they don't actually have good broadband at home, the place they go is the library. And if you cut library hours so they don't spill into libraries after school, then they go to Starbucks or to McDonalds or other places that have free Wifi, and this is something we see all the time. It's a great case for libraries staying open later and being that important public and third place for young people."


The Washington Post: When Google Is Your Librarian And Starbucks Your WiFi, Do We Still Need Public Libraries?

  • "Libraries are repositories of books, music and documents, but above all of nostalgia: the musty stacks, the unexpected finds, the safety and pleasure of a place that welcomes and shelters unconditionally."

This segment aired on May 5, 2015.


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