Why do we still need libraries?

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People have been asking that question for at least 20 years. I first became aware in the late 1980s that some college administrators regarded the library as obsolete. They thought it a good place to cut the budget. At that time, online databases had only recently become available for public use. There may have been some magazines and scholarly journals available online. “Everything’s online” was nothing more than wishful thinking on the  part of the ignorant.

Since then, the amount of information available on the Internet has increased exponentially. We could once say that older materials were not available online, but now we have retrospective full-text databases for newspapers and magazines enabling people to read material published more than two hundred years ago from any available computer.

Google Books has been busily scanning out-of-print books, and Project Gutenberg has transcribed a lot of them, too. Ever since Amazon introduced the Kindle, it is no longer necessary to touch print even to read the latest best sellers. Most people today prefer to read books in print form, but how long will that last?

And so the question arises with renewed urgency: why do we still need libraries? But first, let’s consider, what is a library?

  • A collection of information and entertainment materials in a variety of formats, notably books, magazines, and other printed materials, but also microforms, audio recordings, video recordings, and electronic media in various formats.
  • A building or room that houses the collection.
  • The technology necessary to play all the different recordings or read the various microforms and current or obsolete electronic media, as well as computers, printers, scanners, etc.
  • Above all, the staff, who, besides simply warehousing and maintaining all the stuff, understand the collection and help people identify, locate, and use what they need.

What, then, does the library offer that people cannot find online? Some of the following points might become obsolete in the foreseeable future, but certainly not all of them.

  • As regards the collection, the library offers proprietary databases. It pays a pretty hefty price for subscriptions, a price far beyond the resources of any individual. These databases are, of course, online, but available only at the library.
  • In most cases, the collection also includes some unique materials not available anywhere else, such as manuscripts and archives, and rare materials in special collections. One large library might have an exhaustive collection of old railroad timetables where another might have more materials related to dentistry than anyone else. Not many people need the material in these collections, but those who do rely on it heavily. Libraries put some of it online, but certainly not all of it.
  • Material in special collections and archives is not limited to manuscripts or printed matter. Libraries may own many artifacts such as costumes, arts and crafts, items owned by various local luminaries, and much more.
  • Many libraries loan out laptop computers to people who cannot afford their own. In other words, libraries extend access to the same online wonders that prompt the question of whether they’re still necessary.
  • As regards the building, the library makes an excellent meeting place. Most libraries  have some combination of auditoriums, small group study rooms, large group meeting rooms and classrooms.
  • Library buildings also have tables and chairs where people can read and take notes. More and more, they reserve some spaces for quiet study and others for conversation.
  • Library materials require careful attention to climate control, making library buildings ideal cooling centers when it is dangerously hot outside and safe places in the winter for people having any kind of trouble heating their homes.
  • Since so much of the non-print collection uses obsolete technology, where else besides the library will anyone find a beta player, a computer that can read various sizes of floppy disc, a turntable that can play 78 rpm records, etc. Not all libraries have all of these machines, but most larger libraries have several of them.
  • Libraries also have the latest machines to be able to handle the newest media in their collections, and have them earlier than most individuals do.
  • Besides the technology necessary to use the collection, libraries also have multi-featured copiers and scanners, various recording devices, expensive software, etc. that patrons can use  for a wide variety of projects.
  • It is quite possible to have a library without books, but  not without librarians and other staff. Some librarians and staff work directly with the public, while others support them by working in back offices, doing too many different essential tasks to enumerate here.
  • Librarians help patrons identify and locate the materials they need.
  • Librarians show patrons how to use the catalog, databases, and other discovery tools.
  • At least some of the librarians are subject specialists and experts. They can consult privately with patrons who need more help than the other librarians can offer.
  • Software like Finale, Photoshop, Dreamweaver, etc. have a very steep learning curve. Someone on the library staff knows how to use them and how to show patrons how to understand them well enough to accomplish their tasks.

Librarianship is a profession, just like, say, pharmacy. Anyone can go into a drugstore and buy pills off the shelf. If they don’t know how best to use them, only the pharmacist can give the best answers. (People can look on the web, but if the answer is reliable, a pharmacist or other professional wrote it.) Anyone can open Google and perform a search. A librarian can show people how to use Google more effectively or point out that the catalog or proprietary databases will have more pertinent information.

I can’t see any time when the work of a librarian will become obsolete. For that reason alone, we will need libraries for the foreseeable future. Libraries will look very different in the future–maybe even the very near future. Who knows what new technology will hit the market next week that will give people a fresh reason to wonder why we still need the library? Whatever it is and whenever it appears, the library will have it and library staff will show everyone how to use it.

Photo credit: Some rights reserved by Manchester Library

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