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Q&A: Author John Palfrey explains why libraries matter now more than ever
In his new book, "Bibliotech: Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google," Palfrey argues that society still needs libraries for many reasons, including that the Internet doesn't provide free access to information for anyone as libraries do. - photo by Chandra Johnson
Today, when people want information on the Internet, they turn to Google.

The search engine has grown in popularity exponentially since its first year in the late 90s. In 1998, Google averaged 9,800 searches per day and 3.6 million searches that year. In 2014, there was an average of 5.7 billion Google searches per day and 2 trillion searches that year.

All of this is good news for Google and anyone with money for a computer and Internet connection. But it's not great for libraries, the go-to for information in the pre-Google days, says John Palfrey, a director of Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society and founder of the Digital Public Library of America.

In his new book, "Bibliotech: Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google," Palfrey argues that society still needs libraries for many reasons, including that the Internet doesn't provide free access to information for anyone as libraries do.

What specifically inspired you to write this book?

I have been struck by the number of times people tell me that they think libraries are less important than they were before now that we have the Internet and Google. I think just the opposite: Libraries are more important, not less important, and both as physical and virtual entities, than theyve been in the past.

What do people, particularly children, get from libraries that they cant get elsewhere or via digital means?

Library spaces provide a grounding (in a physical place) for engagement with information and knowledge. They provide spaces for contemplation. They also provide space and moments for collaboration, for co-production of knowledge, for exchange of ideas. I also think we still love the experience of walking into the physical stacks of libraries, experiencing the serendipity of encountering the unexpected alongside the expected (items found in a library).

You said in a presentation you gave at the Harvard Law Library that you felt it was on us, as a culture, to provide spaces that nurtured learning and inspiration as well as libraries do and we havent yet been able to do that. Can you give me an example of what you have in mind, or do you think digital methods for reading and accessing information may never offer us what libraries do?

I think we havent yet done enough work to determine whether the virtual can ever replace the physical in terms of information retrieval and engagement. But I do think, for the time being, we very much need both. We need spaces where people come together, around ideas, in communities. We also need virtual services and platforms that engage people in the world of knowledge, built by librarians and offered to library patrons, on a free-to-all basis.

Youve said in the past that despite a historic support for libraries in this country, support (especially financial) for libraries is beginning to erode. What is the source of this erosion? You mention in your book that dwindling support stems from the idea that libraries are seen as less relevant in the digital age.

I am very worried about this problem. Why should support for libraries be eroding just when we need them most? It is crazy. I think the rationale for libraries as less important is a shortsighted one, based on an outdated sense of libraries as just storehouses for information. Libraries are so much more, and librarians do so much more than ever before. We should engage these leaders and these important spaces to meet the needs of our communities.

Libraries are so tied up with democracy because theyre all about freedom of access to information for all. Because the Internet is a. not free, and b. is seen as more efficient than libraries, how great is the risk that we may be forfeiting our free access to information as the Internet climbs in popularity as a source of information?

The risk is far too high that we might have an Internet and a library system that is less free, not more so, than the analog world. This would be a perverse outcome. The Internet and libraries both can be powerful engines for democratization of knowledge. But in order for that to be so, we have to work at it (by balancing the presence of both).

Youve said that libraries have always been and continue to be about people. What would our culture look like without libraries, in your opinion? How will the library of the future retain its human value?

In this digital age, there is too much of a sense of atomization of pulling away from one another. We need to re-introduce humanity as much as possible into the equation. Libraries of the future can and must retain the librarians at the heart of the enterprise. Our relations with one another may be increasingly mediated by computers, smartphones or other digital interfaces, but humanity is so important.

How, specifically, do you think libraries need to change to remain such a crucial part of our increasingly digital culture?

Libraries should invest more in research and development than they have in the past. Libraries need to ensure that they are not forgotten as people turn more and more to commercial, digital interfaces. Libraries need to be seen as nodes in a network, with librarians as networked actors, more than standalone entities. Together, libraries and librarians can make the transition to the digital era and ensure their status as more important, not less so, to society in the process.

What do you think libraries will look like in the future if they succeed, as you suggest, in digitizing information and making digital material available for free? Would the library continue to be a physical place, for example, and why does that matter?

Yes, the digitization of information will make access to knowledge fairer and greater, which itself can be a boon for democracies. But we still need people to make this digitization happen, to catalog the information effectively through the use of metadata, to preserve it and to provide spaces in which we gather to engage with it.

What are some of the challenges libraries face in making the leap into the digital age? Youve talked in the past at Harvard about how libraries and e-book publishers have yet to perfect a sustainable lending system, mostly because of cost.

The e-lending problem is among the top challenges facing libraries. I believe that a good business deal can eventually be worked out that will ensure that authors, publishers and agents get paid and libraries get to offer e-books to patrons on reasonable terms, but we are not there yet. Copyright is a big barrier to libraries during this transition. Increasingly, fears about loss of privacy also ought to be near the top of the list of concerns. Certainly, money and time and human resources are always at or near the top of the list of challenges, as the needs for libraries and expectations for what they can provide rise but budgets dont, in real dollar terms.

Many people are still divided about whether they prefer to read a paper book or on a screen, and research has yet to provide definitive proof as to which is most effective for retaining information. Is it dangerous for libraries to flirt with this idea of getting rid of print entirely before we know definitively the effects and effectiveness of reading on a screen, or do you feel the transition to a screen-only culture is inevitable?

I think the growth will be in people who use both. I think we will still turn to beautiful physical objects, with printed pages, for some purposes and for some period of time, whether for certain large formats or for the three Bs: the bed, the bath and the beach. I do think the paperback will give way to the e-book. With music and movies and most images, weve already gone all digital. Libraries need to keep up with these changes as they occur ideally leading us a bit, too, along the way.

Berkman Center for Internet & Society