Academic journal article Informing Science: the International Journal of an Emerging Transdiscipline

Library as a Verb: Technological Change and the Obsolescence of Place in Research

Academic journal article Informing Science: the International Journal of an Emerging Transdiscipline

Library as a Verb: Technological Change and the Obsolescence of Place in Research

Article excerpt


There has been a tendency for at least the past ten years to talk about the disappearance or obsolescence of the academic library as an institution. Many of these gloom-laden prognostications are tied to the drastic acceleration of technological change in the past two decades--specifically, how this has spurred equally big shifts in research. Historically, libraries were easy to define as a place alone. As Michael Lapidge states in his history of Anglo-Saxon England, libraries at one point were "simply a collection of books ... acquired and arranged for the purposes of study and the pursuit of knowledge" (2006, p. 1). If we try to argue for the continued usefulness of libraries on this idea alone, it is clear to see where the doom talk is coming from.

In the past five or six years, however, librarians and other interested parties have begun to more openly question whether the library is on the brink of extinction at all. Librarians are quick to draw attention to the fact that the place or space a library occupies physically does not make up its entire existence. Recent studies also note that forecasts of declining print usage from the beginning of the online information boom have not borne out: access to digital-only resources has, in fact, increased print usage. The academic library, far from being obliterated by the Internet and other access-anywhere sources of information, is bolstered by them.

Where We Are Today

It is not my intent in this paper to argue for or against the obsolescence of the academic library as a physical place or an institution--although I do not think either is going away any time soon. Instead, I want to examine the underlying assumptions of arguments on both sides of the debate, and of those who take a neutral position or seek to side-step the issue altogether, and whether, given the proliferation of digital information, rising informational literacy, and the steadily lowering costs of always-connected devices, it makes sense to identify the physical location of an academic library with its status as an institution.

Sennyey, Ross, and Mills, in a 2009 article exploring the future of the academic library, point out that the word "library" does not have a single, unambiguous meaning. They pull three definitions from the Oxford English Dictionary, and use them to argue that the word can refer either to the library as place, the library as collection, or the library staff (Sennyey, Ross, & Mills, 2009, p. 252). Upon reviewing the literature, it becomes apparent that most authors make no such distinctions. The main arguments for or against the death of the academic library are underpinned by an assumption that the institution and its location are inseparable. In general, these arguments fall into one of three camps, which I will label the "moderate," the "radical," and the "conservative."

Moderate Positions

The vast majority of articles which discuss library obsolescence are moderate--or, perhaps, pragmatic. They posit that libraries are not obsolete, and are unlikely to become so, but that patrons are likely to visit for various reasons. Consequently, the kinds of services and spaces available in libraries need to be reconfigured. Most of these changes are technological in nature: computer labs are the most common addition, but "socially oriented" services such as group study areas, cafes, and other places for communal education also feature. Moderate authors generally see a need to move from in-person services to online models in conjunction with a shift in the types of in-person services offered.

In general, moderates believe that "libraries need to change and ... that change must address our approach to our work, the work itself, and how we organize ourselves to respond to our customers' expectations" (Stoffle, Leeder, & Sykes-Casavant, 2008, p. 4). Specifically, these responses deal with the need for changing what buildings are used for, often with the expectation that print collections will be replaced "with areas designed not just for machines but also for people, and more specifically for collaborative learning" (Stoffle, Leeder, & Sykes-Casavant, 2008, p. …

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