What is a library?

To me, a library is:

  • a set of items;
  • selected for a particular reason;

Historically, the reason why certain items would be selected for a library was that they were considered to be “the best reading” (Wiegand, 1999, p. 5) for the communities served by the library. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, librarians perceived “the best reading” to be a mandate to “elevate the popular taste” (p. 9); today, I would assert that best does not mean imposing a moral judgment on the content but instead reflects an emphasis on providing the best coverage of a particular area or issue within a collection.

  • and which are available to a particular community.

Although Buckland (2003) rightfully points out that communities are comprised of many different sub-communities, my point here that the resources within a library are meant to be used, and used communally.

In other words, librarianship means:

  • curating purposefully, based on an understanding of those served by the library and what they need.
  • Ensuring access. Unlike the earliest libraries, libraries today are not storehouses. Users need to have ways of knowing what is in a collection, and how to get access, whether through a catalog, finding aids, or other resources.
  • Because the resources within a library are shared, librarianship involves responsible stewardship of resources, both fiscally and in terms of security and preservation.

What do you think?

Sources:

Buckland, M.K. (Spring 2003). Five grand challenges for library research. Library Trends, 51(4), p. 675-686.
Wiegand, W.A. (January 1999). Tunnel vision and blind spots. Library Quarterly, 69(1), p. 1-32.

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4 thoughts on “What is a library?

  1. In general, a library is a collection of items and resources that one can access to. Due to the advance technology, libraries are going onto a more virtual platform. In that case, Farkas’s blog about skills for the 21st Century Librarian is an excellent source to view what librarianship is all about for the current field of work:

    Basic Technology Competencies
    -ability to adapt change
    -comfort in the online medium
    -ability to troubleshoot new technologies
    -ability to easily learn new technologies
    -ability to keep up with the new technology and librarianship

    Higher Level Competencies
    -project management skills
    -ability to question and evaluate library services
    -ability to evaluate the need of all stakeholders
    -ability to translate traditional library services to the online medium
    -critical of technology and the ability to compare technologies
    -ability to sell ideas/library services

    It’s a system of both worlds now, the traditional library concept, and an online platform. Any collection of materials is a ‘library’. It’s just a way of organizing, storing, and retrieving that information that it is a challenge for the librarians.

  2. I, too, thought Farkas had valuable insight to share. Technology is incredibly important to librarianship today, because it is how librarians can help patrons get access to the collections. Basically, a set of items that people are unable to access, navigate, or use meaningfully has lost much of its value. It’s just a pile of stuff.

  3. Yes, technology is an incredibly important aspect to librarianship today, but as Buckland points out, “library services should be user-centered rather than data-centered.” In traditional libraries, collection policies resulted in focused collections within libraries. To today’s user, there is little to no coherence in libraries and library collections. The average user faces much greater information needs in today’s digital realm. While access is greater in the digital age, librarians have to now assist users in the traditional librarian sense as well as educate the public on how to navigate digital resources as well. Yes technology is assisting patrons gain access to collections, but to much access and too much information is leading to patrons not being able to access meaningful, relevant information as well.

    • Not just too much access and too much information, but also poorly designed and/or populated access structures place undue burdens on patrons. In my earlier reply when I mentioned technology being how librarians can help users get access to a collection, I was thinking of library catalogs. By and large, people use an online interface to search a catalog these days. If the interface isn’t designed to take advantage of the metadata, or if the materials were inadequately cataloged to begin with, even the best interface in the world won’t be able to help you or your patrons. Technology is just a tool.

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