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John Palfrey's love for libraries on display at Ed Mignon lecture

Friday, May 12, 2017

John Palfrey, a noted scholar and author, gave a lively talk on passion and advocacy for libraries May 11 at the iSchool’s annual Ed Mignon Distinguished Lecture at the UW HUB.

Palfrey, a law professor and internet freedom advocate, is head of school at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. He highlighted some of the key points from his most recent book, “BiblioTech: Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google.”

He said that while some may argue that digital collections are making library stacks less necessary, there’s still a vital role for libraries as physical spaces. He pointed out that libraries are used mostly by young people and offer safe, inspirational places for them to learn and grow.

But Palfrey also offered some “tough love” for libraries as well, saying that libraries need to shed the image of musty shelves full of reference books and offer things that surprise visitors.

“You’ve got to make new forms of nostalgia for people,” he said.

Palfrey said digitization offers libraries a chance to share reference materials and expand the knowledge available to patrons at every library. Rather than being limited to the stacks on hand, the broader network of libraries makes a vast number of volumes available to everyone.

“The ability to make incredibly compelling ways to draw people into your collection are, I think, a really joyful thing,” he said.

Palfrey said the arguments in his book are aimed not at academics, but at those on small-town library boards and others who control the public and educational purse strings and have the ability to invest in libraries. He noted that many people share a false view that libraries are being replaced by the internet, and his book is a rebuttal to that.

“In some ways we’ve forgotten how vital and how amazing libraries are, and how important they are, and part of it is to fight back against this view,” he said.

The Ed Mignon Distinguished Lectureship is named after iSchool alumnus and former faculty member Dr. Edmond Mignon. It is made possible by a gift from his wife, Molly Mignon. 

Read our recent Q&A with Palfrey here.