I’ve spent a whole week trying to think of a coherent way to express my thoughts about last week’s IST511 class, particularly my thoughts on the value of archives and the importance of the library as a place. I can’t really explain why I feel the way I do, but I will try and if I ramble too much I apologize. Firstly, I’ll talk about archives. In class, Prof. Lankes offered the argument that an archive only has value if the community places a value on it. It seems like common sense to me that anything is valueless until someone decides to value it. We even have an idiom for that: one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. But as Prof. Lankes was filling out an argument against preservation (why do we need three first editions of Alice in Wonderland when the content is the same?) I could see the enthusiasm for special collections we all felt after the previous week’s tour slowly fade. I don’t think Dave was really arguing against preservation and archives, though he has very futuristic ideals for librarianship, but because #daveheart said it I know some of my classmates changed their opinions about special collections and archives.
Archives, preservation, and special collections will always be an important part of libraries, not only because of the content of the books, but because the actual physical objects can teach us so much about history. Dave mentioned the man who was sniffing manuscripts as a way of studying the spread of the plague in Europe. By knowing the physical condition of the manuscript and then analyzing the content for source, one could make a map of the areas affected by the plague at various times. It was a great example of how the physical object coupled with the textual content can reveal important historical information. You could argue that archives like that belong in museums and not libraries. Well, partly I think they belong in libraries because I think they can be more accessible there. But, to tell you the truth, when it comes to preservation of books, documents, and manuscripts, I can’t really tell the difference between the museum setting and the library setting (because librarians work in both!).
So, back to the “a thing only has value when people place value one it.” I believe the same argument can be made for libraries (duh!). How do you measure the importance of a library? If nobody visits a library I think you could safely say that it is a failure. I think there are three main factors that affect the importance of the library: the place, the collection, and the community. Just to specify, I mean place as both the physical location and the atmosphere created by librarians and library staff. The most important of the three factors is the community. If the community doesn’t value the library then what is the point of having one? One way to create value, is to convince the community to feel pride in their library. This can be done in two ways, one is to have a beautiful and comfortable place and the other is to have an excellent collection that perfectly appeals to the community. It is important to find a balance between the two because a visually stunning library will lose a lot of appeal if the shelves are empty or the collection uninteresting, and the greatest collection in the world will still be avoided if the place is uncomfortable and unattractive. You will never hear me argue against improving a collection, but it shouldn’t be the only consideration. I’m not arguing that we need to put stained glass windows in the libraries with the economy as it is now, but investing in good lighting and having an approachable reference desk would be a good start.