I admit that I have a bias against "hot " books -- I instinctively turn against those that are generating a lot of hype and buzz. So I wasn't much interested in reading Thomas Friedman's The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century. I've not been that impressed with Friedman's NYT columns, and the buzz made it sound a little too facile and slick for me.
Then, at the Southern Chapter meeting in Puerto Rico in October, Roger Guard shaped his presentation around the book, and strongly recommended that everybody in the room read it. I've known Roger for nearly a couple of decades, and he's an original and innovative thinker himself, so I began to think there might be something to it.
A couple of weeks later I was in Washington DC. I was walking into Georgetown to have supper at the Bistro Francais, and so I stopped into Bridge Street Books as I always do. It was on the shelf, and while cursing Roger under my breath, I bought a copy.
I read it over the Christmas break, and I have to echo Roger's recommendation. It is a book that every librarian should read. (I particularly wish all those Library 2.0 bloggers would read it, although I suppose it's too long for them to get through). This is not to say that I like Friedman as a writer any better -- I'm not persuaded by his "flat world" metaphor, which he uses to excess, and his ridiculous, constant name-dropping is a real annoyance -- but on the substance of the impact of information technology on a global scale, I think he has a lot of it right.
Geographic limitations become pretty meaningless in Friedman's flat world. Instantaneous global communication makes it possible for even very small startup companies to be multinational. How should librarians operate in this kind of an environment? Friedman emphasizes the need to focus on the critical, unique things that one brings. The "plain vanilla" stuff can be handled anywhere, by anybody -- those who are going to be successful are those who can bring something unique beyond that. For librarians, I think that's the high-touch expertise factor -- the things that technology can't do. Getting to know the people in one's community at a personal level, tailoring services to meet their particular needs, and putting a human face on the information wilderness are some of the critical contributions that we can make.
We simply have to get past our physical-world orientation. Librarians who think that we're competing with Google are missing the point. It reminds me of the librarians who were freaked out by "end-user" searching when it emerged in the late eighties. For twenty years, if you wanted to search a bibliographic database, you had to go through a trained librarian. When systems started to arise that were designed for untrained individuals to use themselves, many librarians saw this as critical competition -- those systems were going to make us irrelevant. It didn't happen that way. Smart and creative librarians understood that enabling a doctor to do a quick search on her own, without having to take the time to consult a librarian, could be a good thing; and they reshaped their services to helping that doctor get the very best out of that search, and to understand when it was more efficient to bring in an expert.
Same with Google. We're entering the age of the global library -- the library without physical limitations. The challenge for us is not to try to figure out how to dig in our heels, get people to quit using Google and force them to come into our libraries -- that's the buggy-whip manufacturers talking. Our job is help the people in our communities navigate this very complex information space effectively. For that, excellent librarians are essential.
Friedman also has some very good analyses of the way in which these developments are shaping the global political scene. His description of the roots of Islamic fundamentalist alienation is one of the best things I've read on the subject.
Friedman's an optimist, so he tends to downplay (although not entirely ignore) critical issues concerning the digital divide and the nationalist backlash that are accompanying these global changes. His recommendations for US policy strike me as sound, but utterly unrealistic. I'm less confident than he is that we're going to achieve all of the benefits he sees as just over the horizon. Notwithstanding that, he's very good on where we are now, and as librarians and citizens, we need to take this into account.