FYI: Libraries Are Changing

Recently, I went to the Hartford Public Library.  I was there with my wife picking up a book that I needed for a group project in my Public History Seminar.  When I walked into the main lobby, it was buzzing with people.  I was impressed.  I thought that it was amazing that so many people were utilizing the library on a Wednesday afternoon.  Once I walked passed the lobby into the stacks, it was dead.

Being a frequent stack surfer, I was able to use the Dewey to quickly locate the necessary book and shuffle back through the lobby, where I noticed most people using computers for various research needs and social networking sites.  Here is the choice that I have to make.  Am I an elitist who looks down on people for not using the wealth of knowledge in the stacks of the library?  Or, am I a person that is going to recognize that just like every other facet of our worlds (academic or otherwise) the library is changing.

Let’s be real.  People who are still clinging to analogue mediums and not embracing the digital will fall to the wayside.  Take for instance Michael Jon Jensen’s Keynote Speech at the Biannual Meeting of the Illinois Association of College and Research Libraries on March 30, 2006.  In his speech, Jensen lays out how scholarship has evolved with the development of new media and technologies and the groups (i.e. libraries, publication houses) that don’t adapt to the changes they could be left in the dust or worse, totally lost.  Lost in a sense where users will not be able to locate your material quickly and efficiently via the web.

Of course, you can talk as much as you want about creating more efficient ways of accessing archives and reference materials, but the trick is creating and characterizing digital files.  From experience, this is typically not an easy task. If the images are not born digital, then the source (article, manuscript, poster, political cartoon, object, landscape, etc) either has to be scanned or photographed using a digital camera depending on the source.  This is the easiest part.  Next, you have to apply metadata in various forms so that others can search, identify, view, and interact with the source.

The fact is research is changing and if archivists, scholars, and researchers do not step up and set standards in the digital medium, their expertise and collections will be lost.  No one will know what materials are available to them.  Already, we see this happening.  Ask almost any college student and they will tell you that they first place they go for reference is the net.  As a high school teacher, I know that the first, and many times only, place I go to for primary sources is the internet.  Why? Its fast, free, and accessible.   How many people, especially Mr. and Mrs. Everyman, are able to get to a library or Historical Society during business hours?

Although there are some disadvantages to digital media, one of which being potential cost in equipment and man hours, I believe that the advantages outweigh the disadvantages.  One of the biggest advantages being increased access to materials displayed online.

Honestly, this blog post could go on and on about advantages and disadvantages of digital media, but it really doesn’t have to.  Here is the bottom line.  Libraries and archives are going digital.  This is great because increased access to information best suits our democratic society.  From what I gather there was a time in the digital humanities debate accessing whether or not we should digitize, what can be digitized and by whom.  Now, archivists, scholars, librarians, are working to define their role in this rapidly changing climate.  Although the medium people utilize to access source materials is changing, there is one thing in the library that will stay true.  Librarians and archivists will still serve the community.  They may serve a more diverse audience than ever before, but they will still hold an important place in the scholarly process.

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