On the Importance of Academic Libraries

(NOTE: Here’s a piece I wrote a few months ago that seems particularly relevant to me recently. Note that it’s focused on the academic side of libraries, not the public side. I’d intended to post it on the blog a while ago, and I forgot to. But now seems like a wonderful time to highlight my current views on the role of the academic library. This is a bit more high brow than my usual posts, and I spent a bit longer thinking it through. I’d love to hear what your views of libraries are. It’s an important discussion, and it needs to happen in an open forum. Anyway. Enough with the note–on with the post!)

Academic libraries stand at an important crossroads. Even as collection sizes increase with electronic materials, the popular perception of the need for organization has decreased over the past decade, as more and more people simply assume they can google whatever information they need. While internet search engines are powerful, they are no replacement for a well-maintained library catalog.

It’s ironic in many ways that in this age of technology, with so many advancements popping up every day, popular consensus should be that libraries are on the brink of death. As I go to national library conferences and read about innovations in the field, I see the exact opposite: there’s more need for libraries now than ever before. But how do you convince a populace that a commonly held belief is wrong?

I am an enemy of the status quo, especially in libraries today. The status quo is the mindset that the average citizen has of libraries. Horn-rimmed glasses and hair buns. The status quo is a building bursting with dusty books. When I attend community meetings or hear about the struggles libraries face for renewed funding, I sometimes feel like Ebenezer Scrooge as the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come points a bony finger at my grave. If we persist in letting others define what we are, that’s the future that awaits us.

To combat these ideas, libraries have started trying to explore new territory. Add video games to the collection. Highlight game nights at the library. Transform from a building of books into a community center. I disagree with this approach. Not with libraries being fun and inviting—but with trying to be something we’re not.

We don’t need to convince our patrons that libraries are fun places to hang out. There are plenty of spots for that on campus. We need to convince them they’re essential. That their research can’t possibly be complete with our services. The good news is that this is the truth. We are essential. But the definition of “library” means so much more than books today. It means databases, technologies, and programs. Websites and subject guides. Once we get our patrons to understand that they don’t need to be in a library to be using the library, we’re halfway there.

I have overheard students (and sometimes faculty) bragging about how long it’s been since they set foot in the library, and it’s here where libraries need to focus their efforts. Because when you haven’t come to the library in years, then you can’t possibly understand what libraries have to offer.

So we need to reach out on an individual and group level, making personal connections to students and faculty. Libraries exist to connect researchers with their research. People need to understand that most of the research they perform is available because of the contracts and databases that the library has performed on their behalf. Libraries aren’t buildings full of books. They’re collections of information.

The key, then, is to be sure you have the information your patrons need. Know what students are studying. What classes faculty are teaching, or what research they’re performing, and tailor your collection to those specific needs. A fantastic library at one institution could be a terrible library at another. A successful library rests on the strengths of its collections, both print and digital. It changes and adapts with the times, just as colleges and universities change and adapt. It has current information where current information is needed, historical perspective where that’s necessary.

Ideally, libraries aren’t the ones who make the case that they ought to exist. The ones who argue that should be our patrons. If a student (or faculty member) brags about how he’s never stepped foot in our building, his audience should greet that boast with shocked dismay, not a knowing nod and a wink.

In my spare time, I write young adult fantasy novels. One of the core principles of storytelling is “show don’t tell.” It’s one thing to tell your audience something. They’ll generally take your statement at face value, but it won’t change them. It won’t stay with them. Tell your reader that a character is heroic, and they’ll shrug and nod. Show them being heroic, and they’ll root for your character till the very end.

Libraries don’t need to tell our patrons we’re important. That won’t really convince them. We need to show them we’re important, and we do that by being the best collection of information and knowledge we can be. As we do that—and make sure we’re seen doing that—I believe the time will come when the cries for the end of libraries will cease, as more and more people begin to understand that the Information Age wasn’t the end for our field. It was the beginning.

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