bricks and wireless

There was a little tidbit on NPR’s “Morning Edition” this morning:

Real estate company RE/MAX says it will create a Web site listing homes for sale across the country. Some observers say the growing availability of Internet listings will increase competition in the real estate industry and that could lead to lower commissions. [audio of full story]

Realtors, meanwhile, are tripping over themselves to tell you about all the things that a real estate agent can provide that a web site can’t. Realtors know about houses before they go on the market; they know the quirks and ins and outs of their terrain; they know how to operate; they know, in short, more information than you will ever find out by surfing the web.

Sound familiar? Try replacing the word “Realtor” with “librarian,” make a few other minor adjustments of lingo, and you’ll see where I’m going.

The most fascinating thing, though, was that apparently people who look for houses on the web are actually more likely to use Realtors than those who forgo the internet altogether. Is that true when it comes to librarians? I doubt it.

I am not generally taken with the notion that we must hasten to be as much like the market-driven world as possible: I think you lose some of your essence when you try to be too much like a thing you are not. But the library is a fundamentally socialist institution in a society and an economy that are fundamentally hostile toward socialist projects (except, of course, when it comes to government subsidizing of the oil industry and other corporate welfare), and we have to figure out ways to trick the system into supporting us anyway. Wifi in your library is one way to do that–it’s pretty cheap to install and run; it makes the people with wireless devices think the library is a happening place and thus, one hopes, makes them more willing to support the library the next time a referendum comes around, thus making it possible for you to buy more books and computers and dedicate more staff to helping out the folks on the other side of the infamous (but in no way imaginary) digital divide.

The library needs to be an information source for those who don’t have access to the internet, but there’s no reason it shouldn’t also be an information source for those who do.