After forty years working in libraries, including thirty-two years at APL – of which twenty-two have been in administration and the last fifteen as Director, I’m down to my last day before retirement.
It seems appropriate to share a few reflections and one librarian’s opinion on where we've been and where we’re going. I've seen massive changes in how we provide library service. At the UW-Memorial Library in 1972, we hand-stamped transaction cards each time a book was checked out, filed copies of the cards in call number order, and pulled them from the files when the books came back or when somebody wanted to place a hold. We had to maintain card catalogs for people to find anything and the catalog alone at Memorial took up a room larger than many small public libraries.
As a new reference librarian here in 1978, I could answer most questions by consulting our small card catalog, the Reader’s Guide to Periodicals (and its specialized cousins), and some selected reference books. We sent inter-library loan requests only a few places, using a teletype machine. Our media collections were LP records, a few filmstrips and – just for schools and groups -- 16 mm films. We had no community meeting spaces, very few adult programs, and none for teens.
So what’s changed? There’s been a revolution in electronic communications and thus in information. Databases and Google searches have replaced many reference books. Email and text messaging have replaced postal mail and telephone. So the library’s tradition “bibliographic instruction” of teaching people how to find things has gone electronic, in big-time fashion, with informal assistance in getting an email account and formal instruction in computer basics as precursors to doing meaningful research. "Library 2.0" has developed connections and interactivity, while shared automation networks have created huge virtual collections, making more library materials available to more people in more ready fashion than ever.
Growth in electronic media has meant that library materials are continuing to change, although book circulation is still huge, DVDs, digital recorded books, and eBooks are all increasing their share of library use. Downloadable electronic files continue to shake the publishing world and libraries are struggling to define their place and preserve their values in this rapidly evolving environment.
The library has long been a community center, but is more self-consciously developing that role with programs for all ages and interests, awareness of learning as a social activity, community meeting spaces, exhibits and displays and outreach via staff involvement with partner groups. Program attendance and meeting room use have grown rapidly. In Appleton, as in many places, we are more aware of the centrality of volunteers and friends in fulfilling the library’s mission. Many essential tasks are now done by volunteers as shrinking public funding has not been sufficient for the staff to grow as quickly as demands for services. There is an increasing reliance on donations and endowments. All of this leads to the need for a strong balanced friends organization providing a variety of support including volunteers, marketing, fundraising and advocacy.
With so many changes, are libraries still the same and relevant? Absolutely, and more than ever! The unchanging mission of the public library is for information equity, intellectual freedom, and a diversity of ideas, opinions and users. Public libraries support every individual’s ability to define and pursue their own opportunity, and the changing economics of information only increase the importance of supporting that for everyone. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 19 states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” The public library is an institution working to guarantee this right.
The library has long been a cultural center, which no longer means a book warehouse, if it ever did. We support everyone's access to the cultural record in myriad forms. Libraries are individually responsive to their communities, but everywhere support lifelong learning, the love of books and reading, and the chance for everyone to learning independently on their own terms.
The technology changes the techniques, but not the values.
I’m leaving my job, but I’m still a librarian and will continue to work for the values of libraries – particularly public libraries.