A library always has information

photo by Horia Varlan

image by Horia Varlan

Information is a dreadful word – stuck somewhere between the  cold mathematics of Shannon and Weaver and the commercial commodification of even worse words like “content” and “product.” But how else do we describe the “content” of a library? “Knowledge” and “data” have special sorts of meaning that don’t always apply to what a library provides. Information is what libraries do. Without information, there isn’t a library.

That is going to strike many in the library profession as an old fashioned, even reactionary view. In recent years, we’ve come to think of libraries and librarianship as a suite of services and activities that cannot be reduced to a dictionary definition about a collection of materials or the location in which the collection is housed. We put up quite a hullabaloo when OCLC published Perceptions of Libraries in 2010, which suggested that when people thought about libraries they thought, “books.” ARRRRRRRGH would generally describe the librarian response in the blogosphere. We don’t want to think of ourselves as the sum of all information in a collection. We’re more than that!

I think there are several explanations for the development of this reaction against “the library as collection.” First, of course, is that the library is largely virtual. It doesn’t exist in a place the way it once did. The fact that the information of a library exists less and less in a physical container suggests that the actions required to access and use information are more important now than the physical embodiment of the information. Then, since information is disembodied, as it were, it is everywhere. People don’t have to come to libraries to get information. It is floating in the air. They can find it on their phone. Our declining circulation numbers attest to this and at the same time give us a sense of doom about continuing to pin our star to “the library as information.”

Of course, libraries have always been a combination of things and actions. We acquire books. We organize and describe materials. We help people find information. We teach people to navigate a sea of data. Sometimes a single person provides all those services. Sometimes there is a division of labor. Sometimes there is conflict and disagreement between one division and another. Each group thinks of itself as the “heart” of the library enterprise.

There seems to be a growing belief that the actions of libraries are more important than the things. A library isn’t information–it is the ability to find information. It is a place that will teach you how to find information. It is a service that enables the provision of information. Maybe it is even a place where people gather to create information. Yes, all of those are true. I embrace all of those visions of a library. But here’s the thing: information is the object of all those actions. They are sentences that are incomplete without “information.” Even in a world where we don’t own or physically hold the information, where all of our actions are directed away from a local collection, information is still the reason we exist. If a library isn’t information or the means to access information, then all of our actions could as easily be ascribed to or performed by schools, businesses, consultants, or other entities. We don’t need libraries in that case.

Because libraries are a constellation of actions that point towards information, we need to continue thinking of information as central to our mission. Otherwise, we are doing something other than librarianship.

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