John Palfrey is the head of Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, and is a noted scholar, law professor and internet freedom advocate. His most recent book is "BiblioTech: Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google." Palfrey is the iSchool's guest at the 2017 Ed Mignon Distinguished Lecture on May 11. Before his visit, we asked him a few questions about his book and the role of modern libraries and librarians.
Q: In “BiblioTech,” you say nostalgia is a losing strategy. Why does nostalgia hurt libraries’ cause?
A: Nostalgia is too thin a reed for libraries to cling to at this moment in history. There is wonderful sentiment in favor of libraries. They are – and should be – highly trusted institutions. People love to recall their childhood memories of first walking into a library and having the world of knowledge upon up to them. Many of us can summon up wonderful moments of being in the stacks, breathing in that musty book smell, and carrying out more books than we can reasonably manage. But this nostalgia can keep people from seeing the importance of libraries today and tomorrow, in the digital age. We need to be creating new forms of nostalgia that builds upon the fabulous things that libraries are doing in towns, on campuses, and in big cities all around the world.
Q: You’re an advocate for much greater collaboration among libraries, where each is a node in a vast network. How would that change visitors’ experience when they go to their local library?
A: Collaboration between and among libraries can only deepen the experience at individual libraries. There is no point for libraries to compete with one another. By working together, libraries can create experiences and services that can be shared from town to town, city to city, campus to campus. The sky is the limit when it comes to what that could mean for visitors at their local library. And while the upside strikes me as clear, I fail to see the downside of much greater collaboration.
Q: In the absence of a modern-day Andrew Carnegie, how do we inspire the surge in public and private investment in libraries that you’ve written is needed?
A: I think that we all need to realize the importance of libraries to the proper functioning of our democracy. Libraries are some of our most trusted civic institutions – if not our absolutely most trusted civic institutions. Many of us feel we are not at a high water mark in terms of the functioning of American democratic systems. Investments in libraries are inexpensive ways to help address this concern. Individuals, cities and towns, and institutions need to invest more, not less, in libraries these days.
Q: How do you see the role of librarians as professionals changing in the coming years?
A: I argue in "BiblioTech" that librarians ought to function more as networked actors than as solo operators in siloed institutions. Many librarians have figured this out and are thriving in this way. I think the digital and networked world opens up realms of new possibilities in the process, which will both serve library staff and their customers extremely well.
Q: How can students best equip themselves for a career in librarianship?
A: I think an open mind, flexibility, and a desire to serve no matter how the information and knowledge environment changes will be key. I think the training that librarians get in an iSchool or library school can be a great start, but surely for all of us as professionals that journey of learning and skill development is going to be long and constant. I think that’s very exciting and energizing! And I send my thanks to all those who are doing the great work of learning to be librarians, working in libraries, and teaching those who will work in libraries. It’s such important work.