Saturday, June 14, 2014

Libraries without Books and Books without Libraries

When I was a kid my favorite place to be was the library, and my favorite thing to do there was to simply walk up and down the aisles and aisles of books and stare. Sometimes I would pull out an interesting book, sit down in the middle of the row and read it. This is still one of my favorite things to do in a library, and since I work in one, I often get the chance to wander among the stacks. Having said that, you will probably think that I am irreparably biased toward onsite collections, and honestly, I am. There is something magical and wonderful about being surrounded by endless rows of books, and there always will be, but that doesn’t mean that offsite collections don’t have their merits as well.
            In January of this year my husband and I took a trip to DC, and of course, since I’m a bit of a geek one of our stops had to be to the Library of Congress (where I got a library card, of course). The building was beautiful, and the main reading room was one of the coolest places I’ve ever seen, but one thing that was rather conspicuously absent were the rows and rows of books that I have come to associate with libraries. Now, that’s not to say that the LoC doesn’t have an onsite collection, of course they do. Rather, their onsite collection is carefully preserved, archived and catalogued, most of it away from the public eye. The LoC’s main job is the 9th step in the ‘Life Cycle of Information’, that is, preservation. Yes, they do strive to make important pieces of their collection (like their Gutenberg Bible) available for the public to see, but most of their job entails preserving documents and artifacts from our country’s past.
Another library with a rather large onsite collection is the main branch of the New York Public library. There are 8 floors of stacks below 42nd street containing who knows how many books (there are 53 million items stored over its many braches), though these stacks are again, not available to be browsed by the public. The NYPL is a research library, and these items are available to the public (you don’t even have to be a resident of the City of New York), but they are not there to be browsed. You submit an item request, and if you have the proper credentials, a librarian will fetch your book for you.
Now, having said all of that, you’re probably wondering what exactly my point is. My point (and I do have one) is that onsite and offsite can have much broader meanings than simply having a book inside the physical walls of the library. Working in a browsing library, and having pretty much grown up in one, I tend to think of an onsite collection as books that are available for me to browse through, look at, touch and even smell. I love being surrounded by books, but as you can see from the examples of two very well-known reference libraries, sometimes an offsite collection can be much more beneficial to the public.
Both of the libraries that I mentioned have extensive digital collections, and I’m not just talking about eBooks. They have both taken the time to digitize large portions of their collections, and especially items that are very old, very rare and very valuable. These are pieces of history that the public has every right to have access to; but many of the items are much too fragile even to be displayed, let alone interacted with. The only way that these items can be made available to the public is by putting them online, an offsite collection that can be accessed anywhere in the world. One such object is the $5 Confederate bill that was in Lincoln’s pocket the night he was assassinated (if you’re interested, click here to check it out).
As you can see, onsite collections can be extensive, but unavailable. While offsite collections can sometimes be accessed anywhere around the world. There are merits to both sides, and neither option is perfect for every occasion, or every collection. Any library that wants to really make a name for itself (and the Library of Congress has certainly done that) needs to employee both on and offsite collections. Even our small little local library has stacks that can be browsed, as well as eBooks that can be checked-out and read anywhere.

No comments:

Post a Comment