Monday, July 06, 2009

Libraries More Than a Collection of Books

Recently there has been much reported about the potential funding cuts that will be experienced by the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County. With more than 50 % of the state funding in jeopardy, the library may have to radically scale back services and programs. This funding situation has fostered many citizens to express opinions and ideas in letters to the local newspapers, calls to radio stations and on blogs.

While some of these ideas are well thought out, there have been several that have expressed dismay that the library provides access to the internet. The gist of the argument is that libraries should stick to the “core business,” that is, traditional books.

This argument really gets to some very basic definitions of the role of institutions like libraries. Is the role of a library the conservation of and distribution of books and periodicals or to provide access to information and the collective knowledge and ideas of our society? For sure I would come down on the side of the latter.

Seems to me that to make the definition of the library contingent on its collection of printed books would be like defining a carpenter as someone who builds things but only with a hand saw and wooden pegs. Few of us would agree with that as we understand the need and desirability to use whatever tools we can develop to do things better and more efficiently.

I am all for books. I like to pick up a book with pages and black printed text and read. Most days I read two newspapers and many trade periodicals. Most of these are printed on paper. So I don’t see this as an “either/or” argument.

The fact is that with the amount of information generated each year increasing almost exponentially, it is neither possible nor desirable to have all of this information stored on paper and in many individual locations. In many cases with some science and research information, by the time the material is printed in a book and distributed, it is already out of date. The electronic storage and retrieval of information via the Internet and other electronic distribution is the only practical way we can provide this important library function.

Seems to me that not only should the library offer access to the Internet, we should expect that such access will someday be the prime function of this institution. We should demand it and make sure that the funds are available to staff them with individuals who can help us identify how to search for information and to critically evaluate what we find. For sure there is a lot of misinformation distributed via the Internet, but I bet if we looked hard enough we might find some less than factual paper books on the shelves of libraries, too. Now, where is that book on alchemy?



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