:: Digital Libraries Columns


Library Journal "Digital Libraries" Columns 1997-2007, Roy Tennant

Please note: these columns are an archive of my Library Journal column from 1997-2007. They have not been altered in content, so please keep in mind some of this content will be out of date. :: Digital Libraries Columns

Of Real and Digital Libraries


   I arrived by chance in Jackson County, OR, the day after its 15
   libraries were shut down on April 6. I was visiting Ashland, OR, with
   my family, home to the world-renowned Oregon Shakespeare Festival and
   also to Southern Oregon University, which has a 93-acre park for a city
   of 21,500 people. The town has many civic and cultural amenities.
   Except now, that list doesn't include libraries. An election for a
   three-year property tax was to be held May 15.

   How Jackson County ended up without library service, especially after
   recently building new facilities, is a long story, too long for this


   Without real libraries, digital ones are nothing but a bunch of bits.
   This is not a new revelation for me, but I keep returning to it. I
   first thought about this when libraries garnered sudden attention from
   the computer science community in the early 1990s. When the U.S.
   government decided digital libraries were interesting enough to
   allocate millions of dollars for research, computer science researchers
   also suddenly became interested in digital library issues.

   For computer scientists, a library was any pile of content. Pull
   together a large enough pile of content, and, voila, a library is born.
   Although many of us knew better, we humored researchers to see if
   anything useful would come of their sudden attention to our problems.
   Mostly nothing did--at least not much that helps real libraries today.
   The genuine breakthroughs were unexpected and came from unwatched

   Graduate students Sergey Brin and Larry Page were not trying to solve
   "digital library" problems as much as the problem of finding things on
   the web. Few of us predicted that Google, the company they spawned,
   would transform legacy content digitization.

   Libraries include the digital

   Meanwhile, librarians have integrated digital resources and services
   within their existing "real" ones, making many tough resource
   allocation decisions. We are still traveling this path but making
   genuine headway toward a future where we can drop the "digital" moniker
   and simply say "libraries," and they will be assumed to encompass
   physical spaces, collections, and services provided in person, as well
   as virtual spaces, collections, and services.

   Now, I'm changing from extolling the benefits and virtues of digital
   collections and services as I've done for nearly a decade. Instead, I'm
   paying homage to the real libraries that give digital collections their
   foundation and their raison d'etre.

   Books need librarians

   People who believe a random pile of digital bits is a sufficiently
   robust library have never been served by a librarian--either physically
   or virtually. Individuals who believe you can inspire a child to read
   by showing him or her a web site have not seen a child first make
   acquaintance with a book by teething on it.

   Nor have they sat with a young child on their lap and read, furnishing
   a high squeaky voice or a low gruff one as the story demands. Neither
   have they watched a room full of children sit enthralled by a gifted
   storyteller librarian who brings the story alive and draws them into
   magic that will light up their lives until their last day.

   Libraries are more than stuff

   Digital libraries require real ones in a way that real libraries will
   never need the digital. If all you want is stuff, there are plenty of
   places to get it. But if you want selected, curated, and preserved
   collections with the services to make them usable, only one place will
   give you that--libraries--in all their digital and physical glory.

   Digital libraries offer many things, but without the services provided
   by bricks-and-mortar libraries and the librarians who keep them open,
   they're nothing but a pile of bits. This is something we do not need to
   tell the people of Jackson County.

   For more on the wired library, see the [125]netConnect supplement
   mailed with the January, April 15, July, and October 15 issues of LJ.

   After Jackson County Closure,
   Two Other Oregon Libraries in Jeopardy
   [126] Jackson County
   [127] Jackson County Library Services
   Library Closes
   stories/0407_library.php Mail Tribune Special
   /libraries Save Our Library System