Monday, September 19, 2005

Not Your Grandmother's Library

Yesterday I was the speaker at my Sisters in Crime meeting, talking about technology trends.

As I drove home afterward, I passed the campus of a private university and remembered a conversation I'd had a few weeks ago with one of my oldest friends, who's in upper management at that school. In passing, she'd mentioned the challenges the university was encountering with respect to non-use of their library.

This afternoon, it suddenly struck me. What is the role in today's Internet-connected world for a bricks-and-mortar library? The students at my friend's school are, for the most part, affluent, technology-savvy young people. They arrive in the fall carrying laptops and iPods. Why make a trip to the library when they can access all the information they need on-line?

Obviously, the situation facing an affluent private school is different from that of a public university or even a public library. Both of the latter institutions must provide access for underprivileged users. But, maybe the dilemma my friend described is a precursor to a coming trend.

Libraries have historically been the repositories of information. If, in the future, information resides on-line, what services will libraries provide?

I did an on-line search and found many libraries--both public and private--are having this dialogue. One public university had gone so far as to publish a subcommittee report on the subject. Among the (self-evident) findings and recommendations:

* More information is available in electronic format
* Electronic products are being licensed rather than purchased
* The library should move aggressively to increase its electronic publications, sacrificing print publications if necessary
* Provide better computer classrooms, meeting space, study rooms and a dedicated teleconferencing area
* Provide a 24-hour study area
* Develop a collection for the non-professional community
* Provide a "not very quiet" area that would serve a social/academic function
* Make sure all library staff positions are needed in view of the Library's changing role

As the information storage function becomes less important, perhaps libraries' social and community roles will enlarge. Perhaps their teaching and instructional roles will become more important. Either that or they'll be added to a long list of the extinct, along with buggy whips and vinyl record albums.

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