What to Say to Somebody Who Thinks Libraries Are Passe

Article excerpt

It's happened to me three times in one month, most recently on a bus in Guangzhou, China, where a tour guide asked in all sincerity, "Do you think there will be much need for libraries in the future, now that we have computers?"

I've practiced my "astonished gaze" approach enough now to know that it works best when accompanied by the question, "Have you been to a library lately?" But I knew it wasn't going to work in China, where library service in general seems at least 20 years behind what it is in the United States (see report on p. 58-61).

The question elicited moans and groans from the bus full of youth-services delegates on a five-city People to People exchange tour of libraries in the world's most populous nation. "They will be more essential than ever," one librarian replied.

The young man did not seem convinced, for clearly his concept of libraries was based on what he'd experienced in a national library system based largely on the notion that book warehousing is the primary function of libraries.

The guide went on with his spiel about getting around in his city, about how efficient transportation was but how complex getting from one place to another could be. He talked about what was important to see and what could be skipped. He emphasized his role as a guide to the complicated maze of sights and sounds that make up his city.

I had him right where I wanted him. "So," I said, "you are beginning to

understand librarians. What you do is very much like what we do. We are guides in the world of information, just as you are a guide to Guangzhou."

The guide laughed. "You got me there," he said. "I think I'm beginning to understand." My colleagues applauded.

Try using one

Asking such doubters if they've used a library recently is often not enough to convince them of the foolishness of their question. To those who say yes, I've tried following up with, "But have you been to a good one? You know, where they offer all the books you can read, movies, CDs, programs, exhibits, meeting rooms, and Internet access, all free of charge."

What really troubles me about the question is not so much the shallowness of it but how dangerous it is. …