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Are libraries vanishing?

Librarians in the Third World who have access to American library periodicals may be puzzled by the defeatist streak that is growing ever wider through it. While Third World librarians are remarkably optimistic about their work and institutions, despite the wretched financial conditions that apply in their countries, American (and to some extent other Western) librarians appear to be giving up on their profession. More and more I find the view expressed here that libraries “as we know them” (the only kind there is, I suppose) are being replaced, or will shortly be replaced—the year 2000 is a convenient marker—by computerized information networks, by constructs called “virtual libraries.” Albert Gore, our estimable US Vice‑President, is perhaps the non‑librarian with the most clarion voice in this movement, through his promotion of the so‑called information highway. That highway, as I understand it, will be a nationwide linkage of databases and computer terminals and electronic communications, providing all citizens with interactive access to all desired information. Libraries (not even virtual specimens) were not in Mr. Gore’s original vision, although librarians have been trying to squeeze into it by patching themselves into government proposals.

Even before the information highway focused the attention of librarians, many of them had abandoned their profession in favor of a new one with the trendy name “information science.” From the mid‑1960s, information science began appearing in journal titles, encyclopedias, textbooks, and the names of library schools. (The authors of articles in those journals and encyclopedias, and the teachers in the schools, looked very much like librarians.) Now a fresh generation of students has come to accept this new name for their field, and to tolerate “library science” only with the new designation as a conjunct: “library and information science.” So in a sense libraries have already vanished in the United States, for that which has no name cannot be talked about and scarcely thought about. There are only the leftovers—books, buildings, staff—to be disposed of; then we will be ready to glide down the highway as fully virtual information scientists.

This paradigm, widely accepted as it seems in America, is not without its troubling aspects. One nuisance about it is that the old book‑stuffed library is not shrinking, as a convenient prerequisite to disappearance, but indeed growing. In the US, the number of university libraries with more than 3 million volumes (printed books) has grown from 20 to 33 in the last ten years. All major public library collections, as reported annually in the World Almanac, are growing briskly as well; only four had 3 million volumes in 1983, but in 1993 there were eight. Services are also showing quantitative increase: public library circulation has grown 48% since 1980. More than a billion books are circulated from public libraries each year, and more than half a billion reference questions are asked. Academic library expenditures have doubled in ten years, and public library expenditures grew 150%. New library buildings are ever appearing: it still takes a whole issue of Library Journal to tour them all each year. &$40;No directory of virtual libraries has materialized.) Publishing of printed books continues to flourish in the US, where the industry sales have surpassed $17 billion per year, and Americans are buying 5 million books a day. The panorama is one of prosperity and growth for the traditional library and traditional book.

Another problem with the defeatist view of the old library and old library science is on the theoretical level. It is difficult to support the idea that the original discipline—library science or librarianship—has changed or is changing into a new discipline by the name of information science. Disciplines do not change into new ones, after all; they are modified, take on new components, drop old components. Librarianship has been doing that for centuries, and so have other social sciences. At the core of what librarians do, and what libraries have, there remain the fundamental arts of selection, provision of access to materials, and service to users. It is the fringe areas of a science that, intersecting with the fringe of another, lead to formation of a new discipline; two basic sciences remain much as they were. Computer science intersects some elements of library science, and it may be convenient to name the overlap area “information science.” But then the expression “library and information science” is redundant (as it would be to say “computer and information science”). A computer application is often helpful (often detrimental) in the exercise of the ancient library arts of selection, organization, and service. Librarians, as always, have to decide on which tools will result in the best results with least effort and expense.

As a library educator myself, I am disheartened to read the comments of many colleagues regarding the state of our profession. A recent issue of Library Journal offered an anthology of nebulous, defeatist statements. One library school dean said that “if we focus as ‘library schools,’ on the library, then we are tied to an institution that is changing and that could disappear.” Another expressed an approach to recruitment of students “of a different type, who wouldn’t think of entering a library and information science program because they have the traditional view of what it’s all about.” Still another dean found himself totally uprooted, so far as I can tell: he said that an institution—like a library—cannot be the basis for a discipline, and cited the lack of a “jailhouse science” and a “hospital science.” By now he has perhaps thought better of his remarks, realizing that the actual name of the institution does not necessarily appear in the discipline relative to it.

My message to librarians in developing countries, where the day’s work is too demanding for the leisure of professional deconstruction to take hold, is that not all of us in the West are undergoing virtual transformation. A young voice in the new American Libraries, responding to the doom of a library school dean who had written about “the death of library education,” may be the best expression of our deeper optimism. Let me quote her in conclusion: [1]

Increasingly, I have joined in discussions about the potential obsolescence of librarianship. Several students stated that librarians would be obsolete in 20 years because of the virtual library. Can one envision law students or MBA students debating the future of their professions? The virtual world will affect these professions as well, but they are not running scared. They will not let themselves become obsolete. Librarians should have the same mentality.

This uncertainty represents only one of the doubts that I have confronted. I have concluded that such problems do not rest within the field of librarianship, but with librarians as individuals. The self‑doubt that so many librarians have historically maintained must cease. Respect must be fostered first within the profession and then outside the profession.

Like other graduates of other programs, I want to be proud of my profession. I want to grasp my diploma on graduation day and be filled with visions of a full and promising future. I remain convinced that librarianship is filled with boundless opportunities. I hope all librarians will unite and make this contention universal.

G. A. M.

Editor’s note: The article and the reader’s letter from American Libraries to which this editorial refers are as follows:
1) Boyce, Bert. “The Death of Library Education.” American Libraries Vol. 25, Issue 3 (March 1994): p. 257‑259.
2) Reynolds, Patricia. “Reader Forum: Face the future with confidence” American Libraries Vol. 25, Issue 5 (May 1994): p. 395.

© 1994 Dominican University


“Editorially Speaking” Third World Libraries, Volume 4, Number 2 (Fall 1994).

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