09 January 2013

Do We Still Need Libraries?

Source: http://www.beautiful-libraries.com/library%20photos/home%20libraries%20grand/3004.jpg

A provocative and yet important question!

The New York Times recently “held” a debate in its “Room for Debate” Opinion Pages on just this topic.  There were four debaters who presented their perspectives and then 192 comments were posted and possibly more when accounting for Facebook and Twitter activity.

The introduction states:

The New York Times reports that, as big stores like Borders disappear, “many public libraries are seeing an opportunity to fill the void created by the loss of traditional bookstores.”

Is that the right direction for libraries to take? What are libraries for, and how should they evolve?

Given how much research your average genealogist has done historically in libraries, this is a topic very important to us.

Just recently, a branch library in Wake County (NC) was remodeled and some of the most notable changes were more open space, more computers and less books!

I will admit to “physically” using the county libraries less than I used to when the kids were little and we were frequently there to get books and attend programs.  Though, I use the State Library of NC and other more narrowly-focused libraries much much more as I do research.

And, I do use “elements” of the Wake County library without having to leave my house – I can do interlibrary loan requests online, access select databases (e.g. HeritageQuest Online, Sanborn Maps, etc), see what’s happening and more.

My mom was a big user of the library in the town where I grew up, even though I did find the back bookcases kind of musty and dim.  Many a high school research project was completed using its resources and I was able to borrow books which expanded my reading beyond some classics, Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys and an encyclopedia set, which was all we had in our house.

My kids have a slightly different perspective.  Though we did go to the library to borrow books, they also were gifted or purchased with their spending money many books.  Additionally, by the time they were in third grade, reports were being done on computers at the school and the research was being done at the school library.  The shift to college created a world where much research is done online and on-campus libraries are more for study group gatherings.  On occasion, I do have my daughter look at a real book and copy pages from it for me!

As a part of the research I do now, there is a not a month that goes by where I don’t contact a library for some reason. Some recent questions by me have been:
  • Can they search for an obituary for me? 
  • Do they have a vertical file for a particular family name?  
  • Would they look up something in a book that worldcat tells me they have a copy of?  
  • Have any local surveys of cemeteries been conducted?
  • It appears that this funeral home has closed, do they know if another bought them out or where are their records?

Since I still find libraries invaluable, even if they have morphed through time, my answer has to be -- YES, we still need libraries.

Do you still find libraries invaluable to your research? Do you think we still need libraries? If yes, what makes them important now and in the future?

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  1. There is something about the mell of a library and the feel of a book (or research document) that enthralls me. I'd hate to lose that option.

  2. I hear ya. My husband laughs -- I still love reading the newspaper at the kitchen table and holding/touching books & documents (old and new), even though I do have access to a Kindle (convenient for traveling and not my preferred modus operandi at home!)

  3. Atlantic Wire piece "Ask a Librarian About the Odd Things Happening at Libraries", http://www.theatlanticwire.com/entertainment/2013/01/ask-librarian-about-odd-things-happening-libraries/60710/ commenting on a WSJ piece "Check These Out at the Library: Blacksmithing, Bowling, Butchering" http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324677204578187901423347828.html?mod=WSJ_WSJ_US_News_10_1

  4. Yes, yes, yes, yes, would be my answer. We will always need libraries.

    I worked as a reference librarian in the Boyle County Public Library, Danville, Kentucky, for seven years before I began working here at KHS. For a lifelong bibliophile and library-lover, what a fantastic job.

    Whenever I go on a speaking engagement and the meeting is held in a public library meeting room, I always go early enough to check out their genealogy and local history research materials. All of the Kentucky libraries I have visited have wonderful book and vertical file research collections.

    Don Rightmyer
    Editor, Kentucky Ancestors
    Kentucky Historical Society
    [email protected]

  5. As the reference librarian I did the following for genealogical researchers:
    -Photocopied requested pages from a local community cemetery listing
    -Found and printed off numerous obituaries, birth notices, and news items from the local Danville, Kentucky, newspaper microfilm
    -Fielded email, phone, and snail mail requests for genealogical information
    -Informed our library patrons they could request genealogical research materials by interlibrary loan.
    -"Shepherded" the excellent collection of local family-history and genealogy publications done in and around our county which were often out-of-print.
    -Provided orientation and assistance to every genealogical researcher that came to use our library
    Our county did not and does not have a local historical society so the county public library was "the place" in the county to do genealogical research.

  6. Yes we will always need our libraries, there is nothing that feels better than a book in hand.
    The books give knowledge that you can not get anywhere else, if you do not understand it, you can go back and reread and study until you do.
    I was learning to read at age 4, both parents were readers from the library in the 1930's, mom and I would walk to the library and get books for all 3 of us.

    I used the library almost everyday in the early 1980's when I first started family history and when I visit a different town, one of the first places I check out, is where is the library.

    Yes we still need out libraries, you can find material there you will find not other place. Everything is not on the internet.

  7. A UK post, Libraries keep us human, http://www.booktrust.org.uk/writing/online-writer-in-residence/blog/515, gives us another perspective on the value of libraries to us and civilization.

    As he says ... "And to this day I see a library as a place of quiet wonder, in a world designed to frazzle us. For me, a library is a book in building form. Like a book, we can escape inside it, and get enriched by it, we can feel it is ours and that it wants to give something without taking anything away."

  8. The questions is an interesting one. However, I believe that most of the things that you contacted the library to learn could have been accomplished much more efficiently if all of those books and files had been digitized. You could have done the search yourself, and done dozens of other searches as well, in the time it took for you to contact the librarian, have her find the physical location of the book and look up your information. Libraries with digital archives would make more information accessible to more people. This would be an improvement on the present model.

    That being said, I too love the smell of old books (like Jeff Mills above), and walking into a library gives me a feeling of anticipated pleasure that I have never received from a database. I love librarians, who are among the best people I have ever known. I believe that they will continue to be useful in a digital world where they will help point us in the right direction, still.

  9. Just saw this post on WSJ, Library That Holds No Books, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324761004578286253988145208.html -- wave of the future?

  10. Check out this infographic about the "Future of Libraries" https://s3.amazonaws.com/infographics/The-Future-of-Libraries-800.png

  11. Another neat post about libraries, Why Libraries Should Be the Next Great Start-Up Incubators, http://www.theatlanticcities.com/jobs-and-economy/2013/02/why-libraries-should-be-next-great-startup-incubators/4733/

  12. And yet more library news -- Duke University Libraries Introduce “Digitize This Book”, http://www.librarystuff.net/2013/02/19/duke-university-libraries-introduce-digitize-this-book/ -- do you know of other universities or archives doing the same? We genealogists and family historians do love those pre-1923 books!