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Roll over Gutenberg

In the past week, two heavyweights have weighed in on the future of the library : both the New York Public Library and Harvard University have taken steps to address the transformation. 

In the public library realm, few are larger or more influential than the New York Public Library. An article published last week in the NY Times describes the introduction of an automated retrieval system into the operations of NY Public Library. Thanks to a grass roots effort initiated by Salvatore Maggadinno, the overseer of materials distribution, the NYPL was able to identify an automatic retrieval system as the solution to a chronic shortage of book sorters. The new machine fills an operational gap by eliminating a job that Maggadinno himself describes as "mundane, boring." 

At Harvard University, there is a great deal of debate about the role of the library, and the librarian, in academia today. With 16 million titles and 70 libraries, the school maintains one of the largest library collections in the world. An article published in the May-June Harvard Magazine, “Gutenberg 2.0”, by Jonathan Shaw, talks about how these libraries are dealing with change.  Shaw cites Jeffrey Hamburger, who was recently named chair of a library advisory group, and who envisions a library future of both/and rather than either/or:

“Hamburger emphasizes that he is not framing the University’s current crisis in terms of books versus new media. ‘We need both, and we’ll continue to need both. I think we have to take as a premise that the library is a vast, far-flung, varied institution, as varied and diverse as the intellectual community itself, working for a range of constituents almost impossible to conceive of, and its not just a service organization. I would even go so far as to call it the nervous system of our corporate body.”

Interestingly, the article also speaks to the role that the librarian can play in serving the impossibly varied and diverse body of constitutents that Hamburger speaks about. Librarians are described more as “information brokers” than custodians of a warehouse of knowledge. Mastery of the skills required to distill the information that is actually useful is the potential future of the librarian. Shaw summarizes this approach in the context of medical libraries:

“For libraries and librarians, the new premium on skills they have long cultivated as curators, preservers, and retrievers of collective knowledge puts them squarely on top of an information geyser in the sciences that could reshape medicine.”

With more than 25 academic libraries in our planning and design portfolio over the past  ten years, we have been witness to, and facilitators of, these trends. And we have explored the integration of automatic retrieval systems in our own work, most recently in a programming and planning exercise for the central library of a major state university. The rise in social and collaborative learning environments has reshaped the look and feel of the library from elegant reading room and study carrels, to work space. Libraries have cultivated new partnerships (information technology, teaching and learning centers, centers for academic excellence, tutoring, counseling, multimedia suites, etc.) in their evolving role in academia. These transformations are just the beginning and we are excited  to see where they lead.