Posted by: Steven Harris | December 30, 2007

Let’s Get Physical

David Lee King ponders the future of the physical library, what with all the move to digital and online social networking. He references another article where the library is described as the place where the librarian will help you upload and develop metadata for your YouTube video. I’m all about this kind of service being provided. It’s a great way to interact with the community: find out about their concerns, let them find out about our skills. But I think this is a very small aspiration for the future of the physical library. In fact, I would go so far as to say that if this is the future–consultation on digital projects, assistance with technology and social networking–then libraries are bound to fail. I don’t think we (librarians) are positioned at all to be experts in this area, or to capture that market, so to speak. But even if we could, the example seems almost to suggest, “well the library world is sure changing, let’s get into a different field altogether!”

I am not suggesting, either, that user generated information is bad. I’ve argued the opposite in the past. But libraries have a long history of helping people find the information they need. I think that is where our strengths lie. I think there is still a strong need for that in the world. The fact that people are participating more and more in the information world–generating their own information–doesn’t change the fact that they often need to find and get access to data from other sources. This leads to–you guessed it!–library collections! Libraries will continue to have collections, however digital they might be. The social networking and community building we do will be most successful when it orbits the unique collections that we have developed.

I think the question about whither the physical library also depends on what kind of library we are talking about. Academic libraries will continue to serve undergraduate populations that see great value in the library as place, be it for studying, hanging out, or meeting people. We will always serve those needs and yet still push the information discovery angle, offering workshops and reference services.

Public libraries have their unique user demands too. Even in a world where ALL collections are digital, the space would be one where people could go for assistance in navigating those collections. And, of course, there would be areas to conduct cultural programing that highlight and augment the collections. The same would be true for all kinds of libraries. The collections may be digital. In fact, much of our user assistance would be online too. But we would always be there with a human face, with a one-on-one interaction, because we are still humans and our customers are too, and sometimes humans need contact with other humans.

Update: I just made this comment on David’s blog…

“…I think our great strength and future continues to lie with helping people find information. The physical library will be a place where that can happen: consultation space, instructional rooms, and places to do cultural programing that highlights the collections of information that we are privileging in our community.”

I want to talk more about the library collection being information that is given some privileged status for a particular community. More on that later. Remind me! 🙂

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