Perspectives, Perceptions, and Periscopes
By Marydee Ojala
Editor • ONLINE
Everybody knows what a library is, right? At the IFLA (International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions) congress in Seoul in August, most attendees self-classified themselves as librarians. Ask them where they worked and the answers were predictable. It was public, academic, government, or special libraries. I find it reassuring that, in the midst of so much global turmoil, at least librarians share the same perspective when naming their type of library. It comforts me to know that newspaper libraries, art libraries, and medical libraries the world over face similar dilemmas, use the same basic resources, and communicate in the same professional language, even if they speak English, French, Swahili, Arabic, or Korean at work.
Our perceptions of libraries, however, differ, depending on our perspective. One presentation at IFLA lauded a Japanese effort to create mini-libraries for children in peoples’ homes. A key component was story time, where mothers read to kids. In Cuba, an effort to create home-based lending libraries for adults, sometimes in opposition to the Cuban political regime, has garnered worldwide attention. An article in the computer press on net neutrality quoted a Washington, D.C., teacher as saying that the Internet served as the school’s library. Since her students’ families were poor, they had no computers at home and relied on the school for access to this Internet “library.” Has no one ever told this woman about public libraries? Has no one recommended that the school establish a real library? Premium content, particularly the products from Gale and EBSCO, aimed specifically at school children, are probably not what this teacher perceived as being part of that Internet “library,” yet they return more relevant results than the general Web search engines she probably sees her students using.
Libraries today, and not just in the developed world, routinely offer some type of Internet access. This content should be there to support the overall mission of the library. My individual perception of libraries hinges on the type of library. For me, public libraries supply my recreational reading and personal research; academic libraries exist to facilitate learning, while corporate libraries are there to provide employees with serious research services that propel the company
towards profitability. My perceptions may differ from yours, but our shared perspective that libraries and online information are important do not.
Not everyone agrees on what libraries truly are. For some, libraries are a physical place, but more and more people view libraries as space. Place and space are not mutually exclusive. They can—and should—coexist for optimal information access and comprehensive research capabilities. Much as I celebrate online sources, even I admit that there are many times when a physical space for research in beneficial. However, not everyone outside the library community understands the dynamics of place versus space, online versus print, or Internet versus library. Their perspectives and perceptions are different from that of information professionals.
To see above the varying perspectives and perceptions of libraries, online research, and Internet access, information professionals need periscopes. Virtual periscopes, that is. We need to understand others’ perspectives and perceptions before we can effectively influence public policy about libraries and online access, much less change attitudes.
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