Library Matters / Libraries Matter: Infrastructure Part One

Posted on October 10th, 2019 by

During a recent instruction session for an FTS course, I asked students what they think of when they think of libraries. I do this in most of my introductory courses and responses are always interesting. Students mention the usual suspects, like books, study spaces, and access to computers. Some of them look forward to napping on our couches and chairs. I enjoy dispelling some of the myths they mention, reassuring them that they can bring as much food as they like into the library and that none of the librarians will ever shush them.

In this particular class, a student said that libraries are irrelevant. The student hastened to add that they didn’t think libraries are irrelevant, but that culturally, there’s a belief that libraries are outdated.

I assured the student that no offense was taken. It’s nothing we haven’t heard before – and oftentimes from those who should know better. I also said that I hoped our time together – as well as the students’ experience doing research over the next four years – would help dispell that myth as well.

Nationally, circulation and in-person reference statistics at large research libraries are declining. But as Dan Cohen writes in The Atlantic, there are profound cultural forces at work, such as the rise of ebooks, online access to journals, and the changing nature of scholarship. In our library alone we rely on our online Research Guides to supplement our in-person reference work. These declines and changes do not mean that libraries are irrelevant: “A positive way of looking at these changes is that we are witnessing a Great Sorting within the library, a matching of different kinds of scholarly uses with the right media, formats, and locations.”

Our colleague, Barbara Fister, in a piece about the sobering retrenchment news from St. Cloud State University, noted that library work – when it’s done well – should be seamless: “[L]librarians’ labor is almost by design fairly invisible. When you click on a database link and download an article, it may take only a second, but people did a lot of work to make that happen.”

So where does this leave us? At the very least, it indicates that traditional assessment measures, such as circulation data and in-person reference interactions, fail to capture the value of libraries. These changes also embody the fifth of S.R. Ranganathan’s five laws of library science, first published in 1931: The Library is a growing organism. We’re also reminded that patrons don’t see the work that goes into providing access to materials or creating online research guides. And this is as it should be. You’d certainly notice if your research database no longer worked – and you’d be right to be upset!

But it also serves as a reminder that libraries are the infrastructure through which research is conducted and supported on campus. So the next time you download an article from a database before heading to the lab, or you consult a guide to learn how to conduct a bibliographic trace, think about the unseen work that went into it. And remember that the Library made it possible.

This post is part of the Library Matters/Libraries Matter blog series

Look for Infrastructure Part Two in the next few weeks.



One Comment

  1. […] few weeks ago, I wrote that the Library provides the infrastructure that supports most undergraduate and a big […]