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Do we really need libraries?


That question was the headline of a recent piece by NPR correspondent Linton Weeks, who looked back at the library-building legacy of 19th century industrialist Andrew Carnegie while noting the high cost of maintaining such “grandiloquent cathedrals” and “little Louvres for the intellect” through their second century of operation.

The question initially seems fair in an age when so much of the information once available almost exclusively through libraries now is merely a few taps or clicks away for anyone with an Internet connection.

Understanding the answer—of course we need libraries—requires us to do what librarians around the world have been encouraging for at least quarter of a century: abandon the outdated notion of the library as a big building full of loaner books. Providing communities with reading material is only a relatively recent part of libraries’ historic role. The core mission, the preservation of civilizations’ identities, is much older.

Access once reserved only for the few.

122402932-136672-editedHuman societies have been building and maintaining libraries for thousands of years. The Library of Alexandria is the most famous in history, and was probably the largest library of both the Greco-Roman period and the ancient world in general, but ancient China and the early Islamic world also featured equally impressive libraries. All these early libraries had a powerful economic impetus to exist: written records of information were all created by hand, and were therefore both expensive and labor intensive to produce. Precious and difficult to replace, libraries were secure repositories for their safe keeping.

For that reason, many libraries, particularly those of medieval Europe, limited their holdings to “important” works of scholarship or religious treatises and restricted access to them. A mostly illiterate population that was accustomed to learning through oral and visual communication correctly regarded books as the exclusive preserve of learned scholars, who were mostly members of religious communities.

First printing press, then Internet, widens access to human knowledge.

It was only after the invention of the printing press in the late Middle Ages made the creation and duplication of books economically feasible that general literacy began to increase and to create a demand for what we think of today as a “library,” with an increasing emphasis on providing public access to their collections. That form of the institution perhaps reached its apotheosis in the early to mid-20th century, in the generation after Carnegie’s philanthropic efforts in the United States established an ideal that was emulated worldwide.

With the Internet’s arrival as a mainstream information conduit in the 1990s, books and other printed media became less central to the dissemination of knowledge. Libraries evolved accordingly, offering public Internet access and digitizing unique assets in their collections to make them accessible to library patrons elsewhere. Even as modern libraries have adapted to the shift away from physical forms of information storage, however, the digital media that have partially supplanted them have revealed a critical weakness.

From dry rot to link rot.

Websites and the files they host may not fall prey to dry rot or risk being pillaged by barbarians, as their ancient counterparts did, but they are far from being indestructible. Without active preservation, usually in the form of web archiving initiatives, these new media and the information they contain sometimes last only a few months (or even weeks) before vanishing from the public eye.

Not surprisingly, it is libraries that have led the web archiving charge, helping to save these online publications for future generations. The many library organizations that have risen to this challenge can savor some irony—the very technology that some believed would make libraries obsolete or irrelevant has instead helped to renew their initial purpose: preservation.

Thousands of years into our shared story, libraries remain our civilization’s most crucial portals to all of humanity’s accumulated knowledge. Librarians will continue to ensure that knowledge is recorded and saved for the future, even as the technologies that underpin their efforts change with the centuries.

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