What’s so special about libraries?
This is a rhetorical question, as I think libraries are amazing places. But many are dead serious in posing the query these days. To this point the answer has been new services built on top of the tremendous reservoir of goodwill that libraries have accrued over the decades. But technology continues to drive change.
A recent publication, Can’t Buy Us Love: The Declining Importance of Library Books and the Rising Importance of Special Collections, by Rick Anderson, brings this issue into focus. His thesis is simple and persuasive: physical general collections in academic research libraries are in declining use. As these collections become commodities–goods for which demand is broadly supplied without dependence on brand or other differentiation–a longstanding rationale for academic libraries is eroding. To counter this, Anderson argues that academic libraries need to highlight another traditional function: “gathering and curating of rare and unique documents, including primary source materials.”
To my mind the argument extends to local public libraries as well. The circulating books that have long been the bread and butter of public libraries are also becoming commodities. The question comes down to how libraries can best serve their communities as the future unfolds. The American Library Association report, Confronting the Future: Strategic Visions for the 21st-Century Public Library (PDF), considers this issue thoughtfully. One strategic decision public libraries face according to the report is termed “Portal to Archive.” In other words, libraries need to decide to what degree they are a means to connect with the wider information universe as opposed to a place that documents unique topics of interest to the local community.
This to me isn’t even a variable. Any library with public access to the internet and staff with basic familiarity gets fairly close to “portal” capability. On the other hand, a library can play an utterly unique role in collecting, preserving and providing access to one-of-a-kind materials that document the history and heritage of its community. Many public libraries have been doing this for a long time, either individually or in collaboration with other local institutions. This is a compelling activity, particularly if combined with public education outreach programming.
As Anderson notes, the key is rising above commodity status. A library relying on collections that are hard to differentiate from those available elsewhere runs the risk of redundancy. But a library with holdings that are uniquely valuable to its community provides a public service that is difficult, if not impossible, to replace. Plus, the value of the materials–and of the library’s public service–grows with online access.
Another consideration comes into play. Given a large enough scale, linked local collections could emerge as a powerful data collection with national value. As noted in Confronting the Future:
Taken together, the network of thousands of public libraries, each performing this function locally, would establish an unmatched data resource for those with practical, commercial, or academic interests in, say, the real estate values in Connecticut towns during the first decade of the 21st century; the relationships among demographics, educational opportunity, and criminal behavior in small midwestern towns; or any of a multitude of other possible questions that could be answered by accessing data from one or many of these locally based archives.
To answer the opening question, then, I would say that digital special collections are a key part of what makes libraries special.