Library As "Clinic Of The Soul"

The NYTimes ran an interesting piece over the weekend discussing the reinvention of libraries.

[T]he principal danger facing libraries comes ... from ill-considered changes that may cause libraries to lose their defining triple role: as preservers of the memory of our society, as providers of the accounts of our experience and the tools to navigate them — and as symbols of our identity. In the United States, while the number of libraries that have disappeared is not remarkably high, public libraries have seen their budgets cut, their stocks culled, their staffs reduced and their opening hours shortened.

Librarians today are forced to take on a variety of functions that their society is too miserly or contemptuous to fulfill, and the use of their scant resources to meet those essential social obligations diminishes their funds for buying new books and other materials. All these activities are good and useful, and may grant libraries a central role in society once again, but we must be prepared to invest the system with more, not less funds, to allow it to reinvent itself. Librarians are not trained to act as social workers, caregivers, babysitters or medical advisers. All these extra tasks make it difficult, if not impossible, for librarians to work as librarians: to see that the collections remain coherent, to sift through catalogues, to help readers read, to read themselves.

Any restructuring must also ensure that the librarians’ primary purpose is not forgotten: to guide readers to their books.

I mostly agree with the author's assessment, but instead of guiding readers to their books, we might broaden the primary purpose of librarians as guiding users to their information. This reinvents the role of librarians in a society where books are providing diminishing returns.

There was a time earlier this year when I grew tired of defending the library. I was fatigued at being attacked at all sides with the question of "why do we need libraries when everything is online" and budget constraints. But then I realized that it says something very negative about a group that doesn't find any value in libraries - especially at an academic institution. No one can truly call themselves academics without the resources of a robust library to store the knowledge necessary for academic scholarship.

With this realization, the feeling of being compelled to defend the library went away. The library will always hold intrinsic value, and if I find myself feeling the need to defend the library to someone, it says more about that person than it does about the library.


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