Libraries do not exist independently. Nearly every one answers to a larger institution such as a local government, an educational institution, a corporation, or a government agency. Library directors, therefore, always report to someone who may or may not know what the library does and why it is important. Even thirty years ago, more than one academic library director had to fight off deans’ strong suggestions to save money by canceling all journal subscriptions; after all, everything is online. To this day, not everything is online, but more and more can be found there all the time. What, then, is the future of libraries?
Just because something is available online doesn’t mean that it’s free. Journals, magazines, newspaper archives all cost money. Databases that make it possible to locate particular articles, signed chapters in books, and other important information are very expensive. No one can afford to pay for this information for personal use.
Libraries subscribe to databases and online archives and make them available to their patrons for free. In this way, they continue a centuries-old tradition of free access to information in various print formats and a considerable tradition of free access to sound and video recordings. Many libraries continue to maintain collections of recordings in obsolete formats, along with the necessary play-back equipment. Library patrons can therefore use materials that have not been upgraded to newer formats.
In addition to items likely to be found all over the country, libraries often have collections of rare archival materials, often related to the town or state where they are located. Some libraries scan and digitize selected items from their special collections and put them online. That means that they have to maintain both the originals and the servers.
Probably no library digitizes all of its special materials; usually they own too many. Making some materials that public may compromise some citizen’s privacy. Others are of less general interest. It is not yet possible to digitize a three-dimensional artifact. Many libraries have large and important collections of personal effects of leading citizens, costumes, local crafts, local archeological finds, etc. Patrons using these collections may come to the library from all over the country.
Besides being buildings to house a collection and the equipment necessary to use it, libraries serve as both formal and informal meeting places. They may set some areas where patrons can sit alone in a comfortable chair and read quietly, and others that patrons can sit as a group in comfortable chairs and converse among themselves. Libraries also often have auditoriums used for both performances and public discussions, as well as meeting rooms for small and large groups.
Most important, librarians take build and maintain the collection and help people discover whatever materials they need. Librarians who most directly serve the public include reference librarians who help patrons identify and locate the information they need, readers’ advisory librarians who help patrons select fiction, poetry, movies, etc. for entertainment, and interlibrary loan librarians. After all, no library contains everything their patrons may want, so they borrow it from another library and make it available, like all of their own holdings, for free.
Here, in brief, is the future of libraries: As long as people need information they can’t obtain for free and can’t afford to buy, as long as people need spaces to meet, and as long as people need the kind of personal attention and service that only librarians know how to provide, our society will continue to need libraries.