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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

The Future of the Library — The Seth Godin Debate

Have you all read this: Seth, as many of you may know, is a digital marketing guru with a large following. In that blog, he describes the existing library as a warehouse of dead books — with the librarian as custodian — and the new, now-coming-into-being, library this way: “The next library is a house for the librarian with the guts to invite kids in to teach them how to get better grades while doing less grunt work. And to teach them how to use a soldering iron or take apart something with no user serviceable parts inside. And even to challenge them to teach classes on their passions, merely because it’s fun. This librarian takes responsibility/blame for any kid who manages to graduate from school without being a first-rate data shark.”

Godin is a lively mind with a quick turn of phrase, and there is something thrilling — and half convincing — in his vision. I’ve seen folks object that he is confusing the school and the public library, and that he is missing the whole school context — which gives kids the assignments, defines the kinds of research it accepts, and thus shapes what a librarian is asked to do for the student. True. I also think — like almost everyone who writes and speaks about the future of kids/books/ and libraries — he picks up the story too late. That is, he is speaking about kids middle grade and up. He forgets that so much of the library is picture books, board books, and adults very actively interacting with child and book — story time, lap reading, the stack of picture books a mom or nanny takes out to explore with a pre-school child. Those books do not play well, even on Ipads, and both adult and child like the social quality of a library — the semi-chaos of being with others in the land of books. I believe that print picture book, child, adult, and library go together too well to break up for a good while.

But there is something glimmering in his vision that I think is true — especially for those of us involved with nonfiction. I do think the school and public librarian can be a curator bringing together the author as actual visitor (in person, by Skype, in dialogue by email); the book or select chapters from it; film, sound, primary resources, teaching guides, reading group guides, lesson plans — everything that is out there which would allow a teacher/parent/student to get the most out of the ideas, narrative, and information in a book. I do think the librarian as curator is both valid and indeed exciting — a good way to envision that role. Curation takes place in a context — what the school/teacher/parent require, what the student can use, the actual facilities of the library, the claims of a public library which only sometimes deals with school needs. That is a matter of refinement, though, not of essence. Go forth and curate — and come back with goodies for all of us.