For decades now futurists have predicted the decline of the library — something like a statistic lost to the Googlization of the world. In the early 2000s, a common pronouncement was that “all books would be digitized or online and we wouldn’t need libraries anymore.”
The fact is, even with digitized books, e-books and a variety of hand-held devices, there has been a concerted return to and re-emergence of the physical book, a now booming used-book market, a steady decline in e-book sales, and a return to a physical reality of the printed word that many people did not expect.
Libraries come in all shapes and sizes. From the time I was a youngster in the 1970s and 1980s, to now, the concept of a library was already changing with the introduction of computers to that world. In fact, libraries have been changing since we’ve had libraries in the United States, from how patrons were charged or not, to who gained access, how information and materials were classified, and even the way that a library building was designed or its services understood by the public.
Additionally, in the last two decades, library schools have made a concerted effort to rebrand themselves as “information schools,” or more stylishly “iSchools.”
The maxim that nothing stays the same but change itself surely applies here. But part of this question of change must be the quality, intention, and style of that change, and how librarians negotiate those areas of transformation. This is more than simply distinguishing the adaptability of, say, the rather archaic Dewey Decimal System in relation to the more academically inclined and sophisticated Library of Congress (LC) Classification System.
Even this has its political considerations. In the 1970s, for example, a system called the Brian Deer Classification System was devised in Canada to properly accommodate collections relating to indigenous populations, which had not been adequately classified under the traditional European rubrics.
The key themes here are adaptability, clarity and precision. Adaptability, especially, is imperative to how libraries, library systems, classification and the very identity of the profession must be understood. One of the most transformative moments for me in my career came when I traveled to China to research the design, infrastructure and collecting practices of Chinese regional and university libraries. The major takeaway from that trip was the adaptability of libraries in a fast-paced economy and quickly changing environment.
In some of the major public libraries, one could see everything from e-book lending rooms with an offering of dozens of e-readers to a robotic book-retrieval system that digitally contacted patrons that their items were now available for pick-up.
Many of the architectural designs were magnificent monuments to the human imagination that were creatively constructed to accommodate the cultural needs of its environment. Even in the smallest details, there was thoughtful consideration — for example, nearly all Chinese libraries have large hot water tanks for patrons to make tea, a mainstay of the society in which those libraries were built.
American public libraries have been innovative in how they provide services and resources to patrons, from having staff available to assist with tax preparation to offering classes on job searches and interviewing tips. Some libraries even lend garden tools in areas where organic or community gardening is practiced, or passes to local museums in urban centers.
So what about us? What about the academic library? We need to be both actively engaged with the immediate needs of an institution and its constituents, and forward thinking in a way that is desirably innovative and constructively productive for the future.
The library where I am the director — Bridwell Library at Southern Methodist University — specializes in theology and religious studies collections. It has a 70-year history of collecting in these areas with associated expressions in the arts, music, history, sociology, archaeology and literature. The expansive nature of the human experience requires that the categories of knowledge are all adequately interactive with what we are studying in our institutions. We are not simply “storehouses” of information, but a community of highly adaptive and passionately committed human resources, supporting the dynamic nature of the university and its extended social and cultural contexts.
We are also creators of the written word, designing and publishing new materials and works of art through traditional printing and reproduction. Starting this month (March) we will be opening an exhibit of 20th-century fine press Bibles and launching the first major publication of a book-length limited-edition exhibit catalog at Bridwell in six years.
One theme that we may look again to Chinese culture about is the way that time is considered. There are traditions of considering time in 800-year or 1,000-year cycles. That may be easy for a civilization that has been around for several thousand years. But for us, our planning and strategy is generally only a few years out, perhaps ten at best.
Maybe, it would be beneficial for us to consider a more long-term vision for the future library, even when we can’t see 50 or 100 years ahead of us. We can do that by strategically collecting in the present and thinking about what a future might hold where the physical book is still important despite advances in e-reading technology. Whatever the possibilities are, we know that adaptability will be at the core of that change, even in the 22nd century.