Are Libraries Becoming Obsolete? A Decade Retrospective

Libraries, from medieval to modern (Old Library at St. John's Cambridge and Touro Kew Garden Hills)
More computers, less vellum: Libraries from medieval to modern (Old Library at St. John’s Cambridge and Touro Kew Garden Hills)

The other day, our Information Literacy Service Director, Sara Tabaei,  approached me about updating an article I had written in 2005 entitled: “Are Libraries Becoming Obsolete?” I agreed and thought it would be a good idea to revisit the topic and reflect over whether my initial thoughts still held.  Much of my discussion in the article was based upon a lecture by Dr. Thomas Suprenant on this very topic, which he delivered for our Faculty Development Day in spring 2005. Currently, Dr. Suprenant is a professor at Queens College/CUNY’s Graduate School of Library & Information Studies.

The original article stated: “In the professional circles of librarians, computer scientists and other academics, there is now an argument concerning the relevance of libraries and librarians as found in their traditional roles. Many are predicting that libraries and librarians are becoming obsolete.” I suspect many individuals in 2015 are still arguing that libraries may become obsolete in the future; however, I also believe there may be just as many individuals arguing that libraries are not going to be obsolete, and there may in fact be some growth.  Though I have not done much research on this topic, I side with those who do not believe libraries are becoming obsolete.

"2009 3962573662 card catalog" by Stuart Caie from Edinburgh, Scotland - Indexed. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Remember these? The transition from card catalog to online access is just one of the many developments libraries have undergone in their long existence. (image by Stuart Caie via Wikimedia Commons.)

Though the creation of libraries as places to house books may become less important, they still serve important functions, for the general public and for students in academia alike.  Information technologies are changing at breakneck speed, and there is a great need for information specialists who are able to organize, disseminate, and instruct people in accessing that information. The traditional roles of librarians are evolving along with the newest technologies.

Not all changes are necessarily positive, however. In the original article, I cautioned, “with changes envisioned for the future, come other changes perhaps less desirable. Many libraries are replacing books with electronic media. There has been a decline in the control and expertise that librarians have over libraries. The consequences have been a loss of professional values, of integrity of the information provided, and of the ability to provide anonymous access to print and electronic material.” I believe the above statement still holds true, though to a lesser degree than what was asserted ten years ago.

We have in fact witnessed the fast-paced evolving roles and functions of librarians in the past decade.  For example, no longer are librarians giving many reader recommendations for books, previously a vital role that has been lessened by online discovery systems.  Today, librarians are deeply involved in the construction and implementation of digital technologies and other types of electronic media.  They have in fact been at the cutting edge of the changes we have all witnessed during the past ten years, helping other types of information and computer scientists develop, implement and disseminate the newest technologies so as to serve the needs of their respective patrons, across public, business or academic libraries.  We at Touro College have witnessed many developments, but as I had originally written, I suspect we are still up to the challenge of our ever-changing roles and functions in our libraries.

Contributed by: Mark Balto, Assistant Librarian, Midtown

2 thoughts on “Are Libraries Becoming Obsolete? A Decade Retrospective

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