April 26, 2017

In Praise of Traditional Libraries | Peer to Peer Review

Some librarians like to disparage something they call the “traditional library.” The reasons vary depending on circumstances, and understanding the criticism is made more difficult because no one seems to agree on what a “traditional library” is, except that it exemplifies whatever the critical librarian doesn’t like about libraries or librarianship. I find this sort of rhetoric divisive and self-defeating, but that’s a topic for another column. Instead, I’ll provide a description of traditional libraries as I see them, and offer a brief encomium.

I say traditional libraries rather than “the traditional library” because libraries vary widely, and the only fair way to discuss academic libraries is in generalities. There might be one single library somewhere that would embody everything “traditional,” but most libraries are amalgamations of changes over time. It’s only by looking at the whole that we can make such general statements about libraries.

I’m also going to distinguish traditional libraries, the libraries that have been “handed down” to us (which etymologically is what traditional means), from historical academic libraries. For much of their existence, American academic libraries were small affairs, and it wasn’t until the mid-to-late nineteenth century that libraries as we know them today started to emerge. Historically, academic library collections were tiny and their access extremely limited, often open only one afternoon a week, and with restricted or nonexistent circulation. From our perspective, the historical academic library was completely inadequate. It existed merely to house a collection of books to be protected from library users at all costs.

But with the expansion of scholarly research practices, traditional academic libraries developed to meet those needs. Traditional academic libraries collect and organize a lot of stuff and help people use it. This distinguishes traditional academic libraries from historical academic libraries, which did no such thing.

The traditional libraries that developed into the libraries we have today changed everything from historical library practice. By early twentieth century, scholarship and curricula had changed significantly over the previous fifty years. By then most colleges and universities taught a whole range of subjects besides classical languages and religion, and scholars were studying a wide range of topics in greater depth than ever before. Traditional libraries adapted by buying more stuff and developing new classification schemes and catalogs to organize all that stuff more effectively.

They also diversified the kind of stuff they collected. At first it was just books and periodicals, because that’s what was available. Over time libraries added new formats: microfilm, record albums, audio and video cassettes, CDs, DVDs, CD-ROMs, and online databases, not to mention manuscripts, archives, and the occasional work of art. These traditional libraries just kept adapting to add whatever new format came along and organize it into a findable order.

They also had to change the access policies of the historical libraries. No more of this being open four hours on a Saturday afternoon for students to browse books they may not even have been allowed to check out. Hours expanded until the library building was accessible most days of the week, and circulation policies broadened so that students and professors could borrow most of the material they needed. Libraries were constantly, if sometimes slowly, adapting to meet the needs of library users.

Despite the new classification schemes and library catalogs, sometimes the students and professors still had questions, and there’s no use organizing a library collection and making it accessible if people can’t figure out how to use it. Thus, reference service was born. It started at the Columbia College Library in 1883, when Melvil Dewey hired several recent Wellesley graduates to answer questions for library users. They were known as “the Wellesley half dozen.”

Reference service gradually spread throughout these traditional libraries, as communication with library users became more of a priority. Library instruction classes started a little later and grew in popularity. The media of communication also diversified. Telephone reference started in the early twentieth century, and, as new forms of communication became popular, the traditional libraries added them to the list: email, IM, Twitter. Everything coexisted because these traditional libraries almost never stopped doing something completely. They just kept adding more things to what they were already doing.

If the early twentieth century was the age of increased collections, classification, and communication, the later twentieth century was definitely the age of automation. In 1967, a new organization called the Ohio College Library Center started to design a shared and automated cataloging system for libraries, again following the tradition of libraries adapting to changes that would improve their core functions of collecting and organizing stuff and helping people use it. This “OCLC,” as it was eventually called, succeeded, creating WorldCat, probably the largest traditional library catalog in the world, and spurring the library automation movement of the 1970s.

But cataloging wasn’t the only cooperative endeavor of these traditional libraries. They also realized that no one library can satisfy the information needs of a given group of faculty and students. Samuel Swet Green had argued for the benefits of lending “books to each other for short periods of time.” That was in the first issue of this very magazine, in 1876. By the early twentieth century, interlibrary loan started to develop, and over the course of the century hundreds of millions of items were leant, and many libraries today make decisions not to buy items because they’re sure they can get those items through ILL.

Traditional academic libraries discovered problems and solved them, adapting to the demands of new scholarship, embracing new media of communication, and developing appropriate organizational and cooperative schemes, in a steady march of progress over the course of the twentieth century away from the tiny, inaccessible, and inadequate historical libraries that had preceded them.

Perhaps, as some now say, the traditional library is dead. I would hate to think that’s so, given the enormous benefit traditional libraries have provided for research and education in the country over the past century. If it is so, I just hope that whatever replaces them is as successful at collecting information, organizing it, and making it as accessible and useful as possible to scholars and students as traditional libraries were. They were good things, traditional libraries, and I will miss them when they’re gone.

Wayne Bivens-Tatum About Wayne Bivens-Tatum

Wayne Bivens-Tatum (rbivens@princeton.edu) is the Philosophy and Religion Librarian at Princeton University and an adjunct instructor at the University of Illinois Graduate School of Library and Information Science. He blogs at Academic Librarian.

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  1. The practice of reference service seems to have been alive and well before 1883 at Columbia College Library. In the same inaugural issue of American Library Journal (later called Library Journal) in his article: “Personal relations between librarians and readers” Samuel Swet Green described the work of reference librarians. The term “reference service” was not used, but that is clearly what is described in this story:

    “A school-boy calls for a history of the Suez Canal. You see at once, probably, that he needs a brief account, and refer him to some recently-issued encyclopedia. At the same time you show him how to use dictionaries and encyclopedias, and tell him he can often find answers to questions himself by using works of this kind, but invite him to come to you whenever he encounters snags or fails to get the information sought after …”

    I call that information literacy by any definition …

  2. In this context, I think Dewey was the first to start a formal reference service in an academic library. I’m getting that from Arthur Hamlin’s history of academic libraries, so that could be off. Nevertheless, as you point out, there was some kind of reference going on from the beginning of the modern library era (which I would date from 1876).