In my many years of liberal arts education, I have been endlessly confronted with twittering professors going on and on about the “death of the university.”  Coming from a Big Ten school, my reaction was always that as long as people pay money to go see college football games, the university will keep growing strong.  But I do have to concede that things are changing, and the traditional liberal arts education doesn’t get you as far in life as it did in, oh, 1870.  The debate over how we, as scholars and academic, should react to these changes strikes me as highly similar to a debate that’s currently getting a lot of attention in the library world.  On one side, academics in the humanities fear overshadowing by the hard sciences and business.  A lack of funding and a growing number of students foregoing the traditional liberal arts education lead to such fears.  On the other side, traditional librarians seem to fear the supplanting of their institutions by resources such as google and online encyclopedias (Zaslow 2007).  They fear that soon no one will need to go to the library to do research—everything will be accessible from home.  The nervousness felt by both professions seem strikingly parallel, however they verge away from each other quite sharply in the manner each profession chooses to deal with their anxieties.  While humanities professors sit and worry, railing against any department that receives more funding than they do, librarians increasingly seem to go the opposite direction.  Unlike their colleagues in the universities, too many not only embrace the changes in technology and accessibility of information, but strive far ahead of themselves in their willingness to “change with the times.”  The Unversity of Washington’s decision to strike the word “Library” from their information science program comes to mind as one very obvious example, but it is hardly the only instance of this mind-set out there.

           When you think of the word library, what image comes to mind?  Maybe those ugly, 1970’s style orange chairs they had in the reading room in your public library.  Maybe the musty smell of old, half-forgotten books.  Maybe even the streamlined, high-tech library built on donations at your college campus.  I, personally, conjure up an image akin to this:

library stacks

  Ok, so yes, this is a picture of Biblioteca de la Real Academia de la Lengua Madrid, not the West Lafayette, Indiana Public Library, but come on, it’s hot.  You see a picture like that and you can’t possibly promote the idea that libraries should be obsolete in favor of completely digital “information centers.”  So, I argue that, rather than striking the word “library” from our vocabulary, we simply need to look at it from another direction and expand the definition.  As Michael A. Keller, Victoria A. Reich, and Andrew C. Herkovic (2003) suggest, “The prediction that libraries are becoming obsolete or useless…reflects a lack of appreciation of libraries’ deep, often hidden functions, especially in the realm of digital information resources;” this particular thought is one librarians must keep in mind for the future.  It suggests that libraries are not simply repositories of books, but complex and useful centers made for the guided exchange of information.

            Keller et al. have the right idea about the future of libraries, however, some might go too far by using their argument as a justification for doing away with the word “library.”  If libraries hold so much information not found merely in physical, printed texts, then the word “library” does not begin to describe the complexity of the institution.  The argument suggests that the word library, as a derivative from the latin librarium, meaning book case, suggests too traditional a meaning.  Instead, to reflect the diverse and technologically relevant nature of modern libraries, the name should be changed to a comparatively modern title such as “information center.”  Despite the seemingly simple reasoning behind this suggestion, it goes too far in the right direction.  If “library” suggests too specific a meaning, then “information center” suggests one far too broad.  After all, an information center can easily be the name of the help desk at the local shopping mall.  While “library” may suggest a certain specificity to some, most patrons understand that a library is more than books.  “Library” has been and remains a recognizable term that invites patrons to come in searching for information; it suggests a place (whether it be physical or not) where they can find credible resources on a topic, and, perhaps even more important, receive guidance from an individual trained to help them navigate the sometimes overwhelming world of information they are trying to access.  In order to keep libraries—no matter what their particular collection or mission—functioning and useful resources, they must be recognizable as part of a larger system of similar institutions aimed at providing an interactive research experience.  The term “library” has been ingrained in society to suggest just such an interactive institution, where knowledge is shared, not acquired; “information center” just cannot compete with such an idea.  And come on, who wants a sterile, computerzed environment full of flashy lights and computer buzzing when they can have that PLUS rows upon rows of polished bookshelves, filled to the brim with books?


Click here to see the book these images came from.