Wednesday, 11 July 2007

Battle lines

Is there a battle raging for the hearts and minds of the library profession? I have just been reading the June issue of CILIP Update and the 1 June issue of Library & Information Gazette and was struck by number of items that suggest there is a conflict.

The battle ground is defined by the problems facing libraries of all sorts. Update reported on the Laser Foundation report that claims that England has a failing public library service, and on a conference with the title Do researchers still need libraries?

On one side of the field are the Webbed featuring General Phil Bradley and Karen Blakeman under the slogan "Just do it". They argue that libraries must embrace the new technologies. The Update feature on the Library 2.0 forum has the headline Use the new tool - or be overtaken. This was the theme of my post yesterday.

On the other side are the web sceptics gathered around Field Marshall Tim Coates. Their battle cry is "Libraries are synonymous with books and reading. They always have been and they always will be". Among his supporters in Gazette & Update are John Pateman ("Tim Coates is right"), James Christie ("I have spent 15 years feeling discriminated against for liking books"), C John Hughes ("We don't blog, we lead") and Tom Featherstone ("We were united in the belief of the life-enhancing power of the printed word").

On reflection however, I feel that this image of a direct conflict is misleading. On the whole the webbed are not anti-book. They are driven by two concerns. First libraries need to occupy new territory, the land of the digital natives. Second, libraries can use new technologies to promote their core functions which include the promotion of books and reading.

Similarly the web sceptics are not all anti-computer. Tim Coates is concerned with the wider issue of the efficient management of public libraries and the dilution of their role in promoting books and reading rather than objecting to ICT per se. Similarly John Pateman's support for Tim is based on the need to "... take a long, hard look at ourselves and fundamentally change many of our arcane practices if we are ever to get back to our previous level of use ".
The web sceptics don't always make it clear what they mean by phrases such as "books and reading" or "the printed word". It is trite to say that you need to read to be able to use computers. Reading in this context is not just decoding symbols. It is an involvement with text which expresses ideas in a sophisticated way and can be extended to other media such as film.
"Book" should not just refer to the physical format of the codex i.e. pages gathered together in a binding, although this format still has many advantages over current electronic alternatives. Web sceptics tend to be thinking of a wider concept which embraces "great books" i.e. authoratitive works of fiction and non-fiction. A classic that has been digitalized and downloaded onto a computer is still a book while a compilation of a blog that has been published in print form is probably not a book. This is often attacked as "elitist" but as Tom Featherstone points out about an older generation of librarians "... my recollection of most of my colleagues was of a hard-drinking and argumentative lot, who were nearly all from working-class background. Our bible, if we had one, was Richard Hoggarts's Uses of literacy, in which he foresaw the dangers of education without values".
One of the problems with Wikipedia is that it is education without values in that the contribution of an expert can be afforded the same treatment as the contribution of a non-expert (or practical joker). Before it was signposted as a hoax what was the difference between the Wiki entry for the Upper Peninsula War and that for the Chaco War? To be fair, the same point applies to books such as The Da Vinci Code.

At times the debate is less like a battle between two opposing forces and more like a bar-room brawl with everyone hitting out at whoever is closest. But the outcome is critical for the future of libraries and we should all take part.

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