Brian Cooley: Libraries Are for the Very Old or the Very Unemployed

A post on LISNews first directed my attention to the latest controversy hitting the library world.  Brian Cooley, CNET’s senior technology commentator and editor at large, in the April 20, 2011 “Buzz Out Loud” podcast (about 14:00 min. into the show) gave his less than stellar opinion on libraries while discussing Kindle’s new library services.

I listened to the show to see whether Cooley really said what people in the library community said he did, or if they were getting their feathers ruffled over some minor comment.  Wow!  All I can say is that for a smart tech guy Cooley comes off as pretty stupid.  If you have ever seen the T.V. show, The Middle, Cooley’s statements sounded a lot like Axl Heck, a self absorbed teenager who makes statements like “Eskimos aren’t even real. They’re just in stories like leprechauns and trolls.” 

Here are some of the things Cooley (not Axl) said about libraries:

  • “Why would I go or deal with a library to borrow a book?”
  • “This is weird. Why would a library have anything to do with virtual books? It doesn’t make sense. Locality is about physical books.  They’re physically in a certain place, so your library houses them, but once they’re virtual, locality goes out the door.”
  • “In this day and age, I don’t get libraries. Great air conditioning, good place to nap, right?”
  • “Libraries are for the very old and very unemployed.”
  • “The local library’s really starting to get shakey to my mind, unless it’s for the poor, the unemployed, the homeless, and the very old. That’s what libraries are for now.”
  • “What kid of high school is going to get anything out of the library?
  • “Seriously, you’ve got some 90 year old reference librarian who’s going to point you out to what…a Britannica volume to look something up? All you’ve got to do is Google, for crying out loud.”
  • “How does the library ‘defend your right to free information’? The Internet’s already got that done, folks.”

Cooley was primarily speaking about public libraries, but given his opinion on them one can only guess his feelings on other libraries (medical, special, school, law, etc.) are pretty low.   After listening to him speak I wouldn’t have been surprised if he spouted another Axl-ism, “Hey, Mom, look. I’m using my history book as a plate. No clean-up for you. You’re welcome.” 

Cooley’s cohorts on the show, Stephen Beacham and Brian Tong’s comments aren’t that much smarter either.  But Cooley is the one clearly driving the surfing bus to Nebraska. Unfortunately Cooley’s sentiments are not news to the ears of many librarians.  Yet, I have never heard somebody publicly say out loud such ill informed statements.  Cooley really showed his complete lack of knowledge about ebook technology.  As a tech person about to speak on ebooks and libraries he should have done his homework. Dude didn’t even know about Overdrive!  Nor could he speak intelligently about licensing and copyright.  Clearly he was befuddled as to how one would even get an ebook at a library.  It ain’t hard to do.  He sounded like my 62 year old mom trying to figure out ebook technology.

Now I am not a public librarian, there are plenty of public librarians out there who can defend their position/library to Cooley.  But speaking as a medical librarian here are my thoughts on some of his statements.

  • Books, even electronic ones aren’t free, they are expensive. Do you want to buy them?  Given our circulation & usage statistics (regular books and ebooks), most people would rather borrow them than buy them.
  • Locality?  Libraries have web pages now days. I know it is a radical concept but you can go online and download the book from the library’s site. You are a tech guy, why think in terms of bricks and mortar?  Our ebooks and ejournals are found online, and their usage is through the roof.  Online book and journal usage doesn’t need to be nailed down to a time and locale because people (doctors, nurses, researchers, etc.) need access to those resources 24/7.  What physical library is open 24/7?  Our web page is.  Locality….Dude, Cooley come out of the 80’s.  Locality is virtual and so are libraries.
  • Clearly you “don’t get libraries.”  Librarians can do your research in half the time you can.  If you think that is a poor ROI, then please you justify to your administration why it is a good idea for a doctor to spend a lot of time doing research (that a librarian can do faster) instead of doing a surgery, seeing a patient, or getting a grant funded. Hello…billable hours. Get a librarian do the research while the doctor is seeing patients and making money.
  • Yeah, law libraries and medical libraries totally are only for the very old and unemployed.  Whatever. Dude if you are being sued or your doctor diagnoses you with cancer, you better hope they have access to a library.  New legal opinions and rulings are made all the time just like new cancer drugs and treatments. These new things are not usually in Google (more on that later).
  • What kind of high school kid is going to get anything out the library? In our library, we have high school students who are in a summer intern program for the hospital.  Doctors and researchers send these students to the library to do research and work on their research proposal (which is way more involved than a high school science fair project).
  • Google is good, but it ain’t the holy grail.  Libraries subscribe to many online databases that have information that Google does not.  Doing your research on Google you will miss a whole lot of information.  Please tell a lawyer that you Googled the diagnosis before you treated the patient, I’m sure that will help with the malpractice suit.
  • Not all information is free! Free information is worth what you pay for it.  Many medical journals are NOT free online.  We libraries subscribe to these resources so that library users don’t have to pay for these things. In my library’s case, we do it to support the institution in its research and medical endeavors to better treat patients. Recently I did a research for a friend on the withdrawal of coumadin (warfarin) following an idiopathic pulmonary embolism.  The information I found (using a medical database, not Google) was NOT free to the public.  In order to get the journal articles on the topic he could have had to easily pay $25-$40 for 24 hour access to each article.  Kind of expensive, especially if you need medical information and want everything and anything on that medical condition that you have.

Like I said, I am used to people being uniformed about libraries and librarians (especially medical libraries).  I have gotten the glassy eyed stare at parties when I tell people what I do.  Most people, like Cooley believe that libraries are all about physical books, a place to sleep and staffed by centenarians.  What is surprising is that a tech guy like Cooley was so ill informed about libraries and the technology of ebooks.  Clearly the dude (or the others speaking) did not do their homework, and it makes me question about how much and what other technology stuff he just phones it in on.

6 thoughts on “Brian Cooley: Libraries Are for the Very Old or the Very Unemployed”

  1. Why does our society need libraries and librarians? The growing reliance on technology may increase access to information but decreases context, understanding, and wisdom. Today’s super ‘tech-savvy’ individual becomes tomorrow’s stock clerk.
    Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Information overwhelms our society. Information management professionals-librarians- guide the overwhelmed to the best uses of that information.

  2. It is so frustrating to read these kinds of uninformed comments about libraries/librarians. Unfortunately, these people get heard far too often so their attitude spreads. An amazing resource like a library; whether school, academic, public, or special focus; enriches an organization or community in ways far beyond what is mentioned here. It’s time some of these ill-informed loudmouths, who like to blather about things they know nothing about, visit their local public library and/or school library. They will be amazed at how libraries have changed since they last availed themselves of their services. If they are too busy to actually go to a library, at least check out available resources on their websites. It’s time to educate yourself, Mr. Cooley, before you take your comments to a public forum.

  3. Of course, libraries are for many types of people. But it’s obvious from the tone of the comments that people who are old, poor, unemployed or homeless are not really people in his estimation. What ever happened to the idea that all human beings have worth and value?

  4. Every few months an article or blog post like this pops up on the Internet, a rant slamming the public library by someone who hasn’t actually *been* to the library in 20 years. It’s getting pretty tiresome.

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