Day 2 Keynote: Do Librarians Matter and What Might Matter to Librarians?

by | Nov 5, 2020 | 0 comments

John Palfrey

The day 2 keynote was by John Palfrey, President, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and moderated by Judy Luther, President of Informed Strategies, LLC. He presented his thoughts on the importance of librarians and their work. In his book, BiblioTech (Basic Books, 2015), he recounts some of the challenges we face and says that librarians matter more than ever in a digital age. Now, we are in a time when it is difficult to work, especially when there are time and budgetary pressures. Nevertheless, with different ways through our work,libraries and librarians have a strong power to create the future.They curate and keep their collective knowledge for the world.

Libraries create beautiful spaces because physical materials are also important. We can also create spaces in our homes for our personal libraries. Here is a photo of Oscar Wendell Holmes’ library.

Personal Library of Oliver Wendell Holmes

(The Book on the Bookshelf has a good appendix with ideas on how to organize your personal library.) One review of Palfrey’s book said “libraries are on their way out because, like every government service, they are being squeezed financially until they no longer can provide service”, but another said, “libraries are in a crisis because they are caught between a pervasive belief that they are no longer needed and the need for librarians to meet growing expectations in a digital era.” Knowledge is moving to the cloud. We are in a moment of great creativity, and inspiration will come from libraries and librarians as well as people who use libraries, so both digital and physical spaces are needed.

The Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) has been a leader. Digitized things in silos do not help users. Some DPLA services are distinctive and offer an opportunity for everyone to participate. DPLA seeks to be a platform for partnership and welcomes input. It is not good for libraries or for the public to have things in private hands. There needs to be choice as well as a public option. DPLA has created an alternative to e-books. One example is the Black Women’s Suffrage project to collect and digitize materials dating back to the 1850s on women’s suffrage.. DPLA is the largest contributor to Wikipedia, and their material is accessed over 1.5 million times/month.

The problem of disappearing websites is pervasive and well known. was built by librarians and creates permanent spaces for links. Librarians should keep a positive global vision in mind even in these divisive times and create a sense of where we want to go. We cannot ship books all over the world, so we must figure out better ways to provide access to information. We need a system to provide broad public access. Copyright reform will be good, but it is not a priority for Congress now.

We must think about the digital innovations that have made a difference in the world. How many of those have come about through libraries and librarians who have generally not been involved in creating innovation in the digital age? We must not let this entire digital period move away without involving libraries and librarians. Think about bigger things that will affect millions of people. Libraries have time and money to do this. Libraries are institutions that are trusted more than any others. This is a huge opportunity for them to help wading through misinformation.


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