Images of the Library

Earlier this week I had the opportunity to hear Tony Ageh, Chief Digital Officer at the New York Public Library, speak at an event hosted by the Seattle Public Library. In addition to sharing what he has learned in his various roles leading the digital transformation of organizations, Tony provided a compelling definition of what a library is as well as a helpful summary of key challenges that characterize our digital age.

When we think of what a library is, the most common images that come to mind are books and buildings. These can be limiting images. Physical books remain important, but they are not the sole source of information. And buildings are finite environments that are dwarfed by the our seemingly infinite information environment.

But these two images are much more meaningful. The book signifies information, and the collection of them by a library manifests the intention to provide equitable access to information. In Tony’s words, this is how a library uniquely alleviates systemic inequality. The building signifies community: the library is a place for the formation of a community. This is a safe and trustworthy place because in it librarians mediate information—cultivating attention and agency—for members of their community.

When these two dominant images of the library—and all that they signify—are brought together, we recall the library’s role in the information process: in selection, mediation, and formation.

Tony identified four major challenges facing the digital transformation of libraries, which he calls “the four agents of the digital apocalypse”:

  1. obsolesce (planned or not), which complicates immediate and long-term access to information;
  2. mass surveillance (a characteristic of the digital device paradigm);
  3. obfuscation or lack of transparency (which is intensified with the inexplicability of the newest AI technologies);
  4. ambivalence—or, more precisely, apathy.

The last challenge, apathy, is perhaps the most important. Apathy—not distraction—is the opposite of attention. As James Williams points out in Stand Out of Our Light: Freedom and Resistance in the Attention Economy, the design of many digital technologies interferes with our attention at various levels: functionally (doing what we want to do), existentially (being who we want to be), and epistemologically (determining who we want to be). If we are distracted from doing the tasks we want to do, we are distracted from our goals and values. And if we are distracted from the things we care about, we may lose fundamental capacities such as reflection and intelligence that enable us to define these. Without attention, information can become deformation.

The library has been, is, and will continue to be an institution designed for human attention and agency. It includes material technologies, from print books to digital resources, but it also includes formative technologies or practices shaped by professional and community values.