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What’s a Library For?

May 8, 2013

What’s a library for? Are there any contributions academic libraries in particular have left to make to the shaping of critical thinking? I will not say I have a comprehensive answer. I cannot even say that I have an original answer. But I am certain that libraries are more relevant to and prominent in the knowledge eco-system than ever. Conventional wisdom holds that books—once the almost exclusive object of critical thinking—are losing luster and utility; with content becoming a commodity anyone can access (often at high cost), the local efforts of librarians should shift to the unique, to special collections and archives. I agree that treasured materials require and deserve intensive effort. Despite the relentless, wholly commendable expansion of digitization, physical books are not being rushed headlong to the dustbin of history, and librarians are partnering with—sometimes prodding—authors and publishers to achieve a comprehensive copyright, economic and technological environment working to the mutual advantage of creators, scholars and learners.

But education is fundamentally a process, and libraries can do more to further the inter-dependent exchange between teachers and students than merely provide resources. While great academic libraries can and should house intellectually enriching special collections that are secure, conserved and accessible, the library should also be a key campus place in which study and technology meet to nurture learned citizenship. Library leaders need to facilitate allocation of substantial space for group study while providing as many contemplative areas. The physical space must uphold the seriousness of the scholarly project but privilege student needs, at its heart welcoming self-directed students working together.

Successful student self-direction, however, requires not only the indispensable commitment of faculty but collaborative support from librarians. In the self-service era, in which the first search result is often chosen by even the ablest learner, sometimes to the detriment of higher learning, librarians will actually assume a more critical position than ever within the educational eco-system. As a rule I think program infrastructure—metadata/cataloging, access/acquisitions, distribution/circulation, duration/preservation—continues to provide the base for the library’s crucial contribution to liberal education. Librarians will use that knowledge foundation in embracing holistic pedagogies of search, source evaluation, the ins-and-outs of academic and online ethics, critical fluency, and substantive but facile information literacy. Learning for life has never been more fundamentally the mission of the library.

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