Thursday, August 20, 2015

What Makes a Library?

For information science professionals there isn't much doubt what a library is.  We all learn in school about how libraries are where published works go.  They're repositories of books, DVDs, magazines, journals, etc each one cataloged at the item level.  They differ from archives and museums in the type of materials within and how they are handled.  By and large the dictionary seems to agree with me.

However a library is more than simply "the place with the books".  Computer programs can contain libraries which have code necessary for them to operate.  They greatly facilitate development by reducing the need to reinvent what has already been created elsewhere.  Moreover collections of things - not just books, but CDs, DVDs, records, photographs - can be considered a library.  We also consider the physical building where all of those are located to be a library.

Its tempting to consider each of those as separate bullet points in a list which cannot be reconciled.  They're all apples and oranges, really.  We need six different definitions to refer to six different things even though its the same word being used.  The word "archives" similarly refers to either a certain type of materials managed in a specific way or the building where they are housed.

Still we can pull out a common thread from the definitions of the word "library".  They all refer to some place where information is stored.  Information is more or less a set of facts.  It lives in storage mediums of which books are the most well known, having been around for well over 1000 years.

Yet there are other ways of keeping information.  CDs, DVDs, records, hard drives, USB drives, and even physical buildings can contain information organized or not. However its a stretch to seriously call a hard drive a library.  Yes there is information there, but it may or may not be organized and is only available to those with access to the disk.

Even those mediums are changing.  People increasingly use and access information stored some where other than their computer.  The rise of cloud computing, not to mention big data, mean the tools needed to access information are becoming more sophisticated than ever.  Google is probably the biggest source of information for most people, alongside social media.

However there is a fine line between a library and a discovery tool.  A search engine is really the latter.  It contains nothing save records of your searches and other personally identifiable information.  The actual information is elsewhere in databases, web sites, and apps. A better comparison would be Ebsco Discovery Service which acts as a search engine for all of the company's database products and one's library catalog if configured to do so.

The trouble is the actual information sources are rapidly leaving the physical library which has muddied the waters.  Books still exist, and will for some time for various reasons, but many patrons increasingly want to access items available only over the internet.  Sometimes the library owns the actual materials - for example digitized photographs.  However such is not always the case.  Increasingly the library is merely a clearing house for products controlled by others, mostly private corporations. 

So there has to be something more to the concept of the library.   In a lot of people's minds, libraries are just places with books.  While nostalgia can be a powerful force, the perception is neither accurate nor helpful.  The key ingredient in what makes a library - or a museum, archive, or any similar institution - is the human factor.   Within their walls are people willing to help and guide would be patrons.  Staff may create curated exhibits, pathfinders, or further describe materials purchased elsewhere.  They may create public programs, do outreach, or provide communal spaces in which to work.  Computers, wi-fi, and maker spaces are supplements which allow patrons to take the information gleaned from the sources in the library and apply it in new and different ways.

A better analogy for a library would be a department store.  It too is a physical place full of goods purchased elsewhere.  Today almost anything sold to consumers can be bought on Amazon.  However the array of products available there is bewildering so finding what one wants can be challenging.  Brick and mortar stores have people in them who can make recommendations and point one in the right direction (at least theoretically).  Furthermore the relatively narrower choices actually makes decision making easier because there are only so many options the human brain can consider at any one time.

The idea of the library as a department store is not perfect.  Retail sales associates are typically low paid workers, where as librarians are trained professionals.  The issue of labor practices in the retail world are beyond the scope of this post.  However emphasizing the human element over the presence of books as the most important part of libraries puts us all in a far better position going forward.  It shifts the perception of the library to be something valuable rather than a holdover of the past.  A similar argument can be made for archives and museums, however they are already in a stronger position as their materials are largely unique to each institution.

Of course we all face greater challenges than simply perceptions.  Funding continues to remain a challenge. Everyone says they love libraries, but love does not pay the bills.  Giving information away for free means dependency on public agencies and donors for resources.  Ultimately the vendors end up in a stronger position.  However by changing the way people think of libraries we can at least make it easier to marshal public support and maybe even get a few more people to come through the front door.