How Virtual Should a Library Become?
Libraries are purchasing and providing access to more and more eBooks, eJournals, databases, Web content, and so on every year. Even interactions between librarians and library users are becoming more virtual through the growing use of email, chat, text messaging, Facebook, and Twitter.
Currently libraries are virtual to widely varying degrees. A library may, for example, have little in the way of electronic information and online services and focus almost exclusively on print resources. This could be for a variety of reasons such as budget limitations or because their users may prefer their information in more traditional forms. On the other hand, a library may be predominantly virtual. An extreme example of the latter is the Applied Engineering and Technology library at the University of Texas at San Antonio. In early September 2010 they opened as the nation’s first bookless library with all of their information available only in electronic form.
There is also the Internet Public Library but I have a hard time thinking of that as a library. It does not feel like a library, virtual or otherwise, and it does not contain all the elements I would expect in a virtual library such as a large collection of eBooks and eJournals. As nice and as useful as the Internet Public Library is, to me it is more like Yahoo than a library.
Is the Applied Engineering and Technology library at the University of Texas at San Antonio an example of how virtual a library should become? Or should it go farther still? What if a library did away with not only its physical collections of books and paper journals, but also did away with its entire public building as well? There are of course very good arguments for library as space. Library users, certainly students using academic libraries, definitely want and benefit from having a place to study both alone and in groups. Libraries provide space where visiting authors, researchers, and the like can hold public events to share their knowledge and expertise with the general public. And there is no ignoring that libraries have always been physical places where people go and how ingrained that idea is.
Where then should the line be drawn when creating libraries of the future? I believe many libraries today are trying to be all things to all users and I am not convinced it is working very well or that we will be able to sustain this indefinitely. If libraries had unlimited funding it would be great to provide information in both paper and electronic form in a building with lots of great study and socializing space side-by-side with the latest and greatest available computer equipment. Since only so much money is available however we will at some point have to decide if we are more study hall or computer lab or information provider and then gear everything we do toward being the best of what we have chosen to be.
This is not going to be true for all libraries, at least not immediately, but it is my opinion this is going to be true for more and more libraries over time as they continue being challenged financially and as networked computer technology becomes more common. In the end it comes down to remembering what it means to be a library, determining what the current needs of library users are, and then focusing every available resource on meeting those needs in the best possible ways.
David Ratledge is Associate Professor and Head, Library Technology Services at The University of Tennessee, Knoxville. firstname.lastname@example.org