John Palfrey’s Bibliotech: Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google

‘…anecdotal encounter after anecdotal encounter, shows us that people “love libraries”. Just as we all love the memory of a childhood experience, we love the idea of libraries in general. Often, it feels like a patronizing sort of love. An approach that relies too heavily on nostalgia to pull libraries as institutions through this period of transformational change’


In this quote from Bibliotech’s conclusion, John Palfrey, founding chairman of the Digital Public Library of America, sums up my experiences of the ‘future of libraries debate’. I’ve read a little, wrote a little, and thought a lot about the subject, but I always seem to come to similar conclusions that rest largely on this idea of ‘nostalgia’ that Palfrey talks about. I think of my own childhood, and the visits to the library that grounded my love of books. I see the value of libraries in creating a literate population and getting children interested in reading. I see the value of print as opposed to digital, with the idea of touching and smelling a book being enough to sway me towards the former.

These are all very valid arguments, and are strong amongst the book loving community. But, as Palfrey points out, they fail to address the practicalities attached to the issue, which cannot really be ignored, given the real strains, such as budget cuts and the impact of digital publishing, threatening the future of libraries. Bibliotech focuses mainly on American libraries, but it’s easy to see how it can also apply to libraries in the UK, with The Guardian recently announcing that around 453 libraries were closed between April 2013 and January 2014.

Print and digital should co-exist

Palfrey tackles this issue head-on. In Bibliotech, he puts a forward a plan for the future of libraries, offering real ways in which publishers, librarians and local communities can reinvent libraries as active spaces in the digital age, engaged with both print and digital. This stands out as one of the most innovative points of the book. Print versus digital is often seen as a debate, where people pick one side or the other. Personally, I have remained loyal to print and have, admittedly, been sceptical to e-books and virtual literacy tools. But I was pleasantly surprised that Bibliotech shows you don’t have to pick one and defend it religiously by scorning the other.

In fact, Palfrey argues the two can, and should, coexist. He uses the Harvard Law library as an example, talking about the casebooks that are still an essential study tool for students who ‘saturate the pages of their casebooks with yellow ink’ (and he’s right- what student hasn’t defaced their textbooks with highlighters?!), but which are ‘heavy and expensive, and do not provide what digital formats will soon be able to offer in terms of interactivity, shared commentary, collective work spaces, and new connections between concepts’.


However, Bibliotech is by no means limited to the question of print versus digital, which means it reaches beyond this most hotly debated topic in the contemporary books industry. Palfrey’s proposal for the future of libraries presents them as part of a wider literary network. He advises that libraries should connect with each other, as well as with agents, authors and publishers, and puts forward a strong case for librarians, arguing they should work with technologists and engage in the ‘hacker culture’ of the internet to improve library services.

Envisioning the library in this way helped me to rethink the institution; having done work experience at a library, I can say that, in my experience, it’s an enjoyable place to work. But I can’t help but feel the reason I loved it so much was the sheer excitement I got from being surrounded by so many books, rather than necessarily seeing it as a particularly dynamic and forward-thinking environment. Reading Bibliotech, I realised that even my experiences of libraries, which never been anything but positive and fulfilling, have not done justice to the value and potential of this cultural institution.

A key instituion in a democratic society

What’s particularly interesting is that Palfrey grounds his argument in a wide-ranging, thought-provoking exploration as to why libraries are so important, and need to be reinvented as a space for the digital age. Explaining that libraries are crucial not only for shaping children’s love of reading, but for creating a free and universal way to access knowledge, and a safe space in which to do so, Palfrey positions libraries as one the key institutions in a democratic society. Drawing on examples such as immigrants who might use information and contacts found in the library as a way of integrating into a new community, Bibliotech shows the connection between libraries and contemporary culture, aptly refuting any arguments that might suggest the days of the library are over.

Optimistic about the future of libraries

Palfrey’s libraries admittedly didn’t live up to the libraries I usually visit- the library in my local town is too small to offer the range of resources Palfrey cites, and seems decidedly underwhelmed by visitors. But this book has certainly made me feel much more optimistic about libraries’ potential in the future, showing they can be vibrant and multi-purpose if we commit to investing time, money, and, most importantly, a forward-thinking attitude, into their development. 


Read about why Kettle writer, Lauren Wise, thinks you should #LoveYourLibrary, here