Better Learn How To Run An Espresso Machine

Augusten Burroughs is a best-selling author. One of his books, Running With Scissors, has been on the NYT best seller list for over 70 weeks. You wouldn’t think that would make him a library futurist but he makes a rather interesting prediction for libraries in an short article published in the January-February issue of DETAILS magazine (sorry, it’s not online – but if your library subscribes check pages 96-97).

The article isn’t about libraries. It’s about relationships. Why I find it interesting is that it reflects our global fascination with Google. He writes “We are a Google Nation. Type in a few words on any subject and a staggering amount of information hurls forth in two seconds flat.” I found a connection here with Marc’s piece about “What Google Teaches.” It may not be that Google teaches students that books are not worthwhile, but what it definitely does teach, or rather how it conditions their behavior, is to have absolutely no patience for information retrieval. Burroughs writes that we are “a speed-obsessed culture”, and if our water won’t boil as fast as Google gives results then it’s entirely unacceptable. Do speed-obsessed people have what it takes to turn the pages of a reference book until they find what they need? That might require a bit of effort as well, and Burroughs also observes that as a culture we have become programmed to avoid two things: hard work and persistence.

As for using libraries and doing research, well they obviously require both at times. So as far as Burroughs can tell, in the next decade both libraries and librarians will probably be out of business. He writes:

“A mere 10, 15 years ago if you wanted to research something you went to a library. You opened the unwieldy card catalog, deciphered the geekishly long code, and walked a quarter-mile into the stacks to locate a specific book and the little piece of information needed. Now the only reason to go into the stacks is to have sex…My guess is that within the next decade…Libraries will be converted into more useful real estate – condos and coffee bars – and the librarians who work in them will be rounded up and retrained to operate industrial espresso machines and cash registers.”

I start teaching a library school course about academic librarianship in another two months. Our final class session focuses on academic library futures, and I’m always on the lookout for interesting ones. I think I’m going to skip mentioning Burroughs’ vision.

5 thoughts on “Better Learn How To Run An Espresso Machine”

  1. Columbia University added an espresso coffee shop and lounge inside its huge Butler Library a few years ago.

    The lounge, where students can sit, sip coffee, and connect to the internet wirelessly from their laptops, is the most popular room in the library.

  2. He’s giving us a decade? That’s not bad! Factor in academic inertia, faculty status, and unions and that should give us another 30-60 years. Enough for most of us to not have to activate our secret weapon life-long learning skills to learn another profession. What will be some of the signs of our demise? Which job functions will go first? Which willl be last to go? We will go quickly or just whither away?

  3. You know, all snark aside, I’d not skip Burroughs’ vision. We, as a profession, have to acknowledge head on that our society sees us as losing value and relevance every minute of every day. And we can’t change, fight, or adapt to something we refuse to recognize!

  4. Jenica’s point is well taken. If we are marginalized by other information competitors and changing societal information seeking behaviors, we’ll have no one to blame but ourselves. Granted, Burroughs vision is based on a one-dimensional observation – that we’re a speed obsessed culture and libraries can’t compete with Google’s speed. But there are many dimensions on which libraries are better than Google, and it’s up to us to create that awareness within our user communities. I feel encouraged that are quite a few movements within the profession that are intended to combat those marginalizing forces (for example, Blended Librarians).

  5. I take issue with the “back in the day, if you wanted to know something, you went to the library!” point of view. To a certain extent, it was true–but at the same time, you didn’t want to call/visit the library every time you needed directions to the doughnut shop, were trying to find out what was happening that weekend, etc., etc. In short, every time you had a ready reference question, you didn’t necessarily call your nearest reference librarian. (She might get annoyed if you called every 7 minutes.) While certainly ready reference questions have declined, and much of that is due to quick access to easy information online, I think it’s naive and overgeneralizing to assume that the Internet has hijacked all of our questions–the Internet has taken over many of the questions we never had (and wouldn’t have had the infrastructure to support.)

    What is important is the library’s role in research (and having fun!). Are people turning away from the library when they are delving into some issue? Is it because we don’t serve them well, or because we have a value they don’t recognize?

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