What is a library? What one element is required?

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Most people, I suppose, think of a building when they think of a library, but a library doesn’t need a building. It can be rooms, or maybe one room, within a building. Most people also think of the collection. I hope there aren’t many left who think only of books and magazines. Let’s think of the scope of what can be in a  library and determine what it must have in order to be a library.

Print materials

  • Books (of course)
  • Magazines and journals (of course)
  • Pamphlets
  • Printed music
  • Broadsides and posters
  • Manuscripts (I know they’re not printed, but this heading seems the best place to list them.)
  • Etc.

Art works and realia

  • Original paintings
  • Prints of paintings
  • Slides of paintings
  • Sculptures
  • Pottery
  • Objects associated with special collections (such as clothing and personal effects)
  • Bones and skulls (What would a medical or dental library be without those?)
  • Etc.


  • Reel to reel microfilm
  • Microfiche
  • Microcards


  • Sound discs (78 rpm, 45 rpm, 33 1/3 rpm
  • Sound tapes (wire, reel to reel, 8 track, cassette)
  • Video discs
  • Video tapes (Beta, VHS, U-matic, and more)
  • DVDs

Electronic media

  • IBM cards
  • Paper tapes
  • Floppy discs of various sizes
  • CD-ROMs
  • DVD-ROMs
  • Playaways
  • eBook readers (Kindle, Nook, and others)
  • More software than it’s worth listing


  • Players and readers for the previous three categories
  • Computers
  • Copiers
  • Printers
  • Scanners

Is there any one of these things that a library must have to be a library? Actually, no. I read an article almost 15 years ago in a professional journal about a new university library in New York City. I didn’t keep a copy, so I can’t cite it, but it’s important to remember that urban, downtown universities do not occupy spread-out campus. They occupy one or more high-rise buildings.

The university library in New York wanted to put in a computer lab. (That should date the article. I expect all academic libraries have computer labs now). Unfortunately, it was bulging at the seams already and had no space for the lab. The article described the university’s quest to find and remodel a room in another building for use as a branch library.

The completed branch library had plenty of computer work stations, but no books. How, then, could it be called a branch library and not simply a computer lab? Because the staff comprised librarians to help students and faculty not only learn to use the computers, but also how to identify and locate the resources they needed for their projects.

The one thing the library must have in order to be a library? Librarians.

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