Why do libraries matter now more than ever? John Palfrey addresses this question in a thoughtful but somewhat academic way. As the founding chairman of the Digital Public Library of America, he was directly involved in providing a digital resource for collections of several major institutions, including the New York Public Library and Harvard, now over 7 million items. How to access this resource and how useful is it are still open questions. He reports that Europeana, a similar portal in Europe, has 23 million items.
He posits the mission of all public libraries as the means by which the public can access knowledge and information. This is cultural, educational, and essential for a democracy.
The problem of “now” is that we are flooded with digital information that has to be accessed, digested, and stored. Storage of digital information is a separate but difficult problem that librarians have to deal with. Who maintains the data bank of ephemeral blogs, postings, news releases, even those of established on-line publishers like The Millbrook independent?
He uses words like gateway and sources. Gateway to sources: What are they? Where are they? And are they accessible at a price public libraries can afford? The danger is that much of the digital world is owned by corporations that want to be paid for supplying what the public may need. Just try and download an article from a scientific magazine or an academic journal. You may find an abstract, but you may be charged per page or a fee for becoming a subscriber.
While collections in libraries are still important, he says they will become less so as the contents of those collections become available on-line. Yet, he also acknowledges the importance of a browsing the shelves as a means of finding material that may not be picked up in an index or search engine. Depending on search engines or indexes is always fraught with chance, as they are seldom comprehensive. One learns this in any good introduction to research procedures. Use of bibliographies complied by researchers are likely to more useful than search engines, but one should use both.
He says librarians are under pressure to master the digital world, to become tech savvy and knowledgeable not just about their own collections but about the digital world itself. What gateways should a library offer its users? Library systems like the Mid-Hudson Library system is the beginning of a solution. How should that system evolve by plugging into other systems? What reach should a public library have into the area of academic and scientific journals? International data bases? Specialized data bases? Where are historical materials stored digitally and how are the accessed? Librarians have their work cut out for them trying to stay abreast of the changing landscape of publishing, digitizing and repositories of digitized materials. Palfrey says one can access the Newton’s notebooks stored at Cambridge through Europeana. Is that awfully helpful to someone learning about gravity?
Too much information can be burdensome. Librarians are among those whose job it is to make information available in useful bites. And then to open the doors to researchers whose job is to get to the bottom of things, to find the original documents, to access the hard core of history.
Libraries thus hold a middle ground: they hold print materials that remain vital to the present generation of readers and they hold the keys to the world of digitized information available only through specialized portals. Collections are as vital as access to the vastness of the digitized world. This is the message of Palfrey who has been involved with both research libraries at Harvard and a prep school library at Phillips Academy, of which he is headmaster.