There is a chapter towards the end of Stuart Kells’s The Library: A Catalogue of Wonders, in which the author envisions the library of the future as one in which “dreary hordes of students” stare mindlessly at “computers and reading machines”, ignorant of the more refined pleasures of paper and ink, vellum and leather.
This – the death of the book – is a familiar lament recounted by bibliophiles everywhere; a tragic epic in which the Goliath of technology slays the David of art and culture.
It may be superficially appealing to some. And yet, it misses the reality that writing itself is also a technology. Along with the wheel and the lever, it is one of the greatest technologies ever invented. The history of writing predates the invention of the book. It parallels and is a part of the history of other technological forms.
The history of the library is replete with mechanical marvels.
Take, for example, the book wheel, the scholar’s technology of the 16th century, an ingenious mechanical device operated by foot or hand controls, allowing a reader to move backwards and forwards across editions and volumes, referencing many different books as quickly possible.
Closer to our own century, there’s the Book Railways of the Boston Public Library installed in 1895, with tracks laid around every level of the stack to transport books. Or the ultra-modern teletype machine and conveyor belt used to convey book requests by the Free Library of Philadelphia in 1927. Or the current book retrieval system used at the University of Chicago, which boasts a system of robotic cranes.
Unlike Kells, I think there is a fabulous quality to the dream of an infinite library that can assemble itself in bits and bytes wherever a reader calls it into being. It sits well with the democratic dream of mass literacy.
It may well take an archaeologist – working a thousand years from now – a lifetime to unlock the data in our already defunct floppy discs and CD Roms. Then again, it took several hundred years of patient work before Jean-François Champollion deciphered Egyptian hieroglyphs in 1822, and even longer for Henry Rawlinson to unlock the secrets of the cuneiform scripts of ancient Mesopotamia.
Of course, Kells’s new book is not a history of reading or writing. It is a history of books as artefacts. It tells of books of doubtful or impeccable provenance, discovered in lost libraries or inaccessible private collections, purloined by book thieves, or crazed and nefarious book collectors, or at the behest of rich or royal patrons. It is a narrative – albeit with an unfortunate, cobbled together quality – brimming with strange anecdotes about a small handful of books owned by a small handful of people; lost books yielding strange surprises, from discarded condoms to misplaced dental appointment slips.
Kells’s favoured haunts are the chained libraries of medieval monks, and the bawdy or scandalous collections of wealthy 18th century patrons. The library of St Gall, for example, which houses one of the largest medieval collections in the world. Or the Bodleian at Oxford, which was never intended to be an inclusive collection, but rather, as its founder Thomas Bodley put it, sought to exclude “almanackes, plaies, and an infinit number” of other “unworthy matters” which he designated “baggage bookes” and “riff-raffe”.
I am a great lover of books. I have been lucky enough to while away the hours in libraries from Beijing to St Petersburg, Belgrade and Buenos Aires. But in an age of economic disparity and privatised public services – of pay walls, firewalls and proprietary media platforms, not to mention Google and Amazon – it is difficult to feel convinced by this bibliophile’s nostalgic reveries.
Embodying an idea of society
More than 20 years ago, when I was living in New York, eking out a living as a copyeditor and more often as a waitress, I became a regular at the 42nd Street Library (also known as the New York Public Library), on Fifth Avenue between 40th and 42nd Streets, a few blocks from the apartment that I shared in Midtown.
It was not just the size of the collection that drew me in – the 120 kilometres of bookshelves housing one of the largest collections in the world – or the ornate ceilings of the main reading room, which ran the length of a city block, with 42 oak tables for 636 readers, the bookish dimness interrupted by the quiet glow of reading lamps. I was fascinated by the library’s pneumatic system.
This labyrinthine contraption, which had been state-of-the-art around the dawn of the 20th century, sent call slips flying up and around through brass tubes descending deep underground – down seven stories of steel-reinforced book stacks where the book was found, then sent up on an oval shaped conveyor belt to arrive in the reading room.
The pneumatic system – with its air of retro, steampunk or defunct book technology – seemed to intimate the dream of a future that had been discarded, or, at least, never actually arrived. Libraries are not just collections of books, but social, cultural and technological institutions. They house not only books but also the idea of a society.
The predecessors of the New York Public Library, the Carnegie libraries of the 1880s, were not just book stacks but also community centres with public baths, bowling alleys, billiard rooms, and in at least one strange instance – at the Allegheny library in Pittsburgh – a rifle range in the basement.
Earlier in the 18th century, with the rise of industrial printing technologies and the spread of mass literacy, not only libraries but as many as a thousand book clubs sprang up through Europe. They were highly social, if occasionally rowdy places, offering a space not only for men but also women to gather. Monthly dinners were a common feature. Book club rules included penalties for drunkenness and swearing.
So too, the fabled Library of Alexandria – where Eratosthenes invented the discipline of geography and Archimedes calculated the accurate value of Pi – was not a collection of scrolls but a centre of innovation and learning. It was part of a larger museum with botanical gardens, laboratories, living quarters and lecture halls. Libraries are social places.
Kells’s Catalogue of Wonders is at its best when it recounts the stories of these ancient libraries, charting the accidental trails of books, and therefore ideas, through processes of translating, pirating and appropriation. And the trades and technologies of papermaking that enabled them.
The library of the Pharaoh Ramses II in the second millennium BCE contained books of papyrus, palm leaves, bone, bark, ivory linen and stone. But “in other lands and other times,” Kells writes,
books would also be made from silk, gems, plastic, silicon, bamboo, hemp, rags, glass, grass, wood, wax, rubber, enamel, iron, copper, silver, gold, turtle shell, antlers, hair, rawhide and the intestines of elephants.
One sheep, he says, yields a single folio sheet. A bible requires 250. The Devil’s Bible, a large 13th-century manuscript from Bohemia, was made from the skin of 160 donkeys.
Ptolemy founded the Library of Alexandra around 300 BCE, on a spit of land between a lake and the man-made port of Pharos. He sent his agents far and wide with messages to kings and emperors, asking to borrow and copy books.
There are many stories about the dissolution of this library: that it was burnt by invading Roman soldiers or extremist Christians or a pagan revolt – or that a caliph ordered the books be burnt to heat the waters of the urban bathhouses. Or just as likely, as Kells points out, the scrolls, which were made of fragile papyrus, simply disintegrated.
But the knowledge contained in the scrolls never entirely disappeared. Even as the collection dissipated, a brisk trade in pirated scrolls copied out in a nearby merchant’s district ensured that the works eventually found their way to Greece and Constantinople, where other libraries would maintain them for another thousand years.
One thing that Kells fails to address in his book is the problems that arise when books are excluded, destroyed, censored and forgotten. And, indeed, when libraries are decimated.
Any list of destroyed libraries makes startling reading: The libraries of Constantinople sacked by the Crusaders, the Maya codices destroyed by Franciscan monks, the libraries of Beijing and Shanghai destroyed by occupying Japanese forces, the National Library of Serbia destroyed by the Nazi Luftwaffe, the Sikh Library of the Punjab destroyed at the behest of Indira Gandhi, the Library of Cambodia destroyed by the Khmer Rouge.
More recently, thousands of priceless manuscripts were burnt in the Timbuktu library in Mali and rare books spanning centuries of human learning were burnt at the University of Mosul. Yet more book burnings have been conducted by ISIS, in a reign of cultural devastation that includes museums, archaeological sites, shrines and mosques.
There is also destruction for which the so called “Coalition of the Willing” must accept responsibility. Dr Saad Eskander, the Director of the Iraq National Library and Archive, reported the devastation of the library in a diary posted on the British Library website: archival materials 60% lost, rare books 95% lost, manuscripts 25% lost.
There may be something not quite right in mourning the death of books in a time of war, as people are dying. But the problem remains that without books and documents, the history of the world can be rewritten.
Indeed, as Iraqi librarians sought to preserve the bookish remains of their country in the still working freezer of a bombed out Iraqi officer’s club, the US military quietly airlifted the archives of the Baathist Secret Police out of the country.
These are the dark places where, as George Orwell once said, the clocks strike thirteen, and Kells does not go.
Of course, the great irony of censorship and book burning is that books are destroyed because it is believed that they are important, and they possess a certain power.
Libraries of the future
In the age of the globalisation of everything – and the privatisation of everything else – libraries can and must change. It is seldom discussed that one of the great destroyers of books are actually libraries themselves, bearing cost cuts, and space limitations. But this process can be ameliorated by companies such as Better World Books that divert library books from landfill, finding new owners and funding literacy initiatives – you can even choose a carbon neutral footprint at the checkout.
Libraries, by which I mean public libraries that are free, open and accessible, will not become extinct, even though they face new competition from the rise of private libraries and the Internet. Libraries will not turn into mausoleums and reliquaries, because they serve a civic function that extends well beyond the books they hold.
Libraries can and must change. Quiet study areas are being reduced, replaced not only by computer rooms but also by social areas that facilitate group discussions and convivial reading. There will be more books transferred to offsite storage, but there will also be more ingenious methods of getting these books back to readers.
There will be an emphasis on opening rare books collections to greater numbers of readers. There is and must be greater investment in digital collections. Your mobile phone will no longer be switched off in the library, but may well be the very thing that brings the library to you in your armchair.
The much heralded “death of the book” has nothing to do with the death of reading or writing. It is about a radical transformation in reading practices. New technologies are taking books and libraries to places that are, as yet, unimaginable. Where there will undoubtedly be new wonders to catalogue.
When libraries lend books to the public, authors and publishers receive remuneration from the Government under the Lending Rights schemes, but this is not the case when libraries lend e-books. Is this fair?
This year, the government has distributed almost A$22 million under these Public Lending Rights and Educational Lending Rights Schemes. For each book in public library collections, creators receive $2.11 and publishers receive $0.52.
The amount that each claimant receives is often not very significant, with the majority of authors receiving between $100-500 annually. Still, a previous study has revealed that this remuneration constitutes the second most important source of income for creators from their creative work.
E-books, however, are not covered by these Lending Rights schemes. This may not be a big issue at the moment, since only 3.5% of library holdings are e-books and most publishers still release books both in print and e-book formats.
But e-book lending is increasing and, according to the Australian Library and Information Association, e-books are likely to reach 20% of library holdings by 2020. Also, most, if not all, self-published titles are done so in digital format only. Such self-published titles, if lent by libraries, would not qualify for any remuneration.
For this reason, authors and publishers have been lobbying the Government to extend the Lending Rights Schemes to e-books. Although the Book Industry Collaborative Council made such proposal already in a report of 2013, nothing has happened of yet.
One of the main reasons why e-books are not covered is that e-book lending is quite different from print book lending. In case of print books, authors and publishers are arguably losing on customers and revenues when libraries loan their books for free.
At present, in the case of e-books, many publishers chose not to sell these books to libraries. Also, publishers assume that libraries will lend e-books to many readers so they often charge libraries three or more times the price that consumers are paying for the same e-books.
While publishers charge libraries high prices for e-books, writers complain that these amounts do not reach them. Publishing contracts often don’t specify whether and how much authors receive for e-books sales or for e-lending.
How other countries deal with this question
This year, a Public Lending Rights scheme was extended to e-books in Canada, with no payments for e-books yet. A few weeks ago, the Court of Justice of the European Union has confirmed that European Lending Rights scheme applies at least to certain e-lending models.
Should Australia follow the trend? Australia’s publishing industry, like the industry worldwide, has been in a decline for a number of years. Despite this, it is still our second largest creative industry and it is of no question that Australian literature is greatly important for local culture and identity.
Government support for this industry, however, has been declining over years. In addition, the Productivity Commission has recommended that the government eliminate the restrictions on parallel imports of books. If the government acts on this, it will likely reduce the income of Australian publishers and authors.
The Commission has suggested that the government replace parallel import restrictions with some other cultural support measures. However, in the current neo-liberal climate, with constant pressure to decrease public expenditure, it is unlikely that government will create additional schemes to support local writing.
One option could be the extension of Lending Rights schemes to e-books. However, extension alone would do little if the current funds under the schemes were merely re-distributed from books to e-books. For effects to be felt, there would need to be increased funding under the schemes.
For some years we have been researching the how, why and wherefore of exhibitions of Australian art. We have tracked down retired curators and art museum directors, recording their memories before they fade.
We have crossed the country to see exhibitions. But most of the time we have been buried in archives and libraries. While large public libraries are excellent for general research, those small specialist libraries attached to state and national art museums are our essential tools of trade.
With the exception of the Edmund and Joanna Capon Research Library at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, these libraries are by appointment only. All the meticulously researched exhibitions of Australian and international art depend on their museum libraries – they track down works of art and tease out ideas from distant publications.
These libraries are our treasure trove. The Art Gallery of New South Wales press cuttings book goes back to the 1890s. There are international art journals dating from the 1890s, invitations to every imaginable exhibition, annual reports from the most unlikely places – as well as transcripts of scandalous court cases.
Most art museum libraries hold material associated with their own collections and exhibitions. Two institutions, however, have made their libraries international research hubs. At the Art Gallery of New South Wales, a succession of librarians have collected archives from Australian artists, curators and institutional records. The renamed National Art Archive is central to the proposed Sydney Modern Project.
For many years its secret weapon has been the head librarian, Steven Miller, the author of scholarly books and erudite blog posts while the visual resources librarian, Eric Riddler, has an uncanny ability to track down obscure archival photographs and identify the protagonists.
At the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra, James Mollison, its first Director, knew that an outstanding research library was an essential tool in positioning the gallery as an international leader. He acted accordingly in funding the library. When he was a young education officer at the National Gallery of Victoria, he had access to the specialist records that have been expanded into the Shaw Research Library, presided over by the ever helpful Luke Doyle.
Thanks to Mollison’s foresight, for almost 40 years the catalogues, books and archives at the National Gallery of Australia have been the envy of those who don’t live in the city. The monetary value is A$37 million, but the worth is much more.
The Chief librarian, Joye Volker, and the senior librarian, Helen Hyland, are both well-known to interstate and international visitors who have have benefited from their detailed knowledge of the collections. Their assistance to researchers has extended to sending digital versions of archives meticulously recorded over many years.
The retired Betty Churcher wrote most of her book, Australian Notebooks (2014), in the library, while Sasha Grishin’s Australian Art: a History (2014) says of Joye Volker and her staff: “It would not have been possible to complete this book without their assistance.”
When the Federal Government announced in September it was eliminating 63 positions from national cultural organisations, both Volker and Hyland were “let go”. With the “natural attrition” from other staff, this means the National Gallery library is now only open four days a week. Tough times mean hard decisions.
But libraries without librarians are just storerooms. Specialist librarians can make apparently tangential leaps and suddenly produce a raft of documents that give answers to questions the researcher is yet to ask.
As well as hard copy resources, when we visited Queensland’s Gallery of Modern Art Research Library Jacklyn Young and Cathy Pemble-Smith gave ready access to digital files and data bases. Specialist research librarians save months of time for hard pressed academic researchers and curators.
At the Art Gallery of South Australia Jin Whittington is surely one of the state’s living treasures with her specialist knowledge and generous spirit, answering constant queries on the finer details of the archive and library. Specialist librarians and archivists are crucial for primary research.
At the recent Art Association of Australia and New Zealand annual conference, the subterranean topic of conversation was the very future of the National Gallery’s library. Budget cuts may lead to its holdings being transferred to the equally under-resourced National Library.
Anthony White, president of the association, which represents art historians, curators and artists, said:
The art-specific knowledge that art librarians provide, as well as their unique expertise in advanced research skills, are indispensable for those historians, critics and curators who are opening new avenues in thinking about global visual cultures that speak to contemporary concerns.
This sorry tale is not unique to art, or even to Canberra. It is a part of the inevitable consequences of a succession of “efficiency dividends” by the Commonwealth Government which is placing public institutions on a diet akin to anorexia.
Joanna Mendelssohn, Associate Professor, Art & Design: UNSW Australia. Editor in Chief, Design and Art of Australia Online, UNSW Australia; Catherine De Lorenzo, Honorary associate professor, UNSW Australia, and Catherine Speck, Professor, Art History;, University of Adelaide
What a wonderful time we live in. Sure, there are always things to lament and probably in this day and age there may be more than in any time in the past. Yet there is still much to be excited about and to be thankful for. It may seem incongruous to both lament the current times, while still being excited and thankful for them. That this is a paradox is a given, but I can live inside it without feeling any contradiction. Now this may all seem a little heavy for late on a Saturday night (in Australia it is approaching 11.00 pm at this moment and is sure to be later when I actually upload this post), however I am not really looking for a philosophical debate – far from it. In fact, my purpose is to talk books.
OK, so that seems a rather strange jumping off point, but I trust it will appear relevant as I move along with my thoughts and develop my argument. You see I have a large library. Indeed, some would call my library massive by today’s ‘average Joe’ standard. I have several thousand traditional hard copy books in my personal library. I probably have close to double that in my digital ebook library. So together I am probably approaching 10 000 books/ebooks and that continues to expand rapidly (in the digital realm anyway, having largely stopped acquiring traditional books). Sure, it is unlikely I’ll come close to reading anywhere near that many books. I view a large percentage of these books as ‘tools,’ into which I mine on a regular basis, not necessarily reading each one cover to cover. A great many books I do read cover to cover and I would expect that somewhere between 10 to 20 percent of my books/ebooks will be read in such a manner should I live to a ripe old age.
So what makes me particularly excited and thankful about this current age in the realm of books/ebooks? Well, it is probably becoming a little clear to the bibliophiles out there and maybe not so much to those who read very little. I have limited physical space in which to store books. Indeed my space for storing books has really been exhausted. I have reached peak book storage in my home. I literally will struggle to find room for any future books here, not to mention any further bookcases/bookshelves. I have no further physical room for them. The exciting thing is that I no longer require the physical space in order to further expand my library. In fact, the fields in which I am able to collect books now has also increased and indeed there are no longer any limits in that respect. I can gather ebooks from any field whatsoever and in whatever numbers I could wish, should I choose to do so. Ebooks can be stored on gadgets of all descriptions, on external hard drives, on computers and even in the cloud. I have an incredible amount of digital storage space at my disposal and I am using it.
However it is more than that. I have a large collection of books from the past. Sure, most of these are reprints of older editions (though I do own old books themselves), yet they are still works from an era long past. I would argue they still have relevance for today and I know many people who would also passionately argue the same thing. So though I have a lot of ‘newer’ books/ebooks in my personal library, it is the older ones that I am most interested in here. I can now easily grab a digital copy of most of the older books I have via places like the Internet Archive and/or even Google Books. Most are available in a number of formats, including PDF and Kindle. So I have this great resource available that I wouldn’t have had before this time in which I live. This is an amazing time to live and I am so thankful that I am able to easily get a digital copy of most of the books I currently own. This is great for backup purposes, for you never know if one day I’ll lose the entire physical library in a fire or some other type of disaster. But more than that, I am able to downsize the physical component of my library, claw back some physical space in the home and yet still have these great books fully available to me and able to be used and utilized in a far greater way, not just in the home but wherever I happen to be via my tablet, phone or lap top. I can be on the top of a mountain in the middle of the wilderness and still have access to thousands of ebooks in my library.
Now for many bibliophiles this is an exciting thing, though many still can’t escape the past and live in the modern world where the smell of an old book or the feel of a physical page isn’t the best thing about the written word. For me, it is all about the value of the content. Sure, I appreciate the appearance, etc, of the ebook/book that I have. But it is the content that reigns supreme for me and now with the added functionality of that content, with its much enhanced usefulness – well, that is far more important to me than these lesser things.
That is still not all of it though. With the Internet Archive and similar sites, I am now able to expand my personal library beyond what I could ever have imagined 20 or so years ago. Now I can get digital copies of books that I never thought I could never get a hold of before. This is probably the most exciting thing of all for me. All of those works written by authors that mean a lot to me, I can now gain access to their entire extant works. I can pretty much gain access to all of the works I want and have them in my own home via the various gadgets the modern world allows me to have. Now that is just incredible! And it just gets easier with each passing day – and better. At some point in the future my own personal library may be greater than that of the entire ancient Library of Alexandria and will take up nowhere near the amount of room that that ancient building in Egypt once occupied. Yeah, this is a wonderful time we live in.
The link below is to an article that looks at 7 ways to organise your books.
The links below are to articles that take a look at cataloging your book/ebook library and various apps that are available to facilitate that.
U.S. institutions of higher education and U.S. local governments are under extraordinary pressure to cut costs and eliminate from institutional or governmental ledgers any expenses whose absence would cause little or no pain.
In this political climate, academic and public libraries may be in danger. The existence of vast amounts of information – a lot of it free – on the Internet might suggest that the library has outlived its usefulness.
But has it? The numbers tell a very different story.
In spite of the findings of a survey in which Americans say they are using public libraries less, the usage numbers reported by libraries indicate the opposite.
Some upward trends
In the last two decades, the total number of U.S. public libraries slightly increased – inching up from 8,921 in 1994 to 9,082 in 2012 (a gain of 2.14 percent). Over the same period, the data also show that use of public libraries in the U.S went up as well.
Here’s what data on circulation (books and other items checked out to library users) and annual visits to public libraries reveal.
The number of books and other items borrowed from U.S. public libraries increased from 6.5 items per capita in 1993 to 8.0 items per capita in 2012 (up 23 percent). Over the same time span, the number of visits to U.S. public libraries rose 22.5 percent.
The one major public library usage measure that did decrease was the number of times library users asked questions of reference librarians, dropping 18 percent from 1993 to 2012.
The popularity of U.S. public libraries is, it seems, at least as strong as it was before the web became a household word (much less a household necessity).
Rise of the e-book
For academic libraries, the data are more mixed. Circulation of physical items (books, DVDs, etc.) in U.S. academic libraries has been on a steady decline throughout the web era, falling 29 percent from 1997 to 2011.
More tellingly, over the same time span and among the same academic libraries, the annual number of circulations (of books, DVDs, etc.) per full-time student dropped from 20 circulations to 10 (down 50 percent).
That fewer books are circulating is hardly a surprise given the vast amount of scholarly information (the bulk of it purchased with academic library budget dollars) that is now available to students via their electronic device of choice.
Electronic scholarly journals have driven their print-format predecessors to obsolescence, if not quite extinction, while e-books have become increasingly plentiful.
In 2012, U.S. academic libraries collectively held 252,599,161 e-books. This means that over the course of about a decade, U.S. academic libraries have acquired e-books equal to about one-fourth the total number of physical books, bound volumes of old journals, government documents and other paper materials acquired by those same libraries since 1638 – the year Harvard College established the first academic library in what is now the United States.
E-books are not only plentiful, they are popular with academic users (in spite of some shortcomings in usability). For example, data provided to the author show that when the University of California, San Diego made a collection of academic e-books available to students and faculty through the popular JSTOR interface, the usage numbers proved impressive.
In just under a year, UCSD students and faculty used 11,992 JSTOR e-books, racking up 59,120 views and 34,258 downloads. In response to user demand, the UCSD Library outright purchased over 3,100 of the titles offered via JSTOR, making those e-books a permanent part of the UCSD library collection.
Who needs the encyclopedia?
As with circulation numbers, reference questions asked of librarians in U.S. academic libraries have undergone a sharp decline – standing now at 56,000,000 per year, down 28.4 percent from 16 years ago. For the 60 largest U.S. academic libraries, the average number of reference transactions dropped from 6,056 per week in 1994 to 1,294 per week in 2012 (down 79 percent).
There’s not much mystery behind the drop in reference transactions. When I first began working as an academic reference librarian in 1990, hardly a day went by when I didn’t put my hands on such reference works as Places Rated Almanac, The Statistical Abstract of the United States and College Catalogs on Microfiche to answer reference questions.
Today, students access information digitally. The Google app on their smartphones allows students to look up information they once would have found only in analog, library-owned reference sources. And as for that old reference warhorse, the printed encyclopedia – Britannica churned out its final set in 2010.
Further contributing to the decline of in-person reference service is the fact that students are increasingly able to consult with academic librarians via the Internet.
By 2012, 77 percent of U.S. academic libraries were offering reference services via email or web chat. Currently, over 400 academic libraries provide around-the-clock, chat-based reference service as members of OCLC’s 24/7 Reference Cooperative, a global library cooperative that provides shared technology services.
Given only the above numbers, the hasty conclusion would seem to be that everything is online and nobody uses academic libraries any more.
But not so fast.
Even while circulation and reference transaction numbers were tanking, the data show a steady increase in the number of people actually setting foot in academic libraries.
The cumulative weekly gate count for the 60 largest U.S. academic libraries increased nearly 39 percent from 2000 to 2012. Library gate count data for all U.S. institutions of higher education show a similar (38 percent) increase from 1998 to 2012.
So if students are not going to the academic library to access print collections or ask reference questions, why are they going at all?
The lure of the academic library
I believe that students are trekking to academic libraries because academic libraries have been actively reinventing themselves to meet the needs of today’s students.
Academic library square footage is increasingly being converted from space to house printed books to space for students to study, collaborate, learn and, yes, socialize.
Besides providing some of the last refuges of quiet in a noisy, distraction-filled world, academic libraries have taken such student-friendly steps as relaxing (or eliminating) longstanding prohibitions on food and drink, providing 24/7 study spaces and generally recreating themselves to be comfortable and friendly rather than cold and forbidding.
Examples of how forward-leaning academic libraries are attracting students include:
The Grand Valley State University Library’s Knowledge Market provides students with peer consultation services for research, writing, public speaking, graphic design, and analyzing quantitative data. Among a number of specialized spaces, the library offers rooms devoted to media preparation, digital collaboration, and presentation practice.
The libraries of North Carolina State University (NCSU) offer Makerspace areas where students get hands-on practice with electronics, 3D printing and scanning, cutting and milling, creating wearables, and connecting objects to the Internet of Things. In addition, NCSU students can visit campus libraries to make use of digital media labs, media production studios, music practice rooms, visualization spaces and presentation rooms, among other specialized spaces.
The Ohio State University Library Research Commons offers not only a Writing Center but also consultation services for copyright, data management plans, funding opportunities and human subjects research. Specialized spaces in the library include conference and project rooms, digital visualization and brainstorming rooms, and colloquia and classroom spaces.
By thinking beyond the book as they reimagine libraries, academic librarians are adding onto and broadening a long learning tradition rather than turning their backs on it. In the words of Sam Demas, college librarian emeritus of Carleton College:
For several generations, academic librarians were primarily preoccupied with the role of their library buildings as portals to information, print and later digital. In recent years, we have reawakened to the fact that libraries are fundamentally about people – how they learn, how they use information and how they participate in the life of a learning community. As a result, we are beginning to design libraries that seek to restore parts of the library’s historic role as an institution of learning, culture and intellectual community.
Any library, public or academic, able to live up to so important a role will never outlive its usefulness.
Information is constantly under attack. The current debate around the longstanding use of vellum (a parchment made using calf skin) for printing key legislative documents highlights the continued concern over this. Some are advocating a switch from vellum to archive paper, which costs much less and can last up to 500 years.
Recorded information is certainly vulnerable: paper and parchment, and the inks and pigments that are written, drawn or painted on their surfaces, can decay and disappear if not stored in controlled environmental conditions.
And digital information is even more susceptible to degradation than that recorded on vellum. Operating systems and information environments change and develop rapidly, and as a result information created and stored on older systems easily can become unusable. It’s by no means certain that the digital information created by our parliament today will still be secure and reliably accessible in 200 years.
Books and manuscripts have been the targets of thieves for millennia. Whole libraries have been destroyed by invading armies and fanatical idealists. Even nature occasionally has played its part – the eruption of Vesuvius in 79AD caused the contents of the Roman library at Herculaneum to become illegible. Libraries and archives have been dealing with these threats for centuries.
But the growth of digital networks as a means of storing and sharing information has created new hazards. Cybersecurity is increasingly a critical concern for modern organisations. All face the potential of hostile attacks on their digital information from cyber-criminals. And as age-old protectors of information, it’s up to libraries and archives to safeguard this knowledge from such assaults.
Libraries and archives have tackled the threats to knowledge with great ingenuity for thousands of years. The archives of Merton College, Oxford, for example, were stored from the 14th century in a building purposefully made of stone, with flooring made from tiles rather than wood to eliminate the threat of fire. And the founders of Oxford’s Bodleian Library in 1602 required all readers to swear an oath that they would not bring the library into harm, for example by pledging not to “kindle therein any fire nor flame”.
Libraries and archives have also been at the forefront of preserving digital information. Groups such as the Digital Preservation Coalition work together to develop the skills and techniques we need as a society to help manage and preserve the vast amounts of information created in digital formats. They have developed disaster recovery routines, back-up strategies, policies and a host of other collaborative arrangements.
Scholarly information is being protected through physical networks of connected computers, such as LOCKSS – an agency built on the proposition that “lots of copies keeps stuff safe”. And non-profit organisations funded by the library and archive communities, such as Portico, have developed large-scale capabilities for preserving books and journals in digital form, with backups in multiple locations.
Personal information is also of great importance to society. Drafts of poems and novels, and the correspondence of politicians and scientists can help shine light on critical areas of history and science. Libraries and archives have always kept files of the letters of philosophers, such as Isaiah Berlin, or the drafts of speeches of Winston Churchill. But the intellectuals and political big-hitters of today are working in digital form, drafting their speeches using word-processing software, and exchanging emails and text messages with each other.
The preservation of this kind of information is much harder than the analogue equivalents. Librarians and archivists have therefore deployed techniques borrowed from fields such as digital forensics to ensure that these records are safeguarded for future generations to learn from.
But in the challenging fiscal environments of the early 21st century – a period hailed by many as the era of information – society runs the risk of endangering its future by neglecting the role of libraries, archives and museums). The global network of libraries and archives has been, and will remain, fundamental to the preservation and propagation of knowledge.
Society ignores the role of libraries and archives at its peril. Last year saw the 800th anniversary of that “great charter of liberties”, Magna Carta. It survives not in one copy but in multiple originals, distributed around the kingdom, as well as numerous later affirmations. Its survival as a potent set of legal and political concepts was in no small measure thanks to the role of libraries and archives in preserving the original documents.
William Blackstone, one of the most important legal theorists ever, was able to look at original engrossments of Magna Carta while writing his influential legal treatises, for example. His books went on to be read by Thomas Jefferson and the other founders of the American constitution.
In more recent times, we need only look at the actions of the army of Republika Srpska in Bosnia-Herzegovina. They deliberately destroyed the national library in Sarajevo as a means of erasing the uncomfortable truths of history – a perverse validation of the democratic significance of libraries.
The costs of maintaining such a system of libraries and archives are trivial compared to the costs of other state initiatives or the revenues of the giant tech companies. But across the globe, the funding of many of these institutions is under severe pressure. In an age of “information overload”, we are in real danger of failing to ensure that succeeding societies have access to the wisdom, and error, of their predecessors.