Saturday, March 25, 2006

The values of librarianship

Recently I made a comment about a Zits comic strip to a listserve that dealt with libraries:

What's even more frightening is the cartoon from 3/17 in which Jeremy said that he was busy doing research for a history paper due the next day. His mother muses "Ah, research! When I think of the hours I spent at the library when I was your age..." Jeremy then says "Done!," turns around and asks " went to a library?"

X number of messages go by on this listserve...some about how they don't use the library anymore, about how everything should be digitized and accessible over the Internet, others defending books and the printed word, etc. I didn't really have a point when I posted my comment, but it did get me thinking about why libraries are important and why I am annoyed by the idea that all you ever need to learn is on the Internet.

Tonight I replied to my colleagues:

My unwritten point was that libraries remain temples of information not necessarily because of the resources they offer, but the services they provide to a world in critical need of information navigators through the noise of the Internet. Why is the library still important? Consider these values of librarianship as taken from Shiyali Ramamrita Ranganathan's Five Laws of Library Science:

1) Books are for use.
2) Every reader his or her book.
3) Every book its reader.
4) Save the time of the reader.
5) The Library is a growing organism.

Substitute recordings or databases or Internet resources if you want for book, but these principles still hold up as valid goals for information providers. In 1995, future ALA president Michael Gorman articulated five new laws for the 21st century.
One of those was to "respect all forms by which knowledge was communicated," and another was to "honor the past and create the future."

To these ends those of us who are librarians (and I don't claim there is consensus) try to provide the most useful resource for a patron's information needs. Sometimes that will be a book, sometimes a video, sometimes a microfilm, sometimes an Internet database. All research builds on that which has been done in the past; and there is no evidence (save Google's testbed of five libraries) that it will economically viable to provide a world of digitized primary documents in the next decade (or two) to allow professional researchers to only use the Web for their research.

While I was in library school at Indiana, I met many students that were on fire from the idea of working with primary materials like rare books and manuscripts (as well as cylinders and 78s, photographs and nitrate film). I think that there will be those in every generation who value artifacts from the past and will want to preserve them. Part of preservation is keeping the memory of that object alive, along with its context, in the form of access through surrogate copies (microfilm, digitization, reprinting). Two of the greatest gifts scholars and librarians have given humanity are the bibliography and the catalog which document the existence of materials that would otherwise be forgotten. We are all in the business of preserving memory for ourselves, our children, our students, as well as future generations.

Ultimately I believe the two most valuable commodities a library can offer any community is its librarians and its buildings (some of the last free, public spaces where community members can gather without the pressure to consume.) I don't think the library is going anywhere. While some of the services it offers and the internal processes we practice must change, our goals remain and the backlog continues.
...Yadda yadda, these views are my own...

Happy weekend to all!


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