Andrea/Cara here, I am under the gun today, so am invoking the occasionally used Wench Privilege of posting an oldies but goodie. As I've been thinking a lot about research and libraries, I've picked one that talks about what, exactly, IS a library's function these day:
I recently attended a lecture on the role of a library in today’s world. The first slide was a big graphic that said, “Myth #1: Library = Books” The speaker—having gotten everyone’s attention—went on to explain how in our fast-changing (as in blink of an eye) society, how we preserve knowledge, and how we use the material that we save, is radically changing as well.
The examples were fascinating—and inspiring. We were shown that collections now often include art and objects as well as the traditional books and manuscripts. Examples ranged from paper dresses from the ‘60s, ancient clay tablets of the first written books, medieval playing cards . . . even a collection of brains! (Okay, it was a university lecture, so I doubt your local branch as jars of pickled gray matter stuffed in the closet.) The talk also highlighted the excitement and the challenges of preserving digital material. One of the things librarians have to think about is how, with all the rapidly changing technology, to make sure they have the devices that can access different obsolete formats. (This library has a storage room full of old tape decks, Betamaxes, VRCs, etc. that they often have to purchase from e-bay.)
Another really interesting aspect of the talk was how librarians are using high tech data mining techniques to create something they call “digital humanities,” which allow researchers to use techniques usually associated with science/economics to explore other disciplines. The example shown was a computer analysis of the most common words used in Vogue magazine over the last one hundred years. The result were then made into a graphic image of the words, and from that researchers could learn important things about the cultural shifts of the times. In the late 1800s-early 1900’s some of the most common words were “Mrs., Miss, party and velvet”—which signaled that the magazine was a society magazine. In the 1950s, the common words “dress, white, hat” signaled it was a fashion magazine. And in the ‘70s, words like “breast cancer, body, health” signal a new concern with women’s health issues. Other uses include analyzing medieval texts to help read damaged manuscripts.
That a library is not just a quiet place filled with shelves of printed books anymore is something I also see closer to home. I just opened this month’s newsletter from my local library (send by e-mail, of course) and the schedule of what’s going on is really impressive. There are of course the traditional author lectures and book clubs. But also on offer are a craft salon, a chess day, hands-on internet training for seniors, a “Lord of the Rings” mystery night for kids with a treasure hunt through the stacks, skype “virtual” tours of a museum with the head curator, a family day celebration of Chinese cultural, a film on the Vietnam war, an art exhibit . . . and the list goes on and on.
Now, I’ve read a number of articles asking whether libraries are obsolete in this day of the internet. But every time I stop by at my local branches (we are lucky enough to have three in my town) the parking lot is full, and the place is hopping with people on the town computers, teens in the study rooms, toddlers enjoying a story hour . . . and yes, people just browsing the shelves for a good book. It really makes me smile.
How about you? Have you noticed a change in mission at your local library? Are you happy with the concept of a library being about so much more than books? If you had a magic wand (and an unlimited budget) what other activities or focus would you add to your own local library?