Are libraries “Mainstream”?

I was re-reading Dion Hinchcliffes post, “Social Media Goes Mainstream“, yesterday and it occurred to me to ask myself, “are libraries mainstream anymore?”

I don’t know. In so many ways, libraries are still very traditional organizations, entrenched in a very one-dimensional business model–that is, we lend material, answer reference questions, and provide a repository–ok, shelf space–for books that may, or may not, ever be touched (run a report on items that have not been checked-out in over ten years).

I think the library, as an institution, has slid, somewhat, into the periphery of our society’s sight. For example, despite Tom Hanks in the Da Vinci Code (“I need a library, quick!”), references to libraries in popular culture continue to be steeped in iconic images of the shushing librarian and annoyed patrons who glare at an offender who dares raise her voice above a whisper. When a library is portrayed in a movie, we see little old ladies fetching dusty tomes off some hard-to-reach shelf in an effort to help the protagonist track down esoteric knowledge of a demon lost to the annals of time. Contrast that with the number of times we see scenes of hot actors basking in the glow of their LCD panels.

I know these Hollywood generalizations are inaccurate and unfair, but I’m sure I’m not the only one of us that has noticed the characterizations we’ve been given. It’s important to take these into consideration because Hollywood is actually a fairly impartial depiction of America’s psyche (and when it’s not, it’s telling Americans what should be in their psyche). After all, most of our population shapes its world view around what it sees in the movies and on TV, sad as that may be. While we may hold this type of self-actualization in disdain, the American public are the very same people our public libraries serve, and also from whom we receive our funds.

Now, with the rise of Web 2.0, our users have thrust the social media into the mainstream. This has happened because the “networked environment” Hinchcliffe talks about is itself very much mainstream now. In fact, it’s so mainstream that it has begun to help define what aspects of our civilization become mainstream and thus, by default, which do not. and so, we now live in a society where the content that is in high-demand is readily available, pretty much anywhere. I’m talking about content like this:


The Candy Mountain video has been circulating for almost a year now and it’s a prime example of how network effects are allowing society to disseminate, in this case, popular culture, and ultimately the bulk of information deemed “important” by our fellow citizens. And so, I’m left scratching my head (just like I was after I watched Charlieee’s adventure) wondering what the heck we’re supposed to be doing with our libraries.

So in the meantime, I’m thrilled to be with one of the libraries that is experimenting. There are a number of radical libraries that are casting about for a new direction. It’s dead reckoning for now. But we’re coming to some new realizations now that are intriguing. We’re thinking about physical space in a whole new way, we’re reaching out to our youth in ways that were never before considered, we’re fiddling around with the chemistry of the net, looking for some new alchemy that may ultimately lead to a new dawn for us. Is your library part of this?

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