Up until a decade ago, the community library was the go-to place for the sixth grader writing a report on a political election or the parent helping her child investigate college options. There was no better source for that information. Research libraries served a similar function for scholars needing access to rare documents, authors looking into remote corners of history, and lawyers seeking precedent. Again, no place was like the library.
The Internet has supplanted that core function of the library’s purpose by giving users access to much of the world’s information in roughly the time it takes them to start their computers and make a cup of coffee. In the era of the instantaneous Google search, information research and retrieval are irrevocably changed. And Google itself has, to all appearances, stepped into the library business directly with a massive project in which it intends to digitize all of the world’s books.
How to stay relevant? That question has been gnawing at library administrators and boards for years, as more and more information makes its way to the Web. And the question has become especially pressing amid a global economic downturn that is reducing libraries’ funding at the very moment when they would like to experiment and stake out new ground in the digital future. In this respect, library administrators are a lot like executives at newspaper companies, magazine publishers, movie studios, and major music labels — indeed, any business that markets something that can be delivered digitally. They must break out and offer something new and different at the same time that their investment capital is shrinking.
And yet even as the Internet encroaches on their turf, one seldom sees signs of lifelessness or decline at libraries. To be sure, some research libraries that have done little to stay current have lost visitors and are fading. But all over the world, from the East End of London to malls in Singapore to just about every part of New York City, libraries are serving hundreds of thousands of visitors each year, bustling with activity, and increasing the number of items they loan out. Their vitality is unmistakable. Libraries, it’s clear, retain at least some control over their future — and the changes they are making may be instructive to information organizations throughout the private and public sectors. Those changes include overhauling operating models that in some cases are decades old, and launching new digital initiatives to meet users’ needs.
The Community Library’s Relevance
Like many for-profit industries, the library business isn’t monolithic. Libraries exist in two fundamental forms. There are the public, or community, libraries, usually funded by local city and state taxes and charged with a civic mission. They provide a place for young children to learn, for students to socialize and study, for job applicants to gather information, for immigrants to learn their adopted country’s language, for seniors to read the newspaper, and for any cardholder to borrow books, music, or videos. The good ones are run by entrepreneurial librarians who understand the needs of the community and actively seek to meet them. Second, there are the research libraries, like the U.S. Library of Congress, the British Library, and university libraries that serve as repositories for unique or important documents that never leave the building, and that are used primarily by scholars, authors, and graduate students with serious academic and research needs.