Library Wars

I caught the 'Fiasco' episode of "This American Life" a couple weeks ago and it got me thinking about libraries, how we do things, and what our patrons want. Act 2 of "Fiascos"("Car Wars") is a tale about how "Car Talk" has become incredibly popular on NPR. They're putting all the "indy" car shows out of business, and some people think that's a bad thing. A couple interesting quotes from the guy who got bumped remind me of things I've heard from librarians. It turns out "Car Talk" is the most popular show on NPR (or at least it was when this show ran), and it costs $33,000 for an affiliate to run.

If you don't want to listen to the full episode, it comes down to 2 different ways to look at programming on NPR that I think apply to libraries:

Serious, weighty, informative and educational
Flashy, catchy, entertaining, and, popular

This is similar to the debate we all see between libraries (and librarians) and the web. Here's a bit more on the show. The WPR programming folks proposed a time change for their local car show, and the radio host says "absolutely not", he flatly rejects change. Matt Joseph, the host, dug in his heels, "his ratings were strong", he says, the show was cheap, and he had loyal listeners. He knew what was best, or so he thought. But the people in charge thought they could do better with "Car Talk", so they canned him. This all turned into the "Fiasco" when his fans revolted, he started a newsletter, and the Wisconsin State Legislature got involved. He says he had something better than "Car Talk" because his show was serious because it had content, it was educational and there "should've been room on NPR" for his show. He says he was "an expert" and the "car Talk" guys are for casual fans. He thinks NPR should have more "expertise" on their shows and less fluff. He finishes up with the quote that immediately turned my mind to libraries. (Selective quoting here) "Is this over yet? No, it'll be over when changes are made at WPR… there needs to be more room for things that don't draw much audience…"

For me this show could've just as easily been about (some) librarians vs. technology. The mind set that says we know what's better for people, vs. letting the people decide what's best for them.

Before you go assuming I'm one of those geeks who think computers hold all the answers, I'm not really sure I have made up my mind who's right when it comes to the best way to handle these issues in libraries. I do think this is the most important issue we are facing. It all comes back to how relevant libraries are, and what we can provide to our patrons that the web cannot. More importantly, it comes down to what people think we can do for them they can't get elsewhere.

Even after giving it some thought I'm left with nothing but questions. However, I'm tempted to side with opening things up and making them more accessible to more people, after all, that's our job as librarians. I've never thought our job is telling people what's best for them. That doesn't mean I think people make intelligent decisions based on well researched, thoughtful ideas. For the most part people are idiots, and they really don't know what's best for them. But, they will go elsewhere if we don't make our services easy to use, open and accessible. They'll turn elsewhere if we don't give them at least some of what they want. They'll turn elsewhere even if we know it's not what they really need. Google gives them one (free) search box to one database that is most likely all they really need to answer most of their questions, most of the time. We provide them with our expertise, subject headings, information literacy and 20 different interfaces to 20 different databases that will answer damn near all of their questions damn near all of the time. But we cost them money and time. It's easier to do a half assed Google search than it is to use a library.

So like I said, I have nothing but questions...

Is it wrong to make something more entertaining to bring in more people if the same message is getting through? Is it wrong to make our tools easier to use if we're the only one's who know the results aren't quite as good? Is there a place for boring any more? Is boring really more educational? Do we dumb things down if we make them more interesting and accessible? Is it really one or the other?


Is it wrong to make something more entertaining to bring in more people if the same message is getting through? for $? No. For $$$? Yes.

Is it wrong to make our tools easier to use if we're the only one's who know the results aren't quite as good? Yes.

Is there a place for boring any more? Its called reading.

Is boring really more educational? Yes

Do we dumb things down if we make them more interesting and accessible? Yes.

Is it really one or the other? Yes

I just want to add to the second question that simply because something is easier doesn't necessarily mean the results are less good. Amazon seems to get better responses then we do sometimes.

I've taken auto repair classes, and I think these guys (Click and Clack) are really good. They have tons of experience with cars, and their answers are nearly always correct as long as the callers are actually helpful about what they're dealing with. OTOH, if callers are real dufuses, the answers aren't as good because the questions aren't as clear or the problems aren't as well described/defined. That does sound like a library-like situation to me.

  The big problem with "the masses" is that most don't know how to ask good questions and likely also don't know if they got good answers in reply. Whatever the packaging, if users are unable to use it or understand it, then library service

If Google is all they give a flip about, then you have to educate them to (A) not us one-word searches, (B) not give up after a single search, and (C) not believe everything they read. After that (or maybe even before that) you can mention other, better ways to learn what they want to know.

Car Talk does indeed provide content -- good content -- but they don't review vehicles the way that Motor Week does. They do entertain, yes, but they aren't clueless rubes.