This past Friday, I had the privilege of attending the TEDxNJLibraries conference at the Princeton Public Library. The theme for the conference was “Culture and Community”, a pair of topics that was deftly addressed by the speakers chosen. As the afternoon progressed, I heard passionate speeches about people, places, and circumstances that moved the speakers. As the world shifts and the lines of connection grow thicker, in the days afterward, I found myself asking, “What does culture mean? What does community mean?” The amount of isolation that exists in the world is dimming as the means of communication grows faster, cheaper, and more prevalent. This is not to say that culture and community are disappearing, but the walls between different forms of them are becoming translucent and permeable.
One of the talks that stuck with me was by Francis Schott, one of the Restaurant Guys. He was talking about the value of places where people can meet, interact, and enjoy each other’s company in the time of the meteoric rise of online communities and social media. In our rush to connect the world, we are touch with some of the things that go with socialization: empathy, emotional cues, and some social norms of civility in interaction. As someone who has followed different stories about New Jersey libraries in the news, I cannot help but wonder as to some of the commenters on some of the news pieces. It is hard to imagine that anyone would actually speak the things that are written if there was a actual human being physically present at the other end of the conversation. In thinking on it further, some of the comments left on library and librarian blogs that I frequent really have me shaking my head. For a more specific example, the people on both sides of any given issue on The Annoyed Librarian blog over at Library Journal really concern me as these commentators are (I can only presume) professional peers. Regardless of how you might feel for the AL, if someone were to say to you some of the comments that are left on that blog, you’d think they were a deeply disturbed or a sociopath.
Even without anonymity, there seems to be some breakdown of social norms. My monitoring of the “Save NJ Libraries” Facebook page has given me a few examples of people actively engaged in attempting to incite people within the group via derogatory comments and inflammatory statements. The practice, colloquially referred to as ‘trolling’, has induced me to keep a close eye on what appears on the page and remove uncivil or inappropriate postings. Even with their real name and picture, it will not deter people from associating themselves with the most ignorant and/or hurtful pronouncements. Likewise, I have seen similar uncivil behavior on Twitter. On one occasion directed towards me, I was told that I was an asshole and blocked by the offended user simply for questioning the basis of their opinion as to a particular stance on a library issue. (I’m not the only one to have a run-in with this individual, as some of my Twitter friends have been told how awful they are for holding differing opinions and subsequently blocked by this individual. It’s a nice validation to know that your experience is not alone and that this person is the issue.) I think this is the rough equivalent of having a near stranger walk up to your seat at a conference, scream obscenities at you, and then ban you from their library in perpetuity for asking them why you put the fiction on the left side of the library rather than the right. And this is supposed to be a professional colleague, one for whom you are looking to rely on for larger national library issues and other important matters.
Even with that said, I think the state of the library blogosphere is pretty civil overall; it is these aforementioned cases that are the exception to the rule. And I’d rather not think that the TEDx conference left me on a sour note for the state of discourse in the librarian social sphere and the greater societal realm. There were great talks about what microfinance is doing here in the United States and in countries around the world. I got to hear about taking jazz to school kids around the country and taking rock music to the Middle East are bringing new perspectives to the next generation. To me, the power of the communication and transportation technologies lies in allowing people to share and celebrate in the other cultures and communities in the world. Even with the advent of the television bringing images of far away lands into people’s living rooms, the instruments and tools of media and mobility today take it a step further in allowing for more immersive travel experiences. You could watch it on television, or you can hop a plane and be there within a day: those are radical experience choices that are becoming more accessible every day.
As a fleeting thought, I wondered if the library experience is our remaining attraction. In the same way that Starbucks does coffee and Five Guys does burgers and fries, people will pay more for a premium quality product and experience. Translate this over to a tax line or levy and you get roughly the same equivalent. Our competition is not the bookstores, the internet, Google, or coffee shops; rather, our competition is ourselves. It is up to libraries to provide an experience that is reflective of the communities served; I think people want something that reminds them that this is their library in their hometown. While the majority of our materials and resources are national and international in origin, it is the local staff and materials that make the local library experience unique.