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Reinvention of the public library for the 21st century.

[check] Reinvention of the public library for the 21st century edited by William L Whitesides Sr. Colorado, Libraries Unlimited 1998 302pp US$48 ISBN 1-56308-628-X

The premise for this book is interesting and certainly has potential. Whitesides, an American educator in library science, was unable to find a suitable textbook for a graduate level subject `The public library', he was teaching at The Catholic University School of Library and Information Science in 1996. He hit upon the great idea of having his students write a book that would focus on the public library of the future.

Unfortunately, the result for an Australasian readership is an American conundrum, a bit like a bowl of popcorn that turns out to be mostly unpopped kernels or a hotdog without the ketchup and mustard.

The book is divided into twelve discussion platforms of the public library of the future

* history of public librarianship

* values of the past

* political, economic and cultural environments; and the public library as `place'

* the library environment

* people and libraries

* public library support groups and users

* preservation in public libraries

* technology and libraries

* technology: will the end justify the means?

* technology and services for the special population

* sources of funding for public libraries

* the future is now: will public libraries survive?

In his preface, Whitesides explains the reengineering approach that was popular among business and management writers, such as Michael Hammer, at the time this project was underway. He does not explain how the twelve platforms were derived, but I suspect it had something to do with the number of students he was catering for on this project.

The platforms are too many, too broad and with far too much overlap. Rather than resulting in stimulating and creative ideas for the future, the various sections are informative and reflective, but with the characteristic naivete and reportage writing style that can be expected from student authors.

One can sympathise with the `between a rock and a hard place' task in trying to edit this volume of student work. The ultimate goal is to encourage and inspire the students working on the project and this is where the book is frustrating. It has many gems that, if developed, would have fulfilled the futurism of the title. Whitesides, as editor, seems reluctant to edit the pieces into fight discussions and deliberately lets mediocrity overshadow the moments of insight. For example chapter three starts with an author's note (given the same typeface and heading size as the rest of the chapter contents) that begins Recently, I had the opportunity and good fortune to meet Dr Charles R McClure (he said to call him `Chuck'). The final result is students playing at writing a book, rather than a tightly edited book of student work. I am reluctant to criticise the finished product, and I have genuine admiration for this effort which was completed within a busy academic year and plagued by four enrollees dropping out of the project.

However, Whitesides sells his students short by not taking a firmer stance as editor, tightening up the overlap, making the work more focused and insisting his students write to professional standards.

The section dealing on public library history covers Greco-Roman, European and American influences in an interesting discussion highlighting the rich history that is often ignored in library education. Curiously, there is no mention in this section of America's Ben Franklin, credited with initiating the idea of the public library in the 1730s. However, Franklin's contribution is discussed in the chapter on technology and libraries, and also in the chapter on sources of funds for public libraries. Again, tighter editing and appropriate cross references would have helped to bridge the content gaps and overlaps that result in the twelve themes mentioned above.

I was a bit taken aback at chapter two, focusing on the values of the past, which begins with a heading The Past and then describes a 1987 initiative of the American Library Association to define roles of the public library in society. Moving to the future, the chapter stays fixed on contemporary developments and trends and does not enter into thought provoking territory aside from the standard user pays and infotainment discussions which already pervade the library literature.

Section five, on people and libraries, has an interesting account of librarians taking a Myers Briggs Type Indicator and Strong Interest Inventory for a study to correlate personality with job specialty. The chapter tells us that the study found that compared to the general population, librarians show a preference for introversion and intuition.

This finding will probably come as a surprise to no one. It would have been an interesting springboard for some futuristic discussion about whether we want this combination, how we exploit it in the public library environment, how we change it, if it is not what we want. Instead we are given the standard platitude that `with an array of dynamic qualities, library and information professionals are ready for the information age' and the text moves on to a discussion of Janette S Caputo's book Stress and burnout in library service.

It is important to declare that there is much of value in this book. It is a mine of current citations to professional library literature and it has a highly interesting appendix that profiles a range of public libraries across the continental US, including the winners and runners up of the Library of the Year Awards for the five years leading up to 1997, when the text was researched. The volume also has a useful index.

The major disappointment with it is that it is the work of the representative new blood of our profession. This book was an opportunity for them to be adventurous, radical, thought provoking and creative, yet the students took the very introverted/ intuitive approach of the Myers Briggs experiment mentioned above. The book's title implies a change in status quo, but I could find no evidence of new ideas in its pages.

The saving grace is that the book itself is a brilliant idea. One of our library schools, mentoring groups or professional associations should take the good idea--and create something better.

Jan Gaebler Consultant
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Copyright 1999, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Gaebler, Jan
Publication:Australasian Public Libraries and Information Services
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1999
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