Judith Auth, former Riverside Library Director, on the Future of Libraries

Your humble correspondent met Judith Auth at the LWV SmartVoter dinner a few weeks past.  Striking up a conversation, your intrepid Stag Staffer was quickly intrigued by her decades of experience as a librarian and unique perspective on how information technology has transformed how we navigate the corpus of human knowledge.  At a time when every week seems to bring a new accelerator or web app promising to revolutionize EVERYTHING, such institutional experience and knowledge is more valuable than ever.  She graciously consented to an email interview, so without further ado, here’s her original response.

1.  My experience in and passion for libraries.

I’ve always loved words and books and reading.  My father taught French and Spanish to high school students.  My mother was active in the community.  After graduating from University of California, Riverside, with a BA in English Literature, I discovered I needed a “trade.”  So I went to UCLA’s School of Library and Information Science .  My first job in 1971 was at the Riverside Public Library.  I was a children’s librarian.  Because the city library provided services to the entire county of Riverside, I had many opportunities for promoting libraries.  I moved from children’s librarian to countywide coordinator of children’s services, then to a senior librarian position supervising branch libraries.  Next was acting head of Technical Services while upgrading our automated system, then head of central library, assistant library director and finally, in 1991, Library Director.  I retired in 2006 after proposing a special tax for the public library that garnered 69% approval, the first municipal tax to pass in 40 years!

During my tenure I made many speeches to the staff, the public and to elected officials I tried to raise everyone’s expectation as to what a public library could be. For me the library is an idea, an invention. Archibald MacLeish called it “an assertion”

            The existence of a library
Is an assertion--
A proposition nailed like Luther’s to the
door of time  It asserts that the reason why
the “things” compose a mystery is that they
seem to mean:  that they fall, when gathered
together, into a kind of relationship, a kind
of wholeness, as though all thee different
and dissimilar reports, these bits and pieces
of experience, manuscripts in bottles,
messages from long before, from deep with,
from miles beyond, belonged together and
might if understood together, spell out
the meaning which the mystery implies

[Wilson Library Bulletin, January 1973]

Norman Cousins called it “the delivery room for the birth of ideas, a place where history comes to life.  The sociologist Ivan Illich called it a “tool for conviviality.”

At its best the library is the prototype of a convivial tool.  Repositories for other learning tools can be organized on its model, expanding access to tapes, pictures, records, and very simple labs filled with the same scientific instruments with which most of the major breakthroughs of the last century were made.
Tools are intrinsic to social relationships.  An individual relates himself in action to his society through the use of tools that he actively masters or by which he is passively acted upon.  To the degree that he masters his tools, the shape of the tool determines his own self-image.  Convivial tools are those which give each person who uses them the greatest opportunity to enrich the environment with the fruits of his or her vision.
Conviviality:  autonomous and creative intercourse among persons, and the intercourse of persons with their environments; and this in contrast with the conditioned response of person to the demands made on them by others and by a man-made environment.  I consider conviviality to be individual freedom realized in personal interdependence, and as such, an intrinsic ethical value.

(Tools for Conviviality, 1973)

These are my passions:  language, learning, freedom.  The last is expressed most eloquently by Timothy S. Healy, President, The New York Public Library, in his 1990 address: The Library in Service to Democracy.  He begins,

Libraries, like universities, exist to serve the societies that support them.  Librarians thus are engaged in what modern terminology calls a service industry.  In a democracy, however, the simple word service has another dimension to it.  Under any republican form of government, where knowledge and understanding must be attributed to individuals as citizens and voters, the service rendered by libraries is as necessary as that of the press, the colleges or the schools.  In less political and more philosophical terms, libraries exist essentially in service to freedom.

2.            What is the enduring value of a librarian in a world where information is just a Google search away?

The enduring value of a librarian in a world where information is just a google search away is as a navigator. Apple first pioneered the term “Knowledge Navigator,” but librarians were quick to identify with it.  The tragedy is that librarians were not invited to the table where the rules of the game were set.  My son attended UCLA library school for one year, then left to take a job with Claris, the software side of Apple.  His “training” as a librarian was very useful in his new job and he continues to work in the “industry”, now as manager of the IT systems for a school district in Northern California.  He saw firsthand how many librarians were concerned with preserving traditional protocols and how the young entrepreneurs were eager to throw out the past and start over again.  The two parties needed each other, but they did not speak the same language. 

One of my projects was to set up a computer laboratory, a cybrary,  for young people (8-15 years old) in a storefront in a disadvantaged neighborhood.  The library supplied the hardware.  We partnered with the university to hire students to be guides.  The goal was to provide an opportunity for young people to use the new tools to explore their own talents and interests.  This model is now widespread, but in 1994 it was a new thing. Apple and later Microsoft put the computers in the schools and libraries, but it was teachers and librarians who developed the lesson plans /pathways for their use.

The true value of a librarian is that one has read a great deal and learned to evaluate the authority of information.  One has studied how humans process information and developed schemes to aid inquiry. And most importantly, one has agreed not to direct the inquiry.  I think a librarian is like a travel agent, “You tell me your destination and I will show you some materials to help you get there.”  The travel agent does not prohibit the journey, nor insist that only certain places are worth visiting.  To continue the analogy, however, it is staff that make the inquirer comfortable, like the steward on the plane.  The librarian disconcerts by putting up travel posters advertising new journeys, suggesting routes off the beaten path, by stimulating the hunger that only the journey can satisfy.

Isaac Asimov recognized early what a great learning machine the computer could be.  But he underestimated the lack of motivation to make use of its wonders.   On-line classes requires attention and discipline.  It is not helpful to put reluctant learners in front of a computer for a specified purpose.  Librarians do not teach to the test.  They encourage individual life-long learning by any means available.

3.  Public libraries are one of the few true commons left.  What sort of creative usages might that allow in today’s world?

It is exactly as Ivan Illich’s convivial tool, that libraries function as a true commons.  One is free to be in the space without having one’s purposes dictated by another.  He suggested laboratories in libraries.  Surely computer laboratories have made the cut.

Some libraries have production labs for independent filmmaking.  Others have craft rooms and exhibit spaces. But these activities are “programmed” and not like the stacks of books that invite the browser, without demand. 

I compared librarians to travel agents.  Let me now compare libraries to an airport, the Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam.  According to Wikipedia,

Schiphol has large shopping area as a source of revenue and as an additional attraction for passengers.  The shopping center is before customs, hence it can be used by air-travelers and non-traveling visitors.

The Rijksmuseum operates an annex at the airport, offering a small overview of both classical and contemporary art.  Admission to the exhibits is free.

The first permanent airport library opened in 2010 alongside the museum, providing passengers access to a collection of 1,200 books (translated into 29 languages) by Dutch authors or on subjects related to the country’s history and culture.  The library offers e-books and music by Dutch artists and composers that can be downloaded free of charge to a laptop or mobile device.

Schphol has its own mortuary where the dead can be handled and kept before departure or after arrival.  Since October 2006, people can also get married at Schiphol.

There are numerous restaurants , and a large rooftop viewing area called Panoramaterras that enthusiasts and the public can enter free of charge from the airport’s landside.

Not all these activities may be suitable for libraries, but then who thought they were suitable for airports?

One of the most important spaces a library provides is talking space.  Small tables and chairs where several people can work together or larger conference rooms and even the big auditorium.  People learn from other people and libraries need to provide spaces where people can be together .

4.  What libraries are adapting to our internet world?  I mentioned Toulouse Public Library.  The website is www.bibliotheque.toulouse.fr/missions.html.  Toulouse is a very old and a very modern city.  One can visit the ruins of Roman villas and enter the tombs of their dead.  One can visit the factories supporting the production of the Airbus and ride on a subway with no human drivers, controlled completely by computer.  Similarly, there is in Toulouse a beautiful old library La Bibliotheque d’Etude et du Patrimonie.  The equivalent of our “local history collection.”  It is accessed from computers on stylish modern furniture in an otherwise empty, but architecturally ornate, space. And then there is the Mediatheque that makes no pretense of being “book-oriented.”  It has piano rooms and rooms for Wii, listening rooms and performance spaces.  There are also neighborhood branch libraries and bookmobiles about which reputable authors write charming essays.  One such is “Le bibliobus” from La Première Gorgée de Bière et autres plaisirs minuscule by Philippe Delerm (1997).  One size does not fit all.

5.  Key principles in designing a hypothetical new library that’s supposed to last for the next century.

First—it must be attractive.  It must invite engagement and speak to our highest aspirations.  We are the thinking species and we should celebrate our “thinking” with beautiful spaces.

Second—It must be accessible.  This is true not only in a physical sense that persons with limited mobility can use it, but it must have a variety of access points so that all ages, various languages, levels of education, can navigate the space.

Third—It must promote learning.  We learn from tools like books and computers, we also learn from other people.  The tools must be adequately housed, electrical systems extensive, lighting suitable for the activities. There should be a variety of meeting areas/rooms where small, medium, and large groups can convene.