Ruth Okediji, Professor of Law at the Harvard Law School, presented a stimulating keynote address on the role of libraries in the digital age. She began by emphasizing that the work that librarians and archivists is indispensable, but we might need to re-conceptualize their role in an environment where platforms govern. In Okediji’s growing up years in NYC, she found some of her best friends at the New York Public Library and discovered a world of learning.
The original design for libraries was to deposit multiple copies of works in diverse libraries. Libraries are not a version of the World Wide Web, and we now have a generation that does not know what a library is. But 53% of Millennials visited a library in the past year, 74% of Americans say that local libraries help them decide what information they can trust, and two-thirds of them say that if their local public library closed, it would have a major impact on their communities. 64% of library users in 2016 wanted to borrow printed books.Knowledge cannot be free if the price of it is that we lose our libraries.
With free access to information, libraries provide a critical social function, such as a safe and quiet place for study. Librarians guide users to information and help them navigate seemingly endless online resources. Libraries host cultural community events, provide free and safe public meeting spaces, and facilitate content searches without selling users’ personal information to commercial entities. They teach information literacy and help users deal with information overload. We talk about information overload, but the reality is that there has always been a lot of information and much of it confirms our biases. It is important that libraries raise awareness and raise levels of critical thinking.
Avid news readers gain information literacy which is something you cannot learn on the internet.
Libraries are fake news warriors, teaching users how to identify biased sources and how to do fact checking. Now more than ever, they can raise awareness of the need for critical thinking. We have not done a good job of defining what is fake news; libraries play a role in this. They are the great levelers of social opportunity and provide opportunities to enhance lives and receive exposure to political and cultural information. Fake news is a sad testimony that we have not been successful in facilitating access to multiple sources of information. Uneducated people do not have the capacity to discern between what is true and what is not.
Here are some considerations on libraries and copyright.
There is still a move to create an international treaty where libraries can have more freedom in selection and creation of new materials. The way to meet this challenge is to think of how libraries can be viewed not as just another stakeholder; they are the anchor in the system. From its beginning in 1790, the fundamental design of copyright law is about learning. The law was envisaged for perpetual access; it begins “Provided always”. Librarians were embedded into the law and were not passive recipients of books; they are the institutional home for education of the public.
We must dread the day when librarians become like pharmaceutical sales reps. We need best practices guides in selection of materials. Distinguishing what is newsworthy and what is not is affecting how libraries function. They must not become middlemen between purveyors of information and its users. Search engines have replicated many of the functions of librarians, and the digitization of collections can expand the capacity of artificial intelligence (AI) to support these roles. Whether AI-generated works will attract copyright protection will become an issue for libraries seeking to add such works to their collections.
Okediji concluded with some reflections:
- Information is not news, and news is not knowledge.
- Librarians are critical to the architecture of civic education. They perform specialized and non-replicable tasks that include development of intuition, training in judgement, empowering independence of thought and skill, selection and preservation of materials, and fostering social and intellectual community.
- Libraries ad librarians are foundational to a trusted system of knowledge development and sharing.
- The current ecosystem of copyright has libraries as stakeholders in competition with other users. This view distorts the role of both libraries and librarians.
One of the most vital things is to give users training in judgement and intuition and have capacity to navigate the labyrinth of information. Libraries and librarians are foundations of a trusted system; we must maintain that libraries must consider what they do with private customer information.
Don Hawkins blogs about conferences for Information Today and Against The Grain. He also maintains the Conference Calendar on the Information Today website and is the Editor of Personal Archiving: Preserving Our Digital Heritage, published by Information Today in 2013, and Co-Editor of Public Knowledge: Access and Benefits, published by Information Today in 2016. He received his Ph.D. degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and has worked in the information industry for over 45 years.