Another interesting piece in the Chronicle’s special supplement on libraries – this one from a professor of English who worries open stacks are a thing of the past. In “Libraries Lost” Fred D. White expresses dismay that automated retrieval, remote storage, and dependence on online browsing will discourage serendipity and diminish the possibility that students will experience the tactile pleasures of books.
Contrary to any number of “next gen” or “millenial” predictions, the students I know are fond of physical books and mostly averse to online versions. Once they get the hang of the unfamiliar LC system, they use browsing effectively as a necessary supplement to online searching. Cataloging and classification truly do belong together as the yin and yang of discovery.
There is an issue that faces libraries, though–where do you put all the stuff? Apart from adding space or converting the social areas into stacks, there’s the problem that good books will be lost in the clutter – and in that way be just as inaccessible as if they were in remote storage. College libraries do a much better job of choosing new books carefully than getting rid of books that frankly aren’t useful anymore. Yes, one can debate “useful to whom?” but for libraries concentrating on building a solid collection for undergraduates, we need to pay as much attention to what shouldn’t be on the shelves anymore as to what’s missing when we think about collection development.
I’m at the Pennsylvania Library Association Conference the next few days. I just left Carrie Gardner’s (faculty at Catholic U.’s LIS) presentation on “Communicating Your Intellectual Freedom Message.” Although it was geared somewhat more to the public library sector I think Carrie gave some great advice for understanding what information is illegal (e.g., child pornography, libel, slander, dangerous speech and obscenity) versus what might be deemed offensive, disturbing or unethical. Her key point was that we all need to be effective communicators when it comes to sending out a strong message that there are critically important reasons why our libraries must have the freedom to collect and offer access to a wide variety of materials in all formats, even some that might offend – as long as they are not illegal. I asked Carrie about academic freedom versus intellectual freedom, and whether the latter does afford some protections to those who lack academic freedom. This is one of those “gray area” issues. At many of our institutions, and it can certainly depend where it falls within the conservative-liberal spectrum, non-tenured staff may have a wide berth in their rights to speak and write what they like because there is a fundamental belief in the importance of intellectual freedom and the contribution it makes to a spirtited academic environment. However, Carrie was clear that intellectual freedom, despite its conceptual benefits, would not provide the protections of academic freedom. This is a fairly complex issue that I’ll continue to explore, but I’m glad that Carrie is out there teaching our future students about and working with ALA on these issues. If you want to share your perspectives on or interpretation of how intellectual freedom relates to academic librarianship and would like to help us explore and understand it further, we invite your comments or will consider publishing a post from you.