New York Library Association. - The eBulletin

The Golden Age

By Robert Drake

“The term Golden Age comes from Greek mythology and refers to the first in a sequence of four or five Ages of Man, in which the Golden Age is first, followed in sequence, by the Silver, Bronze, Heroic, and then the present (Iron), which is a period of decline, sometimes followed by the Leaden Age. By definition, one is never in the Golden Age.” 1

Our current environment does not lend itself to such lofty designations and my friends even think ‘Leaden’ Age is too optimistic.  I, however, live a contrarian life and put forth the following proposition: 96% of NYS library votes pass; IMLS, initially facing a house clearing budget, appears on track to have its funding not only maintained but increased; and yes, circulation is generally downward, but library usage amongst the demographics that vote remains high.  Indeed, even as the political climate becomes ever more virulent and partisan, libraries have seemingly found broad success.  

This may well be worth a round of self-congratulation.  Libraries have proven their value on the state and national stage.  And yet, I find my ears ringing.  All Glory is Fleeting, as they say, and if budgets are passing in arguably the toughest political climate of fifty years then that means that…well…there’s nowhere to go but Lead.

The conclusion here is not necessarily dismal but one of responsibility.  Regardless of whether things are at their nadir or comparatively calm, every institution must always look to strengthen itself.  As libraries pivot toward increased community engagement, they are building the ties and tools that will benefit them regardless of what that future might be.  

But is that happening?

As always, the answer is sometimes yes, but within my own narrow bailiwick, there are technical products and features I have been waiting on for nearly a decade.  For example, the particular Integrated Library System I work with does not have easily distributed administration of usernames or load rules to facilitate consortia.  It has no real tools to transmit new content or events specifically to expiring patrons to help bring them back into the library or better yet assist partner community organizations in communicating the same way.  More aspirationally, there is no gamification built into the catalog to encourage greater usage of materials or facilitate reader’s advisory or any integrated system to reward library card usage on a leaderboard or with a raffle.  

The concern here is not simply a grocery list of wants, but rather – if an industry has enough support to win 96% of its public votes, then why has it not acquired the resources necessary to make relatively obvious improvements to its tools?  My own requests may, of course, be unique to me, but I would consider few libraries pleased with their technology.  Even fewer libraries or library systems appear to be driving their own development or technical improvements with any great success.  

Which seems weird.

Rationally I can explain it as a result of consolidation amongst library technology providers, the steep cost of development compared to even well-supported library budgets, and the differing natures, communities, and purposes of libraries themselves.

The technocrat in me, however, considers this is a classic coordination problem.  Few, if any, institutions have the money and expertise to drive the development they would like, but, similarly, few, if any, institutions can justify investing money to have development done that, once aggregated, may or may not directly address their highest priority needs.  The result is an endless cycle of overpromised upgrades driven forward only once the scattered and ungainly library market has enough pent up demand to justify the expense. 

This is about as reactive as it gets and disappointing to say the least.  

The what, why, and how of innovating not just technology but our collective approach will never be easy, but the question of when does not seem up for debate.  Our environment may or may not get easier.  Then again, “by definition, one is never in the Golden Age.”  Iron might just have to do.



Robert Drake is the Assistant Director for Technology Operations at the Nassau Library System.  He is the only person in Queens with a bird feeder.  The views, opinions, and positions here expressed are his alone, and do not necessarily reflect those of NLS, Robert Drake himself, or probably anyone...