Luddites and Librarians – The importance of asking the right question

Forgive the headline but I become a little carried away with alliteration!

Here in Toronto, the newly elected council is apparently considering privatizing the library system. Petitions have been started, barricades manned and thousands of words written. However, I think we’re asking the wrong question. The question is not “Should we close our libraries?” The question should be “Do we really need libraries?”

Before I am shouted down, let me say that I am a totally committed supporter of education, reading, easy access, equality of opportunity and all those good things.

The aspect I query is whether libraries are the best vehicle to deliver all these benefits. In the last few years, we have seen the decline of CDs; in the last few months, we have seen the closure of once unassailable bookstore chains.

So why are we trying to stem the tide and save libraries in their current form?
Leaving the emotion to one side, shouldn’t we be trying to figure out two things? Shouldn’t we be working out how we can use the physical infrastructure of libraries for something else other than the storage of soon-to-be-obsolete books? In addition, at the same time shouldn’t we be trying to figure out how to give current library users access to digital readers (maybe subsidised by savings in the existing library budget).
I think it’s possible wholeheartedly believe that education for all is key for our society, while at the same time questioning whether the 19th century model of Public Libraries is the solution for the future. We can debate exactly when but I do not think that many would argue that digital books in virtual libraries are going to be part of our future.

There would still be a plethora of implementation issues to be solved, bur wouldn’t it be best to focus our efforts on the future rather than be swept away Canute-like by the incoming digital tide?

So why am I going on about libraries?

Consider this from a business perspective. How often do we defend the status quo rather than seek to shift the paradigm? How often do we justify decisions made on old criteria rather than really trying to peek into the future?

Sometimes real leadership needs to be revolutionary and not evolutionary.

Sometimes we need to close the libraries; not to deny free access to knowledge, but because there is (or soon will be) a better way.

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