The Evolution of the Library

The industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie wrote, “There is not such a cradle of democracy upon the earth as the Free Public Library, this republic of letters, where neither rank, office, nor wealth receives the slightest consideration.” An avid reader for most of his life, Carnegie was responsible through his generous financial support for opening hundreds of public libraries across the country in the early 20th century. Although they disagreed on significant policy issues, Andrew Carnegie and President Franklin D. Roosevelt both recognized and publicly expressed how important libraries are to the health of a society. Libraries have a responsibility to their patrons to provide the resources for developing information literacy skills necessary to participate in the democratic process.

Having grown up in Macon, Georgia, in the 1960s and 70s, I can recall my mother driving me downtown to the main branch of the public library where I could roam through the stacks to find books to read. At the time I had no real appreciation for the privilege this simple activity represented, but when I left home to attend college and worked toward completing degrees in English and history, the value of library resources became much clearer. With an MA in history, my first full-time job was working as a cataloger in the public library of a small town in middle Georgia. Over the next two years, I commuted to Emory University in Atlanta to complete a Master of Librarianship degree. I continued in the profession for the next twelve years, eventually becoming the director of that same library.

To say that libraries have changed since my childhood is an obvious understatement to anyone who has benefitted from these institutions. There is no shortage of literature about how the advent of the Internet and electronic resources has transformed the way libraries operate. Several standard textbooks have been available for over ten years that cover library services in the context of the information explosion of recent decades. Some studies are now focusing completely on nontraditional library sources — collections that have only existed in electronic format. In their 2016 book titled Discover Digital Libraries: Theory and Practice, authors Iris Xie and Krystyna Matusiak explore different digital library issues and synthesize theoretical and practical perspectives relevant to researchers, practitioners, and students.

Library stacks
Library stacks

The breadth of Internet resources is mind-boggling; however, the depth of those same resources can sometimes be deceiving, which has created a false panacea for information illiteracy. In past generations, library patrons viewed librarians as the trained sentinels of printed resources, the official concierges that users needed for reading recommendations, research assistance, facts, figures, dates, and answers to almost any conceivable question. One could argue that this sense of importance was a bit exaggerated; nevertheless, librarians had a clearly defined function and role in their organizations and the communities they served. Affordable computers and mobile devices with Internet access have been challenging the significance of librarians, and even libraries, over the last fifteen years.

In a recent article in the magazine American Libraries titled “Ten Reasons Libraries Are Still Better Than the Internet,” Marcus Banks explains that these institutions still provide tangible services along with less obvious benefits such as access, privacy, and intellectual freedom. While Banks sees the Internet as “an indispensable and irreplaceable tool for modern living,” he argues that “it is not a library and will not replace the work of librarians.” Of course, what should we expect to read in a trade magazine for this profession, right? No surprise either that I tend to agree with Banks. Professional librarians have always taken seriously their responsibility to lead patrons to the most accurate and reliable information available, either in their own libraries or in those with which they have reciprocal lending privileges. The introduction of the Internet has not altered that mission at all. Only the methods of delivery have changed. As Banks observes, “a conversation with a librarian can clarify exactly what you are looking for and figure out the best way to use Google — or many other resources — to find it.”

One of the major impacts electronic resources are having on libraries is in the use of space. The average desktop computer connected to the Internet, including subscription services provided by the library, gives the user access to resources that thirty years ago could not have been contained in a building the size of the Pentagon. Libraries no longer need stacks and stacks of reference books and bound periodicals. Certainly, many readers still want “real” books — the kind with bindings and paper pages. Reading an e-book will never replace the experience of holding a traditional book in their hands that requires no machine, no batteries, and no WiFi connection to download. But, as library budgets continue to shrink and librarians are forced to become even more creative and innovative in allocating the limited funds at their disposal, they will stop purchasing many print sources that are so readily available in a more cost-effective electronic format. They will also convert sections of the library that were once occupied by stacks to other high-demand options such as public-access computer stations, study rooms, audio/video booths, leisure reading areas, and even coffee lounges.

I recently read a Facebook exchange by my friends and mentors who are also retired college professors.  They were bemoaning the changing landscape of libraries. One of them expressed her conviction that libraries to a certain degree should be “rather intimidating, evocative of all of the great minds whose ideas reside in books therein, yet nonetheless something of a magnet to all of us who want to know things.” I absolutely understood her sense of loss when she pined for browsing the stacks and even smelling the pages of old books. The sensory pleasures of reading are understandably treasured by so many people. At the same time, this “discussion” about libraries and books and nostalgia was taking place on a social media platform that was born and has lived its entire life exclusively in the realm of the Internet. FaceBOOK has never had a single association with pages and bindings. The irony was palpable.

As the platform for the creation, exchange, and storage of information continues to evolve, and even more rapidly in the age of electronic media, perhaps the differences in function of libraries and archives are becoming more relevant and more distinct. To my way of thinking, libraries are designed to provide information created in the present and the recent past. As such, electronic sources will naturally continue taking the place of more traditional print sources. Also, weeding out books that are no longer read by patrons has been a normal task of librarians for ages. Archives offer access to sources that have more historical value and are still considered useful for research and institutional documentation. Considering the fact that archival collections are moving to digital formats at blazing speeds, even these resources will soon be available more by computers than a trip to a physical repository. As for the nostalgia of holding an old book in our hands, doing so in the future may involve visiting a place that functions more like a museum than a library or archive. As sad as that may sound, I would rather see ancient books placed in acid-free storage containers than scanned and made available only as an image on my monitor.

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