The Ideal Library
by Barbara Quint
In the best of all possible worlds, what would the best of all possible libraries look like? Who would it serve? What would it do? Who would it hire to do what it does? Maybe if we can imagine where we would love to be, we can start the process of getting there. We might even get brave enough and creative enough to ask the scariest question: How would we fund the ideal library?
Well, let’s think. The first criterion for the ideal library would be universality. And that’s universality at both ends of a library operation — a collection that includes everything or as close to everything as we can get and a clientele that includes everyone or as close to everyone as we can reach. With that ideal, we are speaking of an all-digital collection (with print as an output format selected by individual users). The “compleat” digital collection would have all forms of data from all sources — texts, statistics, images, audio, and video, both the informative and the entertaining. It would deliver instantly and reliably to any and every digital device. It would have built-in ways to reformat to suit every need. Such needs would include translation to other languages, click-throughs to any related content, locating and contacting experts, etc.
Our universal clientele criterion would finally free librarians from the shackles of ZIP code constituencies. We will still support communities, but not communities predefined by employer conditions. These are communities of interest, which may include geographically or institutionally or politically defined areas, but not necessarily. Equally valid would be communities based around subjects of interest or relationships between collections of people. A social network grouping would rank as legitimate as a public library’s city limits or a corporation’s headquarter office.
Who runs the show in the ideal library? Librarians, of course. In fact, clients who tap the invisible collection — or at least, a collection that requires no visible building to prove its existence — realize that library service really means librarian service. (That’s probably why all the leading Library professional associations change the “L” in their names to Librarian.) Different communities have different librarians with different expertise in their areas of interest. Because clients have varying interests in different issues, they have networks of librarians to serve those interests. As they expand their interests, e.g., move to a new town or get a new job or start collecting Civil War belt buckles or have a baby or whatever, one of the first things the client will do is to locate a librarian expert in that area and link up. Of course, people being the way they are, some interests may contract instead of expand. But even as clients stop needing one of their networked librarians as much, they will stay in touch. In fact, they will ask that librarian for connections to other librarians who can help in different interest areas. When they reach the new librarian, they will find their profiles have preceded them and a new friend awaits based on an old friend’s recommendation.
While the ideal library’s standard of universality will guarantee protected archives for all information, librarians will continue the diligent pursuit of quality for their clients. They will not only find it and ensure its visibility; they will also reach out to support its creation. Some university presses already report to university librarians. Library budgets will assist open access sources to increase quality by supporting such practices as expert editing, recording electronic interactions built around specific content, linking related content, etc. Searchers looking for the best data — and that includes user-friendly web search engines ranking search results — will look first to the material tagged with the “dot-lib” domain.
Sounds great, doesn’t it? But maybe too far away, too pie in the sky? Well, here’s an idea. Why don’t we librarians, we information professionals, build a model library, one with enough size and scope, both in terms of content and clientele, to serve as a scalable model for the creation of the future ideal library? If librarians built it, we would make sure that it worked entirely in the interests of users. We could work through the challenges of new services such as 24/7, round-the-clock, round-the-calendar delivery. We could prove our worth and our ownership of our professional turf in the Third Millennium and beyond.
Of course, we would need the right collection, one that was as accessible as possible, one that had substantial digital content already, but — at best — one that could be rendered digital easily and quickly. Indeed, the ideal collection would have no barriers on deliverability. After all, librarians want content to reach every reader, not just every buyer.
But where could we find such an ideal collection and institutions with the expert staff and, most importantly, a mission concept that would allow for such full-throttle, clear-the-runway, 5-4-3-2-1-BLASTOFF library service? The answer? THE FEDERAL DEPOSITORY LIBRARY PROGRAM (FDLP)! The content is public domain, as universally deliverable as you’ll ever find. It covers as many topics and subjects of interest as any literature and with an authoritativeness that should reduce much of the filtering burden. Millions of documents are already digital in HathiTrust, with more pouring in from other public domain digitizing projects. The U.S. Government Printing Office (GPO), supporter and partial funder of the FDLP, is building a digital collection these days for current and future documents. With Congress moving toward severe budget cuts, the current print-bound FDLP is in the process of looking for new directions.
Librarians, let us rise to the challenge! Let us build an ideal library that will throw down the gauntlet to any future ideal library projects. Let us show the world what we can do when we are given our head. Let us build a better information world and brand it as “POWERED BY LIBRARIANS.”