Debby Abe’s piece on libraries (featuring TRL and Pierce County)

Debby Abe at the Olympian and the Tacoma News Tribune had a great piece on our local library systems over the weekend. It focussed on how libraries are moving beyond their traditional (for lack of a better term) as sources of reading material, to being directly engaged in the needs of patrons.

From being tech centers to sources of information on employment, libraries are becoming active participants in their communities.

Great article, over all. But, it was punctuated by two unfortunate comments that I have to address:

Technology is creating a new “digital divide,” says Michael Crose, Timberland Regional Library’s interim executive director.

“It is now possible for many of us to find the news, take classes at all levels of education, and work from home. We are facing the possibility of laying our social skills aside and living in isolation,” he wrote in an e-mail to The Olympian.

“I believe that the public library can be the new town square, the commons where we can all come together and share the stimulating opportunity of interacting with our friends, neighbors and strangers in a neutral and safe environment.”

And:

“People have really turned into themselves and are very solitary. They’re communicating on blogs and Facebook, but they don’t see people face to face,” said Mary Getchell, spokeswoman for the Pierce County system.

“People are yearning for this community center. … We heard, ‘Where better to have this community center than the library?’”

I completely understand the need for community and building social capitol. Bowling Alone was one of the books that turned me around on politics. But, the easy blame of the internet and social media especially, is troubling.

I blame social isolation over the past 50 years more on the advent of television, cheap gas and the corresponding housing decisions drove people away from each other. Social capital has been decreasing since the 1950s and it wasn’t because everyone was on Facebook.

In the past ten years, it has been internet social media (better land use planning and walkable neighborhoods) that have started rebuilding social capital. Presidential campaigns have been built on it, and while the internet can be an escape for some, it is an unparalleled tool for creating social connections and simply getting things done that were never possible before.

So, blaming social media for isolation and proposing the library as a brick-and-mortar solution seems to ignore how libraries can use social media for their mission. I’m not sure where to go if you pose the situation as technology being the problem and the library as the answer.

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3 Comments

Filed under Chat from the community

3 responses to “Debby Abe’s piece on libraries (featuring TRL and Pierce County)

  1. Kelsie

    This was a mostly fantastic article, but I agree that there were some regrettable and confusing comments made.

    I have *never* heard the term “digital divide” used in the way Crose does here: saying that the internet is isolating us from one another. It is actually used to describe the soci-economic hurdles that keep people from having access to and the skills to use technology and the internet, not that the internet is literally “dividing” us.

    It’s really too bad, because this article would have been a great opportunity for both of these people to be quoted as saying how the library is helping to bridge the digital divide with the access, educational programs and one-on-one instruction we provide. These quotes make it sound like our main purpose is that of community center, and almost chide people for using social media and other technologies.

    Don’t get me wrong, I think that one of the most important roles we play is that of the “third place”. But especially now, during these diffcult economic times, our library leaders ought to be talking about what we are *doing* for people. Serving as community spaces and providers of access to technology are equally important. I’m glad that the article itself represented this, even if there were a couple of unfortunate quotes within it.

  2. Brian

    I really appreciate your comments on this topic. The false dichotomy between Internet use and “real-life” social interaction is one of my pet peeves. Sure, there are some people who may use the Internet as a surrogate for in-person social interaction, but there are many more who use the Internet to enhance and expand their real-world social circles.

    I’d say that the majority of the offline friendships I’ve made or activities I’ve participated in began with something I read about online, and pretty much all of them have at least been facilitated in some way by online communication.

    Sure, as public space becomes increasingly rare, there’s a strong argument to be made for the library-as-place. But I don’t see why the library community needs in the same breath to disparage what is arguably one of our most powerful tools for capitalizing on that asset.

  3. kelsey

    I’m nodding at all of you. Thoughtful breakdown, Emmett!

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