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11 February 2010

Electronics -- "Have they freed us for more quality moments, or simply made us busier?"

* The Wall Street Journal * BOOKSHELF * FEBRUARY 8, 2010, 6:32 P.M. ET

From Wisdom to Wi-Fi
A library is no longer a mere home for books. It is a wired-up information center.


There are many unsung heroes of ordinary life—nurses, trash collectors, accountants—whose job it is to take care of things that the rest of us take for granted. So too the librarian, that iconic figure who long presided over a sanctuary of books and guided readers, young and old, to the treasures of a vast print culture. But the profession has undergone a dramatic transformation of late because libraries themselves are not what they used to be. Today they have less to do with books per se than with computers, films, community events and children's activities. They are, above all, public portals to the world of "information," especially the online version. In "This Book Is Overdue!," Marilyn Johnson, a former staff writer for Life magazine, takes us on a tour of the modern library and introduces us to the men and women who call it their professional home.

Ms. Johnson's enthusiasm for libraries and the people who work in them is refreshingly evident throughout the book. In a charming if meandering style, she samples from her conversations with traditional librarians and with "cybrarians," a catch-all term for a generation of librarians intent on finding ways to integrate the old mission of the library with the new possibilities of technology.

A good observer with a keen eye for detail, Ms. Johnson attends conferences where librarians cast off their staid image to perform cheeky dance numbers with rolling book carts; she unearths the 'zines of tattooed librarians, who write about vegan wedding cakes and political activism; she visits librarians from St. John's University who are teaching computer skills to people in developing countries; and she interviews the founders of Radical Reference, a group that grew out of the protest of the Republican convention in New York in 2004, when the group's members provided roving reference services to demonstrators and journalists. An early version of its Web site carried the banner: "Answers for Those Who Question Authority."

Ms. Johnson rather likes the idea of Radical Reference, and she is noticeably sympathetic toward the Connecticut librarians who spearheaded a legal challenge to Section 215 of the Patriot Act—which authorized the government, in the interests of national security, to gather information about the books that an individual has checked out of his local library or the Web sites he has examined on a public computer. There seems to be a certain continuity to librarians' political views. The American Library Association routinely casts itself as a scourge of "censorship" and a defender of civil liberties.

Ms. Johnson succeeds in making us like librarians, but she avoids digging too deeply into the controversies roiling around the future of books and their keepers. Something seismic is happening when a culture casts off old words ("librarian") for new ones ("information scientist") and conventional ways of pursuing knowledge (reading on paper) for novel ones (reading on a screen). One of the more disturbing stories in "This Book Is Overdue!" is Ms. Johnson's description of the New York Public Library's decision to upgrade its image from that of a stuffy research library, replete with reference librarians whose knowledge and expertise are of incalculable value to researchers, to a place where parents and toddlers might want to pick up a DVD and a latte.

In a poignant interview with John Lundquist, the former head of the now-defunct Asian and Middle Eastern Division of the NYPL, Ms. Johnson learns that the library's leadership feared that the institution was becoming "archaic, dead, outdated" and so restructured it to suit the times. "They want the library to be active and hip, they want us to put in a cafeteria and schedule entertainments," Mr. Lundquist tells Ms. Johnson. He worries that by jettisoning so many of the library's research divisions, administrators made the mistake of assuming "that everything is now on the Internet, in digital form," when in fact it is not.

The question that Mr. Lundquist tries to address, but that Ms. Johnson does not, is whether we lose something when a library "upgrades" itself: It isn't just the old-fashioned card catalog that disappears but a whole culture. Although Ms. Johnson adopts a balanced approach to the new technology, she accepts uncritically some of the canards of our techno-positivist age. A younger generation of "digital natives" doesn't learn by listening to lectures, she reports, but by "collaborating, networking, sharing." But as several recent reports have made clear, the browsing, skimming and multitasking of this younger generation also leads to less retention of what it is reading.

Later, Ms. Johnson dismisses as "old-fashioned" a speaker who expresses concern about modern society's dependence on technology, even though the question he asks about our many gadgets—"Have they freed us for more quality moments, or simply made us busier?"—is surely a reasonable one. A library whose main appeal is the presence of free wi-fi and movies is exchanging one community function (encouraging the consumption of the written word) for another (encouraging the consumption of images).

Even Eric Schmidt, the head of Google, recently told the Davos World Economic Forum that he worried about the loss of deep reading skills. "As the world looks to these instantaneous devices," he said, "you spend less time reading all forms of literature, books, magazines, and so forth." Ms. Johnson's chapter about the New York Public Library ends with a description of twentysomething New Yorkers filling one of the building's grand rooms to watch a video series created by the library. As they plop down before the large screen, Ms. Johnson is optimistic, likening the crowd to "large children, gathered around a virtual rocking chair for story time." This "fresh crowd" is "new, alive, and up-to-date, playing with new media," she writes. "That's the future of this library." If so, how sad—for readers and for the excellent librarians who might guide them.

Ms. Rosen is senior editor of The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology & Society.

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