Reinventing the Library

libraryReinventing the Library, a NY Times Op-Ed by Argentine-born Canadian anthologist, translator, essayist, novelist and editor Alberto Manguel is worth reading for anyone interested in the future of libraries. Recognizing that the dismantling of libraries occurs in periods of economic crisis when cutting funds to culture seems so easy to some, the author envisions a future as more than a simple matter of economics. He states:

Libraries are resilient. Intent on surviving in an age where the intellectual act has lost almost all prestige, libraries have become largely social centers. Most libraries today are used less to borrow books than to seek protection from harsh weather and to find jobs online, and it is admirable that librarians have lent themselves to these very necessary services that don’t traditionally belong to their job description. A new definition of the role of librarians could be drafted by diversifying their mandate, but such restructuring must also ensure that the librarians’ primary purpose is not forgotten: to guide readers to their books.

Libraries have always been more than a place where readers come to read. The librarians of Alexandria no doubt collected things other than books: maps, art, instruments, and readers probably came there not only to consult books but also to attend public lectures, converse with one another, teach and learn. And yet the library remained principally a place where books, in all their various forms, were stored for consultation and preservation.

The Op-Ed article notes that libraries are forced to take on functions that society is too miserly  to fulfill, and meeting those obligations diminishes funds for buying new books and argues that in changing the role of libraries without preserving the centrality of the book, we risk losing something irretrievable. But libraries deal with more than Books. They also offer Information. A bibliocentric view of libraries stresses the importance of printed texts and ignores the expanding nature of library services. Such a view may contribute to library image problems. Increasingly, libraries offer information services not just printed books. Brooklyn Law School Library provides both. Recently, BLS Library hosted its Fourth Annual Library Databases Research Fair. This week and next, BLS Library Director Janet Sinder scheduled Bluebooking for Success workshops on using the Blue Book geared to first year students and others. Where possible, BLS Library purchases books in eBook format. This means users can access books online through home computers, library computers and mobile devices. It is not just printed books that “show us our responsibilities toward one another, help us question our values and undermine our prejudices, lend us courage and ingenuity to continue to live together, and give us illuminating words that might allow us to imagine better times.”

With libraries changing from print to digital repositories and information centers, consider two recent Second Circuit Court of Appeals decisions:  Authors Guild, Inc. v. Google and Authors Guild, Inc. v. HathiTrust, 755 F.3d 87 (2d Cir. 2014). Both decisions expand access to collections available in libraries, making material accessible in new ways to researchers and readers and providing access for print-disabled persons. Court opinions validating book scanning shows how libraries are changing. They must now deal in information that it is used and produced in diverse new ways. All libraries, both public and private, are adjusting. Libraries remain as important as ever to information literacy and the preservation and of culture and learning.