Since the advent of writing, libraries have served as a repository and commons of knowledge, providing information access to those who could not afford vast personal collections and hard-to-find archival materials to those who would use them for research and scholarship. Whereas library access was restricted to exclusive groups of elites and intellectuals for much of history, Enlightenment thought, along with the rise of the democratic spirit in America, begat the rise of public libraries operating for the benefit of the many; a concept now ubiquitous throughout much of the world.
Many readers probably have fond memories of a public or elementary school library which helped to foster a love of reading or learning from a young age. However, many may also question why we need libraries when hardbound books are increasingly being passed up in favor of e-readers and Google will tell us almost anything we want to know with a few keystrokes. But the Information Age in which we currently live makes libraries more valuable and important than ever.
In their most fundamental capacity, librarians curate and foster access to – and effective use of – information resources. Historically, this has primarily entailed a focus on physical books, hence, the prominent pop cultural image of libraries as sprawling aisles upon aisles of bookshelves. However, this idea is an oversimplification of library resources even before we consider the cornucopia of content brought forth by the age of the Internet. Twentieth Century libraries carried newspapers, magazines, movies, music, manuscripts and more in addition to the books for which they’re most famous; Twenty-first Century libraries continue to uphold this legacy and add digital content and technological resources like never before. Many readers have probably checked out a laptop or iPad from the Media Services desk of our very own Stevenson Library. We are living in an unprecedented time of information, and libraries are keeping pace while responsively serving their communities’ needs.
The adaptation of libraries to this brave new world of digital resources merely represents a new phase of a core function libraries have served all along, facilitating access to shared resources for the benefit of all library patrons. We’re increasingly living in an access and sharing economy more so than ownership economy in which we get a ride from Uber, tunes from Spotify, a room from Airbnb and maybe even a hammer from a neighborhood tool share. Lending libraries are over a century ahead of the curve on this economic paradigm and don’t even charge for most of their basic services. Furthermore, a service like Infobase’s Films on Demand (which is offered through our library) likely offers more in the way of truly informative and educational content than Netflix.
The overwhelming volume of information content now available and circulating makes the work of librarians even more crucial; with this informational overload, individuals who can help make sense of it all for the rest of us are priceless. Thankfully, librarians typically do it at no charge and are equipped with a master’s degree education in all things information science. Though Google can readily answer the simplest of queries, the nuanced talents of a trained librarian at the reference desk take it to the next level while adding a human touch. For tougher queries, most librarians will be happy to sit down with their patrons, whether to transition them from Wikipedia to peer-reviewed scholarly sources or help unearth genealogical history. Good luck getting that kind of treatment from Siri or Cortana.
In addition to materials and help with their use, libraries provide safe spaces and organized events for the benefit of their patrons. Most readers have used their campus library for homework and studying and are especially aware of its value if they’ve burned the midnight oil before an exam in the 24 hour study lounge. Public libraries regularly offer programming meant to engage members of the communities they serve, young and old alike, with the arts and humanities. Despite the ubiquity of internet search and doomsayers claiming the obsolescence of the print book, libraries have a pivotal role to play in cultivating an informed society.