What is a Library?

What is a Library? October 22, 2012

I spent a day during  Butler’s Fall break at a strategic planning retreat for the Butler University libraries. Being rather philosophically minded, I asked a small group I was in “What is a library?” as a way of trying to generate discussion on our assigned topic. The answer was multi-faceted, and included not only a collection but also curation and the presence of expert help to connect people with the resources that they need.

I followed up by asking whether Google Books is a library. I think we all agreed that the answer was no.

Google Books is more like a big pile of books (and the image on the left, of a library in Amsterdam shaped like a giant pyramid of books, reminded me of that when I saw it recently, and of the differences between a pile of books and a library).

I then asked whether, if we had a library that had every single book ever written, that would make our library more useful. The answer to that question was also no.

I regularly use the library at Christian Theological Seminary. It does not have a bigger collection than other libraries in Indianapolis that I am able to use. But it is specialized in areas that are of interest to me, and so more useful.

There are those who think that online collections like Google Books will make the traditional library obsolete. It is certainly true that the nature of collections and holdings is changing, with more and more content being digitized or published in digital form. But the need for what distinguishes a library from a huge mountain of books – curation and helpful mediation that connects would-be readers to what they need – far from being less important, is more important than ever.

When I need access to sources, I do look online first. Typically, I will search Google Books, JSTOR, and a variety of databases to which the libraries I have a card for give me access. As an academic it can still be challenging to wade through the significant numbers of irrelevant hits. For someone who doesn’t do research for a living, I suspect that even having access to the same databases would not successfully connect them to materials that interest them. And when one adds on top of that the fact that the databases are largely separate, and attempts to create a single search interface for a library’s multiple databases tends to just increase the deluge of mostly irrelevant results one has to wade through, it is clear that these digital holdings, some freely available and some paid for with expensive subscriptions, are not libraries. They are holdings.

What can turn them into libraries, if anything, is the work of libraries to actually sift through the available resources and work to create increasing numbers of curated digital “collections” which may in fact include large numbers of items that are freely available online and not “owned” by this or that library.

We have seen this ever since the birth of the internet. Those who collected useful links and engaged in curation of web resources became popular go-to pages for those seeking information.

Now that what is available is so much more extensive and includes so much more that is of high quality, such curation is more necessary than ever.

Some are worried about the future of the library, and there is no denying that the nature of libraries is changing and will continue to change, since changes in publishing and reading technology cannot but have an impact. But those changes seem to make the role of the library and of librarians – however much those roles and institutions may evolve – more important than ever.

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  • Ian

    To what extent, in Butler, is the curation of subject-specific resources a function of the library and librarians, and to what extent is it driven by the requests of staff and grad students and (for undergrads) book lists by the professors? We had a huge and very interesting library, but other than “where can I find books on X”, I’d have always gone to the academic staff for recommendations on what resources to seek and what to trust. To that extent, is it more likely that libraries as separate institutions in an academic context have a finite life-span?

    • That’s a great question. At Butler, it is very much a collaboration. Faculty and librarians communicate in discussions of book acquisitions and database subscriptions, and in putting together LibGuides about topics covered by our courses. And by far the most accessed materials are those open access materials by Butler faculty which librarians get permission to post online and then curate in digital repositories (BePress’ Selected Works). Those are, of course, accessed by those off campus as well as those who are current students or faculty, accounting for the higher volume of traffic. But there too it is a collaborative effort between faculty and librarians.