Recently, I asked, Are libraries just too unCool to survive in an Internet age?, concluding that we can’t discard what libraries do, but need to move beyond the stacks of books no one reads.

Librarian Michael Flannery, at the Lister Hill Library of the Health Sciences, University of Alabama (Birmingham) responded, with a somewhat different take on the questions:

As a librarian and a teacher I found your post interesting. Steve Coffman’s comment about “aggregation, curation, and reference” is pretty accurate, more so than the tech guy on the TED Talk.

For example, “easy” will not insure the survival of the library; things are “easy” enough everywhere, and people aren’t going to flock to libraries for “easy”—it’s too much work to go to the library for “easy.”

Now a lot of people nowadays are using the library but not necessarily going there. For example, we provide access to many electronic journals for students and faculty that can be accessed from their homes or dorms. They’re clearly not in the library but they are using it. Also, Coffman’s “aggregation, curation, and reference” suggest a continued—perhaps even increased—role for the librarian if not the library.

But I think there’s a deeper and more disturbing issue here. It’s the general decline in students’ ability to read, or even interest in reading. With Wikipedia (you and I know how accurate that is!) and thousands of other sources on the Internet, the typical student eschews the actual research process for some cherry-picked items gleaned from readily accessible sources on the Internet. Here “easy” and “ready” rule the process. Even the e-book encourages this, with its easy-to-use keyword search. So the student doesn’t actually read the book, he or she cherry-picks it for this or that.

What usually emerges is a poorly constructed, atrociously written essay on some topic that demonstrates little to no serious thought on the part of the student. I’ve noticed this increasing phenomenon over the years. Now let me say that the good student remains as good as ever. What I’ve found is this: Electronic media have, however, made the marginal student worse. This has less to do with libraries than it does with this so-called “information age.”

Libraries can mitigate the problem by creating subject specific web sites highlighting strengths in their collections, informed by the primary material, and by knowledgeable subject experts in the field (usually from their own campuses).

Aside from this, I don’t know that the inexorable march of info inflation can be stopped. The Internet can be a great tool and a great medium for communication, but the very nature of ubiquitous web sites, blogs, social media, etc. has a tendency to drive its collective currency down. There are, of course, some very good ones as you and I both know and actively participate in, but the general universe of information is (in my humble opinion) in a pretty sorry state, and getting sorrier.

Librarian (and science historian) Flannery is a keen observer and likely right about the general direction for libraries: Focus on teaching research skills.

One risk, of course, is that in some communities, the concept of “the Library” can become a political football. That is, stalwart citizens can be fighting for the library as principally the long stacks of unconsulted books, whose sacred purpose is somewhat like that of the headstone on Grandma’s grave. Many will fight for that purpose who still won’t read the books, just as they seldom visit Grandma’s grave. So time, energy, and money that could apply to teaching skills is spent defending systems that few use.

Will books disappear? Probably not. Storytelling, literary readings, lectures, and speeches did not disappear with the age of print. Rather, each new medium causes older media to settle into a unique niche.

Sometimes, the older media decline. Radio drama declined with the spread of TV. But then drama was always intended to be visual. Radio drama does, however, survive, and some works are well suited to it. But those that aren’t are not constrained by it. Meanwhile, audiobooks boomed because many people listen to them while driving or otherwise travelling long distances.

Librarians will probably have their work cut out for them just helping patrons, especially students of all ages, learn how to access reliable information and take the time to understand what they are reading. Here is one attempt:

Denyse O’Leary is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger.

Denyse O’Leary is an author, journalist, and blogger who has mainly written popular science and social science. Fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan’s description of electronic media as a global village...