Why Libraries Kick Ass

This is my entry for the Louisville Free Public Library Blogathon. Check out the story behind the blogathon here at the wiki. You can donate the Louisville Free Public Library Foundation by clicking banner below.

I’m going to go out on a limb, but I’m guessing that the majority of the my librarian peers do not have a bachelor’s in biology like I do. My path to biology started at the end of high school with the all important question: what do you want to do in college? My initial inclination was to study physical therapy; it was science based, I got to work with my hands, and I got to help people. I didn’t see myself as someone who would work in an office from 9 to 5 or even a lab, for that matter. But, as things turned out, physical therapy was not for me. This came at the end of my sophomore year and put me in a dilemma: I didn’t want to change majors, I didn’t want to “waste” some of the classes I had taken, and I still wanted something that would meet the previously mentioned criteria. I meandered with classes within the basic biology degree requirements for a year, but I was still very uncertain as to what to do. At the start of my senior year, I took the required “plant” class; it was a core requirement that each biology student take Botany or Introduction to Plants. I took the former since I had heard that the latter was deadly dull. And it was a fortuitous turn; I loved the plant physiology part of the class and that, after college, I wanted to work with plants. I wasn’t sure exactly what that meant, but having some direction instead of none was a better feeling and guided my class choices as I finished my degree.

After college, I worked for a pair of commercial nurseries in the area over the course of three years. I was fired from each, but it was the parting words of one of the owners of the second business that sparked my path towards library science. He said, “Andy, there are other things in this world that you seem to have more of an interest in. We’re wondering why you’re not doing that.” He was right; while I liked what I did and was able to do it, I didn’t love it. So I started trying to find something I did love. This lead to a year in law school. During the summer after this first year, commiserating about being on academic probation, Kathy (my wife) was talking about becoming a librarian. She was an assistant master electrician at the Delaware Theater Company, but she always had an interest in it. She was looking at taking some classes from Clarion University since they taught Saturday classes at the Philadelphia Free Public Library. That fall, she signed up for a class. When she came back in the evening, she talked about class with such feeling and excitement that it made me think about following her into the field. In the middle of the fall that year, we made the commitment to move out to Clarion, go through grad school, get our MLS’s, and come back as librarians.

And the rest, they say, is history. And I told you that story so as I can tell you why I think libraries kick ass. As a biologist, I believe libraries are in midst of exciting and rapid evolving. Allow me to explain.

If the library was an organism, it would have had a long period of time in which there wasn’t much change. Going back through time to the early age of recorded history, it was a niche resource of learning and information storage available to those who were educated and could afford it. The introduction of the printing press and moveable type created a small time blip on the evolutionary development of the library, but only in that it allowed the educated elite to collect books from other parts of the printing world. Library collections were still private as the the property of the state, nobility, or universities.

Only within the last hundred years, with the spread of literacy and the notion of public education, the library has started to evolve. Communities built libraries to house shared literature and educational resources for the common good. What was once only available to the select few was now available to the general public. This stayed about the same for the better part of a century before technological innovations changed everything.

It is here, within the last twenty five years, that the evolution of the modern library fascinates me. The explosion of communication innovations and modern computation powers have quickly created a new global network of information exchange. The library has been forced to rapidly evolve to incorporate these new tools and technology into our collection. In doing so, librarians have become inventors and innovators looking to dissolve barriers to access, to create simpler presentation models, and to generate awareness to the global information network that exists. These rapid short term changes of the library evolution represent a new age of humanity as the global village finally forms on the basis of true knowledge and understanding: an unfettered idea and information exchange.

This is why libraries kick ass. We are evolving along with the speed of innovation cycles, bringing new approaches and tools as to how we collect, store, and retrieve information in all its forms. There are few things in this world that remain remote, that cannot be reached in one medium or another, and for the first time in history, we have the clearest picture as to what our global neighbors look, sound, and think like. Libraries continue to grow, evolve, and move forward in this bold new information age. There is nothing more exciting to be standing at the precipice of the expansion of human knowledge and to know that this is only the beginning. This is why libraries matter, this is why libraries are integral, and this is why libraries kick ass.

Addendum: I am estimating that there was about 77 people who participated in the blogathon, including 50 students from The Unquiet Librarian‘s two media classes. I wish I could gauge what kind of fund raising this created, but I did get a nice spike in blog traffic. Hopefully that translated into some donations for the library. Keep an eye on Steve Lawson’s blog to see how his ‘write a big check for the LFPL’ cause went!