The L Word

I’ve been working with my team on a vision document for what we want our future digital library platform to look like. This exercise keeps bringing us back to defining the library of the future. And that means addressing the very use of the term, ‘Library.’

When I first exited my library (and information science) program, I was hired by Adobe Systems to work in a team of other librarians. My manager warned us against using the word ‘Librarian’ among our non-librarian colleagues. I think the gist was: too much baggage there.

So, we used the word ‘Information Specialist.’

Fast forward a few years to my time in an academic environment at DePaul University Library and this topic came up in the context of services the library provided. Faculty and students associated the library in very traditional ways: a quiet, book-filled space. But the way they used the library was changing despite the lag in their semantic understanding.

The space and the virtual tools we put in place online helped users not only find and evaluate information, but also create, organize and share information. A case in point was our adoption of digital publishing tools like Bepress and Omeka, but also the Scholar’s Lab.

I’m seeing a similar contradiction in the public library space. Say library and people think books. Walk into a public library and people do games, meetings, trainings and any number of online tasks.

This disconnect between what the word ‘Library’ evokes in the mind’s eye and what it means in practice is telling. We’ve got a problem with our brand.

In fact, we may need a new word.

Taken literally, a library has  been a word for a physical collection of written materials. The Library of Alexandria held scrolls for example. Even code developers rely on ‘libraries’ today, which are collections of materials. In every case, the emphasis is on the collection of things.

Now, I’m not suggesting that we move away from books. Books are vessels for ideas and libraries will always be about ideas.

In fact, this focus on ideas rather than any one mode for transmitting ideas is key. In today’s library’s people not only read about ideas, they meet to discuss ideas, they brainstorm ideas.

I don’t pretend to have the magic word. In fact, maybe it’s taking so long for us to drop ‘Library’ because there is not a good word in existence. Maybe we need create a new one.

One tactic that comes to mind as we navigate this terminological evolution is to retain the library, but subsume it inside of something new. I’ve seen this done to various degrees in other libraries. For example, Loyola University in Chicago built an entirely new building adjacent to the book-filled library. Administratively, the building is run by the library, but it is called the Klarchek Information Commons. In that rather marvelous space looking out over Lake Michigan, you’ll find the modern ‘library’ in all its glory. Computers, Collaboration booths, etc. I like this model for fixing our identity problem and I think it would work without throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

However, its done, one thing is for sure. Our users have moved on from ‘the library’ and are left with no accurate way to describe that place that they love to go to when they want to engage with ideas. Let’s put our thinking caps on and puts a word on their lips that does justice to what the old library has become. Let’s get past the L Word.

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