Friday, September 17, 2010

What is a Library?

A library, according to many dictionary sources is described as a building which holds a collection of materials. A library may also be used in a computerized term where one has a library of music on a hard drive. Both definitions are true and yet they both point to the direction that libraries are heading. Access to the Internet has changed so much in how we retrieve, read and report information. No longer do readers fumble through card catalogs, indexes and microfilm tape in search of information. Now with a click or two, information is easier to find, to consume and share with anyone and everyone we know. This is a clear signal that the descriptions of a library in the future will be quite different from what we have known. As a matter of fact, the reach of the librarians will no longer be within the walls of the library or even within their community. An educated guess tells me, that librarians will have to adapt to working within social media networks to establish connections in new and exciting ways. We are boldly going where no librarians have gone before. Frankly, it's about time.

The advent of social media has changed the way people connect and communicate. Twitter, Facebook, and other social networks offer the opportunity to state what is on your mind, get information out quickly and stay connected with people who share your interests or like what you do. For any community organization, this is a goldmine opportunity for free Public Relations. Why would anyone pass up that opportunity? Fear? No time? Waiting to see if this is a fad? The fact of the matter is that if we are afraid that new technology will bring more chaos into the library, chew up our time and be gone before we figured it all out then it is time to admit that our role in the communities we serve are no longer needed. However, this is not the case here, this is the opportunity we have been waiting for since the advent of the Internet.

For years libraries have had their identity stolen, or at least borrowed, by big chain bookstores. Walk into any Barnes and Noble and find that it is a clone of classic library space without the classification system. What they added were a cafe, comfortable chairs and occasional entertainment from authors or musicians. Nice. However, it doesn't replace what libraries have done for years and can continue to do so via social media, which is to guide patrons through the maze of information to select what is best suited for their needs. Bookstores can sell you books, toys, magazines but they are not experts in information retrieval. Librarians are the experts of knowing where to look, which sources are more reliable than others, and why one format is better to use than another. Social media will allow libraries to reclaim their identity as the information source. While the bookstores may have a presence online with their web pages, Twitter accounts and fan pages on Facebook, their physical buildings will be gone. They will be seen only in the virtual world. Don't think this is true? Consider the fact that the major book stores are promoting heavily electronic readers. Why? Easier to download a book than have a physical copy of it that would need to be shipped to their customers. However, in the case of the libraries, there is an opportunity to be the expert and provider of information in all formats. Variety is the spice of life!

While the need for bookstores as a physical building seems to becoming a reality of a bygone era, (and I could be wrong on this) the future of libraries in communities is becoming brighter every day. Why? Humans beings need and love interactions with other human beings. Libraries will be what they have always been for their patrons: the meeting place where people and information come together. Social media will make it all the more easier to connect to patrons and draw them into our libraries. At this point, libraries who fail to make waves on the social networks are doomed to the same fate of bookstores. They will be viewed as obsolete and fiscally draining on already burdened budgets. In other words, like dinosaurs, the libraries will be viewed as a great way to retrieve digital information to begin the search but refining it will be done by someone else. Our profession has changed much in just the past twenty years or so, and it is continuing to change to the point of if librarians don't keep up they will be left behind. There is always the chance that there will be mistakes now and then when working with new technology. Consider this: if we don't embrace it, learn from it, and become the facilitator to help others gain access, we will have effectively put ourselves out of the picture in every community. A library will always have four walls, maybe even bookshelves or stations where patrons can plug in their devices to download information, but the added bonus is that librarians are not confined by the walls. They can go to where the patrons are without taking a step out of the library. Hang on tight, it's going to be a bumpy ride but well worth it!
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