The Special Challenges for National Libraries

By Breeding, Marshall | Computers in Libraries, June 2011 | Go to article overview

The Special Challenges for National Libraries


Breeding, Marshall, Computers in Libraries


In my experience with many different kinds of libraries, I have found that national libraries perform some of the most interesting, important, and challenging roles and likewise are involved in some of the most fascinating uses of automation and technology. I've had the opportunity to visit a few, including those in Colombia, Argentina, Sweden, Denmark, Slovenia, Austria, and Taiwan, as well as The British Library and the Library of Congress (LC). And I hope to add to the list. My exposure to these libraries has sparked an appreciation for the incredibly difficult tasks associated with building, preserving, and enabling access to collections at a national level and with providing relevant services throughout a nation. While each library has its own distinct character and scope of responsibilities, there is much they have in common. For example, on the technology front, these libraries make use of some of the most sophisticated automation systems available, and this benefits all types of libraries. I believe that almost all libraries derive some level of benefit, either direct or indirect, from the efforts of national libraries.

Inspiring Architecture

In my travels, I always look forward to touring the facilities of national libraries. These buildings are some of the most incredible and impressive examples of architecture in a city. Each building has its own distinctive style and character, but those that I have experienced offer inspiring places for the public to read and learn and for staff members to fulfill their tasks. I observe that these libraries almost always face a tension between old and new. Most of these buildings were originally designed and built long ago, but they must now find ways to accommodate current-day technologies. The Royal Library in Denmark, in which the modern architecture of the Black Diamond building is tethered to the original King's Library, exemplifies this creative tension.

Operating at the National Level

Managing a library collection at the national level follows quite a different set of assumptions than hold for typical academic or public libraries. These collections, often comprehensive of all materials published in a country, press the limits of scale in terms of the sizes of collections. A national library collection might, for example, stand as the definitive collection of the literature of a given ethnic group, language, or other slice of international culture within its geographic boundaries.

While other libraries follow selection criteria to build their circulating or research collections, most national libraries aim to collect all published materials. Compared to public libraries that acquire a selection of materials to form a circulating collection to meet the interests of their current users, national libraries build comprehensive collections of cultural heritage in the interests of posterity as well as for current researchers.

These collections also span a full range of material types--from manuscripts to books, periodicals, physical artifacts, film, and, in recent decades, increasing proportions of digitized representations of traditional materials and born-digital content such as web archives, digital audio and video, and electronic public records. New forms of media and technology have produced an array of content that adds considerably to the complexity of building collections of national significance.

National Treasures

On my visits to national libraries, my hosts are often keen to show some of the most ancient and valuable treasures of their collections. These objects include the writings of the most important literary figures in the country's history, as well as the earliest examples of written language or of the first printed works. While I'm not a historian or a connoisseur of antiquities, even I can appreciate the incredible significance of these rare and ancient specimens that reside within these national collections. …

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