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In the Wrong Business: A New Model For Academic Libraries

7 Jul 2016

This post was originally written in 2010 and forms a chapter of the book Hacking the Academy, edited by Dan Cohen and Tom Scheinfeldt. It will form part of a series of upcoming posts on putting people (rather than information, books, or things) back at the center of libraries.

Our academic libraries have been in the wrong business for about one hundred and fifty years. It was in the mid to late nineteenth century that they began to be characterized as storehouses or warehouses of information and I would argue that this information-centered model is a mistake. Before then they were not stand-alone collections of books, but great complexes of mental and physical activity, including museums, gymnasiums, and baths. The goal of the library was to support the great scholars of the day by providing them access to the most important sources of information, but also to everything else that was needed to turn that information into new knowledge, including a space for discourse and debate. I am not arguing that we should put baths or gymnasiums back in our libraries, simply that we need to completely re-think both what it is that libraries do and why they do it.*


The problem with information

Information about many things does not teach understanding
(Heraclitus (B40), in Nussbaum, 1986).


The struggle of the academic library to stay relevant today is due to this switch from a scholar-centered model to an information-centered one. And the imminent collapse of this latter model is causing tension not only across academic libraries and the field of library science, but across academia as a whole.


Prior to the Victorian Era most academic libraries were what Matthew Battles might characterize as “Parnassan” – small, well focused institutions where what mattered was not the quantity of the collections, but the quality. Then our system of universities exploded and at the same time the cost of printing went down. Libraries began to put collecting at the top of their priorities. The result was that libraries changed from small, focused institutions that fostered the whole of the life cycle of scholarship, to what Andrew Abbott’s describes (pdf) as a “universal identification, location, and access machine.” And where the Internet has made it possible to finally fulfill the idea of our university library as “universal library” (again, to use one of Battles’ terms), our academic libraries have failed. In just a few short years, Google has come much closer to the creation of a universal library than our libraries have.


The problem is, of course, that we have spent nearly one hundred and fifty years crafting this idea that our academic libraries are centers for information retrieval.  Only one ALA-accredited graduate program has maintained the title “Library Science;” thirty have changed to “library and information science;” four put information first, but retain library, “information and library science;” and seventeen have dropped the library all together and are simply schools of “information science” or “information studies.”  Similar trends can be seen in the UK, where most recently the program at the University College London has changed from the department of “information and library science” to the a department of “information studies.” We don’t even produce librarians anymore, we produce information scientists.


So what we have now is a “tension of consciousness,” (see Berger and Luckmann, 1967, p. 21). We are at a point of awareness of the simultaneous existence of multiple realities. Having put all of our eggs into the “information basket” has failed us and it feels a bit late to turn back now. But the Internet has completely changed our relationship to information and as a result, the model of library as information center is going to collapse.


A New Theory of Libraries

So I would argue that it is time for a new theory of libraries (well past time, in fact). The user (the scholar) must be put back in the center of the academic research library again, but the users’ needs must be considered within the broader context of the process of scholarship. In focusing on information, academic research libraries have in part been trying to address what users want, not what they need. As Ranganathan** stated, “[t]he majority of readers do not know their requirements,” and I would argue that it has long been the role of library and librarian to help them understand them.***

The goal of any new theory of library must of course accommodate the increasing needs in research and scholarship for large quantities of information, but should not preface quantity of information over all else. As important as the information itself, is providing and supporting an environment that allows for the transformation of that information into new knowledge.


What has been forgotten, for example, is that libraries were, and should be again, inherently social places. That these are spaces not just for getting access to resources, but to people—librarians, archivists, other scholars—with whom discourse can be entered about the resources therein. An academic research library should first be seen as a collection of services that support the creation of new knowledge. From this perspective, the library is not defined by its walls or by its collections, but by those very services. The goal of a library is not then, to provide access to information, it is to provide a space, whether literal or virtual, for the support of all aspects of the scholarship process, and information provision is just one of these services. The information commons, gateway, or storehouse should not be the goal or the fate of the academic research library.


The library is a combination of tangible and intangible elements. Library is collection (of the tangible or the intangible) plus organization system, plus scholarship, but it is also the intangible environment that contributes to all three. There is no library, for example, without a culture of inquiry. Everything that is done in the library (entering, lingering, reflecting) and everything the library holds (collections of objects, living things, knowledge, information, contexts, lessons, memories), when bound together by a systematic, continuous, organized knowledge structure supports the act of new knowledge creation also known as scholarship. The result of the resources invested in the library, therefore, is not measured in the size of the collection, or even in the number or satisfaction of users, but in their experiences.****


* I applaud the efforts at Harvard to rethink their library system, but everything I have seen points to them sticking to an information-centric model.


** I realize it is a bit of a cliche to quote Ranganathan, but I think he is largely misunderstood because few people ever read more than his five laws (and I don’t mean the book, but literally the five laws themselves. The evidence lies in the fact that the book has been out of print outside of India for many years.) The real jewels of Ranganathan lay in his deep understanding of the roles and responsibilities of the library, which he summarizes—as any good marketer might—in his five laws.


*** The danger here, of course, is in libraries and librarians taking a lofty ‘we know your needs better than you’ approach. There needs to be a give and take in this process, obviously.


**** Many of these ideas and the language used to express them are based on the work of David Carr. See especially The Promise of Cultural Institutions (2003).



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