The Newspaper and the Library

The end of the print version of The Independent newspaper caught my attention this week.  I lived in England for awhile and it was my regular read.  I haven’t read print newspapers for some time, consuming most of my news from newspaper Web sites and online or electronic magazines.  I’m not a good friend to news organizations, I’m afraid, between using my ad and javascript blockers and accessing subscriptions through my public library. If news organizations are getting money from me, it’s through the libraries who use my taxes.

As a librarian, I am experiencing the same kind of transition.  While The Independent is now wholly digital, most libraries and information sources are still in the process.  Some of us may never make the choice to offer one format or another exclusively.  Legal publishers are trying to maintain income from their legacy print while converting subscribers to online content.  As the number of customers willing to pay for the skyrocketing cost of print declines, the publishers are likely to swing both legs over the fence and finally land on the digital side.

I was considering the role of the print newspaper about the same time I was thinking about the spectrum on which libraries sit.  The public library is the clearest example but all academic and professional libraries are on this or a parallel spectrum.  We’re experiencing some of the same challenges:

  • a diminishing willingness for people (individuals, tax payers, or other funders) to pay for information access in the same way, despite a continuing use of the information;
  • a lack of consensus on whether we are transitioning to digital formats, or whether we need to maintain certain formats to enable use of certain types of information (like picture books) while embracing others (like ebooks) to encourage broader or different use;
  • a tension created by free online information that creates a perception in the minds of funding sources that all information can be online, and that it can be driven down in price to being free as well;
  • the frequently overlooked element of people, let alone technology, that enables access to information in whatever format, resulting in unstaffed “hubs” and crowdsourced news gathering.


At any given point on the spectrum, an information seeker can be served.  We have seen the grass roots Little Free Libraries springing up, shifting the collection to just about as local a level as possible.  It is, for me, the barest element of a library.  But they appear to serve a need that libraries don’t meet.

There is an awkward middle ground, though, in physical libraries.  There is often a feeling that as long as there is a place and it has books or a computer, it is as good a place as a fully staffed library.  If everything’s online and everyone knows how to use it, appears to be the argument, then why should we fund the full whack?  It’s a tricky argument to avoid, because we often praise our resources – which can exist without staff – without similarly underscoring the services.

It’s not for lack of awareness, though.  Libraries are looking at many ways of adapting to change, both as an information access point and as something else.  Newspapers appear to be facing a similar existential crisis:  if we don’t provide a paper, what are we providing?  If libraries are less narrowly focused on making information available (because we can’t afford it), is our role to be a source of seeds?  of tools?  of maker spaces?  of social workers for the homeless?

Literacy.  Training.  Information commons.  There are many options for libraries to take.  What strikes me, though, is how we are often looking at roles that others can, do, and perhaps should provide rather than libraries.

A business like a newspaper would, in theory, have a strategic direction.  One expects that The Independent’s drive to total digital is not only a reflection of the cost of their print decline but also has some long term vision behind it.  The drift towards paywalls and back again by news companies makes you wonder.

Apps appear and are touted as the future and provide metrics on how and by whom they are used.  Metered access appears in some locations – one title has 10 reads on Flipboard but unlimited reads on Google Newsstand, and the opposite with a different title – and not others.  Information access can be a messy business, particularly when you need to make money doing it.

I have the same feeling with libraries.  This period of transition is throwing up lots of new ideas.  And libraries often follow each others’ lead, assuming that success in one place is a best practice in another.  I wonder, though, if a long term approach that incorporates non-information functions undercuts the ability to retain and grow funding.

If we serve up less information, we need to buoy up our foot traffic to justify our space.  If we have reference librarians who are answering fewer reference questions, do we keep them or replace them with tool and seed experts?  Do these changes as we transition create a downward spiral in our traditional metrics, so that gate count and reference interactions falling, suggesting we need less funding?   At what point is our collection of seeds, books, databases, plastic printers, and tools so diffuse that it is difficult for us to describe in a coherent way to our funders what our role is?  And if our role is already or better carried out by non-libraries, are we being strategic in attempting to take on the role primarily to undergird our own long term survival?

I don’t know.

But I do believe that, while these examples are public library-focused, they apply just as much to academics and professional libraries.  Whether it’s law libraries dealing with access to justice issues or supporting lawyer litigation needs, or academic libraries becoming information commons and community spots while shifting offsite their print resources, no library environment goes untouched in these changing times.  Libraries without space can be out of sight, out of mind; libraries with space can end up capital rich and service and resource poor.

At the end, whether a newspaper or a library, I’m struck by the randomness of the directions.  Perhaps that’s because I see them in aggregate.  I struggle with strategic directions for my own library, and it’s something that I wish I could uncover when I look at some of these other institutions.