Do We Need Libraries in the Age of Google?

By Matt GolosinskiMarch 2, 2017

Libraries are the original “core” or “shared” facility, bringing together vast amounts of information in a well-organized, integrated framework. But in the Internet era, with humanity’s collective knowledge seemingly just a few keystrokes away, do libraries still perform their traditional functions — and have they adapted and evolved to meet the needs of modern audiences?

Sarah Pritchard, Dean of Libraries and Charles Deering McCormick Librarian, offers her insights with Northwestern Research Magazine.

NRM: Today there is more digital information than ever and lots of it appears on websites that are called libraries. How do we define what a library is now?

SP: The library is a suite of services. Collections, technologies, cataloging, instruction — even the buildings — are dynamic components of a planned service, not a passive, static box. A library is an intentional aggregation organized for a purpose, whether the materials are paper or digital, fabric, film, wood, or stone (all of which Northwestern University Libraries collect).

The library is not some impersonal entity. Librarians and library staff are deploying resources both local and remote. They set up facilities and technologies, they advise on information management options, and they deliver the information wherever the user is and in the ways most effective for the task. Librarians are expert consultants with expertise in how information or creative work gets produced, the characteristics and information needs of different users, and how to design the best interfaces to connect those users with information. That interface may be the library’s most visible feature: originally a shelf with books in a certain order, it became a card catalog and then a digital database. More recently it includes text-mining tools. Libraries also are the locus for mediating production quality, acquisition costs, academic legitimacy, and intellectual property rights.

NRM: But with enhanced online search ability, some may feel they never need to go into a library.

SP: That misconception is understandable, as libraries and commercial enterprises have made many strides in digitizing new and retrospective works. Even so, much of the world’s information isn’t available on the Internet. Paper production of books and documents is still prevalent in many countries. Then there’s the matter of digital information that can’t be fully searched on the Internet because it’s incompletely encoded or not free. High-quality information is often available only via subscription; new “open access” repositories are growing but are not a substitute for libraries. Google doesn’t tell you what you’re not getting, so people need to evaluate the quality and completeness of what they see on their screens. And a library that is purchasing large arrays of material can vet and organize digital information to meet the particular interests of a university.

NRM: What’s the value of the library’s physical space today?

SP: The buildings are as important as ever, if in different ways. Patrons do use them as study spaces, but what’s equally vital is that they are centers for staff experts, research instruction, technology labs, rare collections, and high-use student services. Digital information services require a lot of space; planetary scanners, book scanners, video and graphics production, GIS plotters, media conversion labs, and accompanying peripherals and
consultation space require considerable square footage. Increasingly, the expectation is for digital up-time — and the human support that keeps it that way — to be 24/7. It’s a challenge to design spaces that integrate the physical and the digital. Advanced technology, security, high-quality audio, and group study have to work together when you house rare and important collections, such as the John Cage collection, an archive of the composer's life.

NRM: If the library is still a building with books, where’s the digital library?

SP: This environment still includes print media and physical spaces, but those are leveraged and extended through digital infrastructure. That infrastructure includes interoperable digital content, online business operations, digital communication, software tools for analyzing and visualizing information, digital platforms for collaboration and dissemination, and immersive virtual worlds of which we are just seeing the early stages.

NRM: How do big libraries differentiate themselves these days?

SP: Each library focuses on special strengths and local needs. Two seemingly paradoxical trends converge in digital information: the global and local. Globally, mass stores of digitized information are expanding, and their size and ubiquity is what frees libraries locally to develop customized services and unique research resources, whatever the format. Academic libraries are expanding their roles to support information creation and use: electronic publishing, advice about copyright and scholarly communication, data management, digital archiving, development of metadata for digital assets, and digital humanities consultation and tools. These services go beyond just the materials in our own collection and extend to collaborate with faculty, students, and others to support a global information environment.