Ongoing efforts by trade and scholarly publishers to demand higher prices for their digitized content and the growing, if flawed, perception that new technologies have made the information function of libraries obsolete have put librarians on the defensive. New devices and methods to deliver the entertainment and information people want have rekindled ancient debates about the mission of the library.
I take a classic, broad stance—that the library’s mission is to inform democracy—but the specifics of any particular interpretation aren’t the debate subject here. Both academic and public librarians are addressing the mission question again. As in any debate, there are extreme positions on either side. Our “with it” colleagues buy into nearly every new fad, especially the latest technological “advance”; they join the parade of librarians so anxious to avoid falling behind that their judgment loses out to their enthusiasm.
A band of more traditional, usually older and frequently entrenched, colleagues constantly preach that the true, ancient mission of the library is being eroded by an overemphasis on the new, especially the new technology. They complain about “neglect” of the book and the addition of such “frills” as 3-D printers; devices and software to play electronic games; and many other entertainments.
It is an old debate, and the specific details differ by type of library. It began even before Melvil Dewey, LJ’s first editor, declared in these pages that the librarian is no longer “a mouser in musty books.” It echoed through the decades-long argument over whether fiction was suitable for public library collections. That argument continued repeatedly, when libraries added such diversions as cheap romance novels, movies, videotapes, vinyl records and CDs, and, of course, the growing array of new technologies like photocopiers, microform readers, and the machines and methods to deliver their services online over the Internet.
I remember passionate disputes over whether the quality of video was adequate enough to replace 16mm and 35mm film. I remember being called a “printist” because I hadn’t yet joined my old friend Don Roberts, then at the Hennepin County Public Library, MN, to march in the parade with his compadres, the new media and mixed-media mavens of that day.
I can recall my own heated objections to Charlie Robinson’s approach as he convinced a generation of librarians to develop collections that emphasize the popular book, as he and his disciples were doing in Baltimore County.
As a young academic librarian, I once decided to put all the reserve books on the shelves in their regular Dewey arrangement. My theory was that students would discover other similar books. The faculty, students, and many of the librarians were outraged. (One very senior faculty member said, “I want them to learn what I teach, not discover books.”) I soon put the books back in the reserve room.
Now what some call “intellectual property rights” threaten to force libraries to change totally the means by which they deliver information and entertainment.
To their credit, public and academic librarians have adopted and adapted to all the new technological, legal, and societal changes that have made an impact on information, reading, and entertainment. Neither the faddists nor the traditionalists have won the debates thus far.
The old altercation resurfaced in Barbara Fister’s Peer To Peer Review column “Mission Creep and Mission Criticality”. Fister focused on the mission of the academic library, worried that it might become just “a stimulating study space and a provider of published stuff.” In the online comments another librarian asked, “What’s wrong with that?”
Fister’s reply was a classic: “What’s wrong with it is that we aren’t seen as being more than a pleasant shopping mall for knowledge. (One where you never pay the bill.) The system for distributing scholarly knowledge is failing exactly when we have the tools to make knowledge available much more widely.”
Every replay of that old debate about the library mission is a very welcome signal of our professional good health. It means that, in controversy and argument as always, we are discussing our way to a central role in the future of our society. There is nothing wrong with that.
John N. Berry III