Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Whither the Research Library?

I am an archivist and I have a library degree. I started my professional career at an archives that contained mostly paper records. I am now an archivist who deals with electronic records. When I saw this link on Random Knowledge, which led to this article in the New York Review of Books, I thought it would make a good post.

The article in the NYRB starts out:
Information is exploding so furiously around us and information technology is changing at such bewildering speed that we face a fundamental problem: How to orient ourselves in the new landscape? What, for example, will become of research libraries in the face of technological marvels such as Google?
I have a friend who is very big on the Web 2.0 tools and there is certainly a facet to all of those applications / platforms / tools that might certainly contribute to the downfall of research libraries.

Back in the "dark ages" when I was getting my library degree, I took a class on reference. One of the classes focused on the use of online resources. Now there are multiple courses in the degree program that deal with online information and retrieval.

When I took my first job in archives, there were two computers (out of approximately 25 for a staff of about 30) that were connected to the Internet - and that was through a dialup connection to the University's servers. Nothing like loading a webpage (in 1994) and getting "[image]" and the text of the page (DOS browsers anyone?)

As mentioned before, I now work primarily with electronic records, having come from previous positions as a paper archivist. The electronic records program at my current employer has been around for more than 35 years and the need for preservation of electronic records is only becoming more and more important as the records continue to be generated in a variety of formats (Presidential email, anyone?)

The article mentions blogs, stating that "more than a million blogs have emerged during the last few years." Blogs are an electronic records as well. How are we preserving them? Where's the archive for them? I have recently been going back over my posts (more than 500 of them) checking them, retagging some, deleting some tags, checking hot links.

The problem here is, as the author points out, "Information has never been stable." There are still no lack of places that a researcher can go to look at information, but is it becoming easier to sit around in your underwear and Google the information you seek?

It is sort of the way I feel about newspapers. While I receive the RSS feeds for two newspapers that publish in areas where I used to live, I still like to READ the Washington Post everyday. I like the feel of actual paper in my hands. Mrs. BA is content to read the paper online, but I don't get the same out of that experience. Plus no funnies.

I used to work in a public library (long ago and far away). I was a page, and one of my responsibilities was periodically retrieving old magazines from the stacks downstairs based on a reference request from a patron. I also used to shelve books (you remember books, right? Hard things, paper inside, words on the paper?) and shelf read the library shelves (Hey, don't laugh, it was mind numbing, but you didn't necessarily get yelled at if you fell asleep).

The author of the article (nor am I prepared to) makes no stunning pronouncements. And yet, the question is out there. What will happen to the world's research libraries if we move toward an environment where everything is available online? Would all of the world's archives become like that dusty room where I used to fish out old issues of Consumer Reports? Let's hope not or we are all going to be in a lot of trouble.

I look forward to hearing your comments on this intriguing topic.


ScottE. said...

My gut tells me nothing will replace true, tangible, important and historical materials. I can read The Charters all I want when I'm online, but when I really really need to connect with those documents, we have a place to go for that. Nothing will replace that. At least for the truly important stuff.

Then again, I was sort of a late adopter to the web and all its what do I know.

Lana Gramlich said...

Perhaps the web has the potential to become a global library, but as past computer crashes have shown (me, personally,) there is greater value in preserving the "hard copy." Not to mention that much of the internet is total dross. Google is only a valuable tool to those of us who really know how to use it (& Boolean searching.)
Yes, maybe there are a million new blogs, but how many are updated regularly? How many are worth archiving (& who would make that decision)?
Sometimes I believe that if the internet was scrubbed of outdated links/groups/information/pages, etc., it'd be a far leaner internet, indeed.
I remember thinking the internet was going to be the end of libraries, but it hasn't happened yet. After all, libraries offer human services (i.e.; kids' presentations, writers/readers groups, reference aid, etc.,) that the internet can't provide (at least not in the same way.)

Anonymous said...

Hi, I'm Amy (in Ohio)'s friend, and also currently a SLIS student. We have been debating this very topic in various classes. (And alas, have no conclusions.) I'm all for Library 2.0, but I think paper will always have a place. I currently work in a historical society library where paper rules, but people also find that online sources are helpful in pointing them to the originals--which is what they really want. I have also talked to corporate librarians who deal almost exclusively in online archives, journals, and databases. Even with extremes on both ends, I hope we see a nice hybrid of libraries.

stinkypaw said...

I think there will always be a place for paper, books and such and sure do hope so, because like you I like the feel of paper and love the smell of books. I don't get that here :-(

Sorry not really the type of answer you probably wanted, but it's late...

Brave Astronaut said...

I find in interesting that the none of the comments are from my friends and readers who do the same sort of work that I do.

Cat - welcome to the reading list. You should tell your professor to get out here on the blogosphere and keep the discussion going! And get Amy enrolled with you already!