Tuesday, April 24, 2007

"What do we need libraries for? Isn't everything on the Internet?"

In a November 2006 column in American Libraries, Dr. Joseph Janes, Associate Dean of the Information School at the University of Washington, posed these ubiquitous questions...and then proceeded to answer them in one of the most cogent arguments I've read for why libraries are still essential in the online information age. He titled his column "Libraries in a Time of Plenty," "plenty" being the many available information sources clamouring for our attention. So where do libraries fit in this time of plenty? With thanks to Dr. Janes for allowing me to share his points, here is why libraries are still needed in the 21st century:

  • It isn't all on the Internet. There's so much stuff on the Internet that people assume that everything is on the Internet. Not so. The library offers licensed databases that you can't get to on the Internet. You have to be a card-carrying library patron to get there. There are also many print items that are not yet available online.
  • Even if it was, you couldn't get to it. Many sites are restricted to paying members and subject to other limitations of use. And even the unrestricted sites return thousands or millions of hits to your query. Do you really want to wade through 1,232,114 hits to find what you want?
  • Librarians are very cool. No more buns! We're up on the latest technology, we help people solve problems, we preserve the history and culture of our communities, we've got all the books, music and movies everyone's talking about, and we do it for a whole year for half of what you pay for one month of cable TV service.
  • A sense of place matters, everywhere. Libraries are community gathering places, and we are the one municipal service that has something for everyone from cradle to grave. Communities that support good library service attract residents and businesses with high expectations for quality of life.
  • Libraries are about more than "information" anyway. We celebrate knowledge, reading, culture, education, and intellectual freedom. We run programs for all ages that are informative and fun. We represent all that is good about our communities and provide tools to make our communities the best they can be. We are much more than what you think we are.
  • We make humanity more human. We are the gatekeepers of the human record. We organize, preserve, protect, and disseminate human history so that it can be passed along for future generations to study and learn from.

As a personal observation, too, I'd like to point out that the "Internet" is not always welcomed at the academic table. A recent spate of elementary and middle school assignments found us facing parents who told us that their child's teacher had banned the use of the Internet for the assignment. That's why they came to the library. Just think!

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