Reflections on chapter 1 of The Portable MLIS

I have been living in San Diego for almost six years now, and I have a running joke about many local businesses or landmarks: if it was there when I arrived, then it’s been there forever. And as far as I know, it has; I cannot personally disprove this theory. This is similar to the way I tend to think of libraries, as entities that have always been there and have always served the same purpose: to organize information, and to grant access to it. After all, the world’s most famous library was built more than two thousand years ago in Alexandria, and its purpose was to aid scholars in the pursuit of knowledge. So things haven’t change in two millennia, right?

The first chapter of The Portable MLIS: Insights form the Experts offers a brief history of libraries and their origins and purpose, and it turns out I could not have been more mistaken. According to Richard Rubin (2008), libraries have alternately served as commercial databases, keepers of religion tradition, vehicles for their patrons’ personal aggrandizement, and centers of scholarly research — and that was all before Roman times. It was not until the middle of the 19th century that the modern library was born and began its mission as we know it today: to ensure that everyone has meaningful access to information.

This strikes me as particularly interesting given my recent experiences with academic libraries. I have had the opportunity to attend events where the library deans at the two largest and most prestigious universities in San Diego presented their thoughts on the present and future of academic libraries, and they are in agreement that sweeping changes are in our immediate future. Both men are leading efforts to change the way the library interacts with users, the better to provide the types of services today’s student needs. And if you ask them what their biggest problem is in implementing these plans, they’ll tell you that it is very difficult to convince their librarians that the changes are needed.

Listening to these leaders talk about their challenges, you get the idea that library culture is firmly rooted in a “this is the way it’s always been, so this must be the right way to do our job” attitude. Before reading this chapter, this would have made sense to me; and to be fair, one hundred and fifty years is a long time. Still, libraries have been around for millennia, and the most salient trends seems to be their ability to mold themselves to the survival and growth opportunities available, whether that be Andrew Carnegie’s fortune or the data needs of the Sumerian traders. This gives me hope. At a time when many are predicting the demise of the library as we know it, it is comforting to know that libraries have endured despite many a rough time. Change is still difficult to manage, and much work remains to be done to guarantee that libraries will adapt to, survive, and even thrive in the electronic age. But if the razing of Nineveh didn’t stop libraries, it’s hard to imagine that the Internet will be able to do so.

Rubin, Richard E. (2008). Stepping Back and Looking Forward: Reflections on the Foundations of Libraries and Librarianship. In Haycock, Ken & Sheldon, Brooke E. (Ed.). (2008). The Portable MLIS: Insights from the Experts. (pp. 3-14) Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.


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