A Library for the Future

David Parry bio photo By David Parry


One of the more interesting things that happened to me at the MLA, aside from bumping into a student I had not seen in four years but who was now in grad. school (okay, this is not all that interesting but when you spend the day in hotel rooms just about anything impresses), was meeting someone who worked as a librarian at a small liberal arts school. One of the things I found interesting about what he said, is that he is head not only of the Library, but the college’s informational resources. This strikes me as probably the way to go institutionally, but substantially different from how I have come to expect things to be organized, which led me to thing about the following.

Most of the way I have come to think about Informational Technology resources in the academia, is information resources as part of the phone system. Indeed this was the way it developed at my undergrad institution (Chicago) or at least how I thought it did. You went to the same building to get information/help with your phone line, as with your internet connection. Now things might have changed now, and I realize that many schools have separate “Information Resource” department(s) or structures. Something like IT departments. That is information services is about pipes (or tubes for those Ted Stevens folks), not about who to navigate those pipes, or how best to use them.

But the idea of connecting things to the library seems a better way to go to me. If students primarily use the web now for their research, or information gathering. Whether this information is for class purposes or entertainment (historically I would bet that the libraries see themselves as information only, but I think here of how I grew up thinking of libraries as entertainment—the place to borrow books, or even rent movies), perhaps the library is a better place to institutionally house the dissemination of information. Now this would require a rethinking of how the library works. It would now be a library that “disseminated” stuff, past its walls, but this has in some sense always been the case, you could check out books. The gathering function would be a little different, as libraries would mostly gather ways to search information, rather than the information itself. Although this too is already the case. When I use JSTOR, the library is just pointing me to a place where the data is stored, and giving me a password.

This would be a library that went to students, and maybe I am not even talking about a library anymore, but more generally an archive. But I think this is the point, if the function of the library is to house/control the archive, when the archive moves digital your shelf space is no longer as relevant.

In short, this seems like a smart move to me, and in looking around I found other smaller schools doing the same thing, but not many larger state schools. This move would probably force librarians to become more tech savy, which might be a good thing (I think about the librarian who once asked me how to authenticate (do a DNS search) on a webpage (I thought to myself “hey aren’t you supposed to be the expert here?”). But since librarians are information experts maybe it is time to put them in charge of the information that matters, instead of just the stuff on the shelves.

(P.S. To those who weren’t nerds like me and played Magic, the image is from a Magic card the “Library of Alexandria” (get it??), bonus points to the person who can name the series.)