Monday, January 16, 2012

Libraries - where do they fit?

This week focuses on the history of libraries from the ancient Near East to the present, from archives and records centers to today’s amazing libraries, archives, museums, and historical societies. The textbook takes us on a whirlwind tour of the very first libraries and archives to those in the medieval and renaissance periods. It then jumps to the United States and focuses on the mission of libraries. I’m not certain that the two halves of the chapter go together. They do provide an sense of the evolution of libraries and the materials that are housed within.  Since I teach entire courses on the history of the book and on the history of libraries, it’s not fair for me to emphasize one aspect of the chapter over another.

My overall reaction to the readings is that libraries and archives haven’t changed all that much over the millennia. They still collection the knowledge of the world and make it available to those who come looking. Whether we call the institution library, archive, record center, or museum, it’s all about making the information and the resources available to everyone. In the same manner, you as a librarian and information professional should seek knowledge where you can find it, learn a little about everything. The MLIS is just the start of a life of learning, of seeking, and of sharing information and knowledge wherever you can find it. I’ve said before that librarians should know a little about everything. I think this series of readings about the history and overall mission of libraries reflects that drive, to know or collect a little about everything. As we read on semester, we’ll see that different libraries collect at different depths and breadths, but that’s for next week. As a mantra, let your curiosity rule, learn, explore, read, surf, talk, discuss, and share, most of all think and reflect on what you’ve learned and apply it to the next bit of knowledge.

Want to read more about the library at Alexandria and other libraries in the ancient world? There’s a new book about these ancient and medieval collections. Try Stephen Greenblatt The Swerve. The first three or four chapters talk about a library at Herculaneum and also the Alexandrian Library.  There are other, more scholarly books such as Lionel Casson’s Ancient Libraries. Michael Harris wrote a textbook on the history of libraries from which Dr. Rubin cites many examples. These books and many others discuss not only the libraries but how we know about them.

Now I want to take issue with one of the readings, the one by Melvil Dewey.  The citation at the top of the page says the article is from 1989, but it was written in 1876 in the inaugural issue of Library Journal. You should know that Melvil Dewey died in 1931.  He founded the American Library Association in 1876 and “changed librarianship from a vocation to a modern profession.”[1]There’s a nice biographical sketch of him on OCLC’s website . What I think is most interesting about his speech is that it rings true today as it did in 1876. Libraries and museums have similar overall missions.

Merging or converging libraries, archives, and museums. They can connect art, records, and text. A prime example is the website at the University of Pittsburgh Special Collections where they have linked the Audubon Bird plates with the accompanying text “Ornithological Biography” (See the link on the right side of the page) . For the first time, this library connected the images with the extensive text, all in a digital environment. Scientists, biologists, historians, environmentalist, and other researchers can study the two texts together. They were published separately due to British copyright and deposit laws of the early 1800s; a story for another day perhaps.  

This interconnectedness is a perfect example of what the web can do for scholars. It brings disjunct and discrete collections together into one virtual place for study. Just like this class, we are all separated by distance and yet, together in the virtual ‘classroom’.

It is important to consider the evolving nature of libraries, archives, and museums, and historical societies for that matter. Where do they all fit within the world of cultural institutions? How will librarians and information scientists work within these institutions? Most importantly, what future can we create that keeps us relevant for our patrons? I don’t have the answers to these weighty questions. I’m not the person who will change the world of cultural institutions. I’m a person who navigates the sea of information and makes sense of it. That’s my role as a librarian and educator.  What do you see as your role?

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