In the digital age the question remains: Whadya need?

Ask any good salesman the rhetorical question “Whatya sellin’? and you’ll get the stock answer, “Whatya need?”   The old story comes to mind often, including on a day this week when I read three contrasting – and complementary – library-related stories.

The first was from my favorite day brightener, the Writer’s Almanac. A birthday tribute to Malcolm X (nee Malcolm Little) shed this ray of light on the early life of a complex man whose ideas continue to influence the nation’s struggles with race-based challenges. (http://writersalmanac.org/note/may-19-birthday-malcolm-x/)

Following a childhood marked by tragedy, Malcolm Little in the mid was arrested in the mid-40’s for larceny. The WA editors tell us that, while Malcolm was in prison,

An older inmate encouraged him to use his time to educate himself. Little began checking out books from the prison library, and when he found his vocabulary too limited for some of them, he copied out an entire dictionary word for word.

The story engendered a sense of loss when I reflected on abandonment of library services once provided through the state’s correctional facilities. Though I appreciate that committed volunteers, including the Women’s Prison Book Project (https://wpbp.org/, are helping to fill that gap, it is a sad reality that today’s prisoners are deprived of the learning options that transformed the trajectory of Malcolm Little’s life.

On a lighter note, I then skimmed the data-driven piece in MinnPost in which Greta Kaul as data cruncher tabulates the hot reads du jour as reflected in circulation data collected by area public libraries. (https://www.minnpost.com/arts-culture/2016/05/which-books-are-most-popular-twin-cities-libraries) Though I enjoyed the snapshot I know well that circulation stats, though quick and easy to collect, are the least meaningful indicator of public good.

Next I was brought up short by a hot-off-the-press thought piece with the alluring title Virtual memory: the race to save the information age. The challenging article raises these disturbing questions:
Are we creating a problem that future generations will not be able to solve? Could the early decades of the 21st century even come to seem, in the words of the internet pioneer Vint Cerf, like a “digital Dark Age”? … It is becoming increasingly clear that the migration of knowledge to formats permitting rapid and low-cost copying and dissemination, but in which the base information cannot survive without complex and expensive intervention, requires that we choose, more actively than ever before, what to remember and what to forget. (https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/#sent/154ce5746f3d442a)

In some ways, libraries and librarians can be viewed as sparrows in the unknown cavern that is the Information Age. Throughout recorded history libraries have offered a safe haven in which the past, the present and the future live as one. With the dawn of the Information Age realistic visionaries embraced the premise that information is a resource like no other, an idea early articulated by Harlan Cleveland (https://marytreacy.wordpress.com/2011/02/11/harlan-cleveland-properties-of-information-revisited/  Over the years, libraries have crossed bureaucratic and technological borders to sate society’s unquenchable need to know.

Malcolm Little’s unmet need was for a port of entry into the world of ideas he could access through his prison library. The high stats cited in Kaul’s piece reflect busy readers’ need to grab a quick read for the LRT ride. Of equal import is the fact that tomorrow’s researchers will need to know what we’ve been doing in these times.

As a society struggling to shape this democracy and the role of this singular institution in the Information Age, we are challenged to ponder the public good implicit in the prevailing question: Whadya need?

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2 responses to “In the digital age the question remains: Whadya need?

  1. But, as any reference librarian soon learns, “Whaddya need?” is the wrong question. Researchers often request what they believe they need and in fact actually need something entirely different. The librarian’s role is to anticipate the need and ensure what WILL be needed is collected and preserved before the researcher is even aware of the need.

  2. My respects to Malcom X, one of the great minds of our time, cut way too short. My sympathy to youth on the streets and in prison today who ironically might have even less grasp of access to reflection and knowledge.

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