The three main types of library
Libraries the whole world over are under threat, mainly because the people who fund them are under the mistaken impression that they are no longer needed in the age of the Internet. I used to be a full-time librarian, but I lost my job in 2002 for that very reason. The company that employed me took the view that because it was "all on the Internet" there was no reason why they should employ somebody to do what everybody could do for themselves from their desktop.
Not surprisingly, we librarians have a different take on the matter. We believe that libraries and librarians are hugely important and will continue to be so. Indeed, the ironic thing is that the availability of information via the World Wide Web makes us even more important and vital!
We want to dispel a few misconceptions and make more converts to the cause, not just because we want to keep our jobs, but because we don't want people to miss out on the benefits that libraries can bring.
First of all, what do you understand by the word Library? Do you appreciate just how wide-ranging libraries are? For starters, there are three main types of library, which I shall outline in the rest of this hub.
1. Public Libraries
For many people, this is what a library is - a publicly funded institution that provides books for loan and is used mainly by the very old and the very young. It is probably divided into Lending and Reference, and the Lending stock is split between fiction and non-fiction. The threat to the public library comes partly from the fact that fewer people now read for pleasure, and those who do are more likely to buy their books from Borders or Waterstones than borrow them from the library, and, on the non-fiction and reference sides, information is easily and quickly obtainable from the WWW, without the need to make a trip to the library.
However, public libraries provide much more than that, such as materials for entertainment and information in a wide range of media. You will also find a lot of information about local services across the spectrum, tailored to the needs of the community served by the library. Above all, you will find professional librarians who are trained to help you find exactly what you are looking for. This includes help with searching the Internet, which you can do from most public libraries these days.
2. Academic libraries
These cover the spectrum from libraries in schools of all sizes, through to those of major universities and research institutions. They have something of a captive audience, in that the institutions they serve are dedicated to teaching and learning, and the libraries' role is to provide access to the sources of information from which that teaching and learning can develop.
However, they are still under threat, because they cost money to stock and to run, and a school or university has to make a decision as to the proportion of its funds to devote to its library. Academic libraries are therefore benidng over backwards to add increasingly more value to the services they provide.
For example, the university library in which I work part-time is now open 24 hours a day, during term time, so that students can always get access to learning materials. We also offer a wide range of courses in study skills, and 1-on-1 sessions so that students are helped in all sorts of ways. Follow this link for the library's home page, and have a look at the full range of services on offer.
Just as with the public library sector, it is the people who run and staff academic libraries who make them what they are. It has been known for institutions to try to run their libraries without professional librarians, but this is a highly misguided attitude, because the expertise of a professional librarian is essential in the process of translating a vaguely worded enquiry into the true needs of the enquirer and then into the solution that will best satisfy those needs.
3. Special libraries
Personally, I don't like this term, because it sounds as though these libraries see themselves as being superior to those of other types, but that is what we are stuck with!
If you think of "special" having the meaning of "specialist", you will get closer to the mark. These are libraries that serve a particular instituion that has a specific role to play, and they will therefore tend to be "one subject" libraries. For example, they could serve a hospital, or a law practice, or an industrial company. They also vary in size, depending in part on the size of the institution they serve, but many of these libraries are run by "solos", that is, librarians working alone or maybe with only clerical assistance.
Special librarians have become adept at "reading the runes" of the environment in which their business operates, and scan information sources to find material that they know will be of interest to the people working in their company (etc). They also need to be on top of all the information technology that is available to them, and at ways of collecting and presenting information that will save the time of busy people. They may also organise the institution's own information resources in ways that best suit local needs, maybe through a company intranet. The title "librarian" has been questioned in some quarters, and many people in this sector prefer to be known as "information scientists".
The threats to this sector of librarianship are obvious, especially where company bottom lines take priority over virtually everything else. It is not easy to gauge the true value of a library to a business, and, to many accountants, anything that cannot be valued in purely monetary terms has no value. I was myself the victim of this sort of thinking, as I had to watch the library system (of four libraries) that I managed for a major UK industrial company being dismantled bit by bit, and eventually disappearing altogether, taking me with it.
Libraries versus the Internet?
Not necessarily so. As you will have gathered from the above, librarians are skilled at discovering and handling information, from whatever source it may come, and the Internet, particularly the World Wide Web, can be regarded as a giant library, containing vast amounts of information. But it is also highly unwieldly, not at all easy to navigate, and full of traps for the unwary.
The Web's advantages are also its disadvantages, and Hubpages is a good example of this. There are in excess of 80,000 articles available to you here, but how many of them can you trust? Anyone can write anything they like, but how do you know that the information they are giving you is correct? Having found something good, how do you know that there is not something better?
Hubpages is relatively well organised in these respects, and it has mechanisms that ensure some degree of quality control, but that cannot be said of the whole of the Web by any means. Information professionals can help you to solve problems of these kinds, by pointing you in the right directions, giving you guidance as to the best ways to search, advising you on the correct ways of using the information you find, and a whole lot more.
I once had somebody come running into my company library about 20 minutes before closing time, in a real panic. He had been searching all day for a particular piece of information without success, and said that he had come to me as his last resort. I found what he wanted there and then, and still got home on time. If he had come to me as his first resort, rather than his last, his day would have been a whole lot more productive. The same could apply to you, too!