Against Self-Service: Commerce vs. Libraries

There has been a growing trend in the world of face-to-face interactions, and that is to get rid of them completely. I was reminded of this unpleasant trend while reading about the new Amazon brick-and-mortar bookstore that just opened in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood. The review of the store that appeared in the Chicago Tribune was less than favorable; their critic lamented a lack of personal service attention, as well as a lackluster collection of pre-selected (read: a very limited number) of face-out books on display.

It would seem that Amazon has curated an IRL experience in service of its goal to remove the need for any face-to-face interaction whatsoever. As a trained and tested librarian, this move offends me more than it arouses mere concern. In truth, we have been sleepwalking toward this reality with every exasperated purchase we make at the grocery store self-check-out in order to get back to our lives (or our parked cars) quicker.

amazon bookstore

The Amazon brick-and-mortar bookstore. Via

What happens when commerce-driven efficiency moves toward a service-focused library environment? What happens to the trained and staffed Reference Desk? The community-based and globally informed Reader’s Advisory?

Of course, we see shades of this dark future every time a Google-educated patron scoffs at the idea that a librarian might just have a better way of accumulating primary sources than copying and pasting the first ten (including ad-based) links of a two-second web search. We’ve all seen doe-eyed patrons approaching the stacks with print-outs of Amazon-generated lists of books “other people have bought.” What can we do to stem the tide?

Amazon’s stagnant attempt to replicate Hudson News aside, librarians can (and have to) shout “not on my watch” in the face of person-free efficiency—or face a reference desk manned by a Google search window, an OverDrive virtual circulation desk, and a Redbox-style return dump. (These developments have, of course, already begun.)

We need to draw the line. A librarian can not only curate an experience for their patrons, but engage them in a process of discovery with which no open-faced shelving displays can compete. It’s time to roll-up our sleeves because, like the vinyl record and the print book, the librarian at the desk should be here to stay.



About the Author:

Michael Ruzicka, Office Manager, was raised in suburban Los Angeles, received a BA in Creative Writing/Poetry at UC Santa Cruz, then moved to Birmingham, AL, where he spent five years owning an independent bookstore and earned an MLIS. He has brought his librarian skills to Vanderbilt’s Television News Archive, Battle Ground Academy, The Museum of Contemporary Art-Chicago, and the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. Michael is very excited to be a part of Booklist and call Chicago his home.

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