This article appears in the Harvard Political Review and notes that when one enters the Harvard’s flagship Widener Library today one is no longer confronted by “the musty scent of old paperback. The groan of a creaky, carpeted floor. The sight of endless shelves filled with unread volumes.”
Instead, when “one steps through the marble columns into the Reading Room of they find a very different scene. Rows of tables host students consumed by laptops, not encyclopedias. Librarians clack across the oak floor to answer questions on how to access databases, not to retrieve documents. The traditional library experience now seems to be a thing of the past.
While the American foray into the digital age would lead many to classify libraries as obsolete, the continued — if not heightened — importance of the library’s core mission to provide knowledge, as well as new skills of librarians and changes to the design of libraries, make them relevant in our changed world. Their continued evolution will be essential to the future of scholarship and citizenship.
The enduring mission of the library
“The fundamental role of the library is not to provide books, it is to provide information. So that has not changed,” said Eileen Abels, dean of the Simmons School of Library and Information Science, in an interview with the HPR. “But I think the time has come for librarians to reach into new media.”
The central mission of a library has been and will remain to be to provide “unlimited access to high quality sources of information,” Suzanne Wones, director of library digital strategies and innovations at Harvard Library, told the HPR. Rather than through print books, Wones said, this is now mostly achieved through digital resources and tools.
“More and more resources are digital only — there’s no print counterpart,” Peter Suber, director of Harvard Library’s Office for Scholarly Communication, told the HPR. “When there are print and digital editions, more and more libraries will choose the digital edition, since more and more patrons expressed a preference for that.”
In addition to growing its digital-only collection, Harvard Library is undertaking a massive digitization project in all of its 79 libraries. In 2016 alone, it made more than 1.8 million artifacts available online…”
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