Volume V, Issue 1
September 2008


New Directions at Falvey

Sample Some Contemporary Reimaginings of the Library

Director's Watch

By Joe Lucia, University Librarian & Director of Falvey Memorial Library

Social and cultural institutions demonstrate their resilience over time by reinventing themselves from one era to the next in a manner that sustains core values while defining new approaches to realizing those values. Put another way, all vital institutions require persistent imagination. Their cultural and social liveliness is embodied in their capacity to connect durable purposes with changing forms. They co-evolve with their contexts or they die. Those acts of imagination are often widely dispersed, yet also synchronous.

Below are examples of the ways libraries are currently engaged in this process of self-refinement, some compelling instances of library “imagination.”

First, there’s “Shifted Librarian” Jenny Levine’s blog post on “The Most Modern Library in the World,” the Delft Public Library in Holland, also known as DOK. For an inside view of DOK‘s features and functions, look at Erik Boekesteijn’s March 2008 article in Information Today.

Note too the Rem Koolhaas Seattle Public Library building, which the architect has conceived as “a custodian of the book, a showcase for new information, a place for thought, discussion and reflection - a dynamic presence...”

Beyond Seattle, there’s an equally exciting new facility in Salt Lake City. As much as the building, it’s the rich sense of civic mission that makes this library an important one to notice.

On a grander scale, note the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Alexandria, Egypt, which bills itself as a “reincarnation of the famed library of Alexandria” but it is, as the web site says, “much more than a library,” containing numerous art galleries, museums, a planetarium and a conference center.

Via the web, there are examples of purely digital extensions of libraries. The Internet Archive, whose founder Brewster Kahle is a collaborator in the development of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, takes as its tag line “universal access to human knowledge.” The Internet Archive is especially notable for the Wayback Machine, which provides chronological snapshots of the web from 1996 to 2007. Check out a view of the Villanova University web site from Wayback.

At a less global level, there’s LibraryThing, a collectively-built catalog of personal book collections that is now comprised of over 30 million titles and that reflects a new, highly efficient and open collaborative model for content description. In many ways, it’s an idiosyncratic or unsystematic “super catalog” that is fun to browse and also serves as a social networking site for book aficionados. As they say, "Meet the world's largest book club. Find people with eerily similar tastes."

These examples represent but a random sample of contemporary reimaginings of the library.

On a more sober note, Lee L. Zia, in a recent essay, “Leveraging Digital Technology in Service to Culture and Society: The Role of Libraries as Collaborators,” ties these diverse exemplars together quite nicely. The essay comes from the Council on Library and Information Resources' recent publication, No Brief Candle: Reconceiving Research Libraries for the 21st Century.

Zia writes

[The] democratization of access to data and information has altered not just the "where" and "when" of learning, but increasingly the "how" and "by whom" that authority or certification of expertise is obtained or granted.

These changes challenge many concepts and traditions: the idea of the original, authoritative source, the fate of books, the role of libraries, the place of formal institutions of learning, the nature of discourse, and, of course, "old" business models—all subject to various manifestations of the tension between atoms and bits, as Negroponte termed it in "Being Digital." Do libraries need survival skills? Yes, but society and culture need survival skills even more, and libraries will survive if they are relevant to this larger task. To navigate successfully the circumstances produced by the amazing explosion of access to unfiltered data and the changing relationship of people to knowledge, the library, with its rich traditions of attention to stewardship, preservation, quality, and providing at least a proxy for the certification of authority, will play an important role in collaboration with its constituencies...

Photograph by John Welsh