Balanced Libraries by Walt Crawford. “The library voice of the radical middle”.

Balanced LibrariesJust on the heels of Walt Crawford’s release of Public Library Blogs: 252 Examples, I have managed to put together a few words on Balanced Libraries. Here are a few highlights from my reading, peppered with several thoughts of my own.

Balanced Libraries is a response to the discussions surrounding Library 2.0, the movement that has tried to use Web 2.0 technologies to reinvigorate library services. Some assert that Library 2.0 is about much more than technology, with each stone in the library system being overturned and re-evaluated, hopefully leading to better service for library patrons. Inevitably, change is met with resistance. The library crowd is reasonably adept at getting at the best of the enthusiasts and the resistors, but sometimes an experienced and clear voice is needed. In his book, Crawford lives up to his blog tag-line, “The library voice of the radical middle”. It could be the bible of the Slow Library movement.

A basic premise of Web 2.0 is increased user participation; technologies such as blogs, wikis and tagging allow for it. Library 2.0 also emphasizes increased patron focus. But how far should that go? Is the customer always right? Following the often demonstrated Pareto principle, private bookstores will focus their services on the twenty percent of customers that make up eighty percent of their business. Isn’t it the role of library to look after the ones who aren’t getting their needs met by other sources? And which minority would that that be? The small group of high-end users who think that bookstores are not technologically advanced enough (the Library 2.0 enthusiasts like me) or the group of patrons who are reluctant to use technology for whatever reason? Not a hard call. It’s never as simple as that, but libraries need to be careful not to let 2.0 mislead them from their traditional mission.

A common motive for Library 2.0 is a concern that traditional library services may be stagnating, in jeopardy of being replaced by competition from the private sector: bookstores, Amazon, Google, eBooks, information brokers, etc. Another is a belief that electronic resources are becoming more important than print resources. Crawford asserts, “The great digital debate is not only boring but over” (pg. 37). Almost, anyway. It’s never been a zero sum game. Crawford observes that information brokers tend to be dedicated library users. High end users of electronic research tools also tend to be high end users of print research tools. I recall other research stating that high end users of film, television, and recorded music tend to also be heavy readers. Is this a new law of library science? Something like … “an increase in forms of information causes an increase in usage of all forms of information” … or some variant. Call it the Crawford principle. Seriously, with each passing year we understand more clearly that digital technology has only displaced a portion of print resources, creating a broader spectrum of complementary information resources.

There have been prodigious efforts to define Library 2.0. The efforts can be zealous, sometimes ostracizing those who disagree, even if not intentionally. A sensitive question is whether Library 2.0 is a technological movement versus a larger library mission movement. Crawford prudently avoids stoking that debate, but suggests the waning zeal over Web 2.0 might help cool things off. In my view, a mature movement is able to define both what it is and what it is not. To define all good change as being about Library 2.0 is to risk displacing other good movements in the library field. Also, as an old hack in the web development field, I have sometimes rolled my eyes at all the hype about Web 2.0, knowing that these ostensibly new technologies have been implicit in the web from day one. As Crawford says, take a breath, Library 2.0 is just a name.

Balance is not a sexy idea, but Crawford helps makes sense of the debate, showing how both change and stasis can be troublesome for libraries, providing a fresh take on the timeless wisdom that technology must serve the library mission, not the reverse.


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