KC Libraries On The Right Track In The Digital Age, Expert Says

Apr 10, 2015

John Palfrey says that area libraries are on the right track as we enter the digital age.
Credit Johnson County Public Library

As we increasingly turn to Google and other search engines  for our information needs, is the library becoming obsolete?

Educator and technology expert John Palfrey doesn't think so, though he thinks it needs a system update.

Palfrey is the author of Bibliotech: Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google, which will be released in May. He spoke at the Kansas City Public Library April 8, and says Kansas City libraries are on the right track as they transform in the digital age.

“Kansas City has an amazing system that gives a huge amount of hope for the future,” Palfrey told Steve Kraske on Up To Date.

Library funding is in jeopardy all over the country. As governments look to fund police, fire departments and other crucial services, public libraries tend to be the first on the chopping block.

But Palfrey has found that there are constituencies across the country, particularly in Kansas City, who are fighting back to preserve them — and bring them into modernity.

“One of the things I found in Kansas City, in the public Library system, is they’re now working on making sure you can, through the library, check out software.”

Specialized software can be extremely expensive, but libraries can provide this service at no cost to the public. Software rental is only one example of the creative ways that librarians are identifying the needs of their community and catering to them.

“I was really impressed by the segment of the main library that was focused on entrepreneurship and job creation,” he said.

In addition to responding to community needs, librarians still have a role in helping patrons research. But they need more than the Dewey Decimal System.

As more information becomes available online, libraries have a crucial role in guiding and curating that information, said Palfrey.

Internet search engines are designed to help you find the single most relevant answer to the question prompted, but libraries have the opportunity to enrich that experience, Palfrey said. He describes the feeling of serendipity when you enter a library looking for one book, and leave with a stack, because you’ve found them along the way. A search engine doesn’t take you along that journey.

“One of the most important things that libraries do is that they stretch the mind and they present the unexpected... The challenge is, could we, in fact, create some digital interfaces that would allow us to present that serendipity as well as in the physical space?”

Though that kind of technology hasn't happened yet, he believes that it is not far off.

“There is a distinction between information and knowledge and libraries are ultimately in the knowledge business. Having access to all of these resources in a context that is supportive, that's what a great library system like [Kansas City's] does, and it does it for everyone, regardless of their ability to pay.”