The Present, Presents, and Presence of Libraries

After writing yesterday about how newspapers and magazines are evolving and redefining themselves, I woke up this morning to a National Public Radio (NPR) report about the continuing evolution and redefining of libraries—those familiar institutions which, among other things, house and provide one among many potential points of access to the evolving newspapers and magazines.

The point of the NPR report was that Stanford University’s Engineering Library is reopening soon in a new building with major changes, including an 85 percent reduction in the number of books on its shelves to make room for digital and e-learning resources as well as an “engineering commons” along the lines of the increasingly popular information commons model. The changes parallel what has occurred elsewhere, as documented in a Boston Globe report in September 2009 about the complete elimination of books in a New England prep school’s library. And in a CNN report that same month about the changing nature of libraries to include their role as “digital learning centers.” And in a New York Times article published in May 2005 to document the removal of books from the library at the University of Texas at Austin.

For those of us who love books and all they offer, the news might have been expected to have induced a new onslaught of depression over rapid change and the ensuing sense of loss. But, strangely enough, I found it more interesting than frightening since it doesn’t leave me with visions of a bleak, bookless future. It inspires, instead, an acknowledgment of the present situation of libraries which set books alongside other resources. An appreciation for the multitude of presents (in the dual sense of “presents” as gifts and “presents” as time frames) available in libraries. And an appreciation for the presence of different types of vital, vibrant libraries in our lives.

I still am a complete library junkie. I finished earning my Master of Library and Information Sciences degree last year—17 years after taking my first job in a library. Part of my work as a trainer, writer, and consultant keeps me in touch with colleagues in libraries throughout the country. And whether I’m in Washington, D.C. to attend a conference, in Florence on vacation, or in a small town like Benicia, California on a training assignment, it doesn’t take me long to find a physical library so I can see what it offers the community it serves. But I’m just as likely to use the services of online (digital) libraries; to maintain a small, bursting-at-the-seams personal library at home; and to explore ideas of what actually constitutes a library at this point in our lives.

If we define libraries as places where information resources are organized, preserved, and made available to the customers they serve; as places where learning occurs; and as community centers in the spirit of the “library as place” movement, we find that the containers—the books—are only one part of the entire mix of what defines contemporary libraries. And if we recognize that “community” can be a small geographic setting or an online group spread over a region, a country, a continent, or the entire world, we broaden our concept of who libraries serve and how they deliver those services.

Talking about libraries in personal terms brings these reflections and changes to a level any of us can understand. If we look at our own personal (home) libraries, we are likely to find that they include books; magazines; CDs; DVDs; and laptops and/or desktop computers and/or smartphones and/or iPads. We even find that our methods of organizing our own collections are rapidly changing. We might have our books arranged in any number of ways which make sense for the collections we have developed; our online files in Google Docs or some other cloud-computing tool; and our links to online versions of newspapers and magazines and websites organized though an aggregator such as iGoogle or Netvibes or Pageflakes.

So as I think about the Stanford University Engineering Library and others that are reducing the presence of books while creating homes for and access to other resources which are becoming essential elements of large and small contemporary libraries, I acknowledge the sense of loss that frequently accompanies change. But I find it balanced by a sense of excitement and anticipation as I watch information containers such as books being joined by a variety of other information containers. And I take comfort in the thought that we don’t need to fall into the trap of making this an either-or choice since there is nothing stopping us from creating libraries with as many information containers as we need to meet our ever-evolving needs.

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