Seth Godin writes motivational books for managers who think throwing day-long seminars featuring highly paid speakers (like Seth Godin) is a better motivator than taking everyone to a no-strings-attached lunch or, better yet, giving everyone a day off work. He says his latest book, Poke the Box, is about “the spark that brings things to life.” He firmly believes that “We need to be nudged away from conformity and toward ingenuity, toward answering unknown questions for ourselves.” First of all, I can neither ask nor answer a question of myself if that question is unknown. Second, if I’m supposed to answer questions for myself, then why do I need to buy his silly book?
On Godin’s blog (free of charge!) you will find sparky, nonconformist ruminations such as, “Just imagine how much you’d get done… if you stopped actively sabotaging your own work.” In another post (“Self directed effort is the best kind”) he writes, “Effort’s… incredibly difficult to deliver on a regular basis. So we hire a trainer or a coach or a boss… There’s an entire system organized around the idea that we’re too weak to deliver effort without external rewards and punishment.” Isn’t that cute? My dear Seth, you are that system.
I’m generally indifferent to Seth Godin and the self-help racket that keeps him and many others so comfortable and so slickly chipper, but he has gone and made one of those pronouncements about the future of libraries so popular these days among cost-cutting officials and charismatic geeks who stand to make oodles of money on the internet and digital technologies.
In short, Godin believes that libraries as warehouses of “dead books” are obsolete, or soon will be, thanks to Netflix, Kindle, and Wikipedia. (Wikipedia and online sources have, in fact, “basically eliminated the library as the best resource” for grade schoolers and undergraduates. It sounds wacky, I know, but if we assume students are researching headier topics such as Magic: The Gathering and Star Wars action figures, then he’s absolutely correct.) His library of the future “is filled with so many web terminals there’s always at least one empty,” and it has “The vibe of the best Brooklyn coffee shop combined with a passionate raconteur of information…” I found the following especially creative:
And the people who run this library don’t view the combination of access to data and connections to peers as a sidelight–it’s the entire point.
No, Seth. The point of a library is that it offers free public access to information, most of which is available to be taken home, freely, for extended periods of time.
Providing web access to those who can’t afford it has rightly become a core service of public libraries; so, by all means, bring in more terminals. But until every book currently available to libraries in physical copy is available online or via e-reader, and until computers and/or e-readers are readily available to be freely taken home by the public, then libraries must fulfill their mission—conformist though it may be—of offering “dead books” to those who seek them.
People with money tend to devalue the difference between something that is relatively inexpensive and something that is free. What they experience as an inconvenient gap is seen by those without money as an unbridgeable gulf, often painful to look upon. It is just conceivable that in a few years “[e]readers will be as expensive as Gillette razors, and ebooks will cost less than the blades,” but even if it’s true, the plain fact is that many will have to choose between razors and e-readers.
You can poke whatever box you like, Godin, so long as that box isn’t the one institution in the civilized world that offers the means for its citizens, regardless of economic or social standing, to freely educate themselves.