The Role of Libraries

Analytical Reaction Paper Two by Zach Tomaszewski

for LIS 610, Spring 2001, taught by donna Bair-Mundy

Table of Contents


In these changing times, the question is often posed of what, exactly, is the role of librarians? Answers have ranged from "custodian of books"[1] to "information architects"[2]. Their role seems to be involved in both information and community, but what do these terms mean? Is the primary goal collecting books or serving users? And how will new technologies and the resulting change on society affect libraries in the future? I believe the primary role of the librarian is providing information (ideas) with the intent of increasing knowledge in the individuals of the community he or she serves.

The Information Spectrum

The most common conception concerning libraries is that they are somehow involved in information: cataloging, storing, preserving, or retrieving it. But what is "information"? I believe information comprises of various levels, nearly identical to those put forth by Cleveland [3].

The most basic of these levels is data. In its most basic form, data is the raw qualia of personal experience. It is usually gathered and organized by authors, surveyors, researches, and explorers. It may serve as the basis of their own published ideas, or it may merely be tabulated and presented as such for others to draw conclusions from it.

The second level--ideas--is what is most commonly meant by the term "information." It is a meaningful organization of data, or a conclusion drawn from that organization. It might be, for example, an insight, a theory, a theme, or an opinion. These ideas form the great bulk of what humans communicate to each other.

Knowledge is the third level; it is a personal structure of ideas. Because there is a limit to the number of disjointed ideas a person can hold in memory, there generally emerges some sort of structure built from the relationship of ideas to one another. This structure forms as a model of the world, ultimately derived from data.

When a person's knowledge structure is sufficiently extensive, it can be used to predict or theorize about future events based on how the world is perceived to work. This can be termed wisdom: a deep understanding of the world through a correct and sufficient knowledge structure. This is the top level of information.

I do not believe that these levels are indivisible or separate. Rather, they form a spectrum with fuzzy and indeterminate boundaries. How organized must data be in order to represent an idea? Must the author intend the same idea that the reader receives from the given data? How many ideas must a person be exposed to in order to be deemed knowledgable? And how much knowledge should they have before they can be considered wise? Yet, though the steps are not clearly delimited, the general progression is clear.

The Library's Level

So where does the library fit in? On its very basic level, data is personal experiences. Once it is tabulated and recorded, it becomes available to the world. But even how a researcher or author organizes or presents her data will imply certain ideas and not others. Ideas--stories, morals, opinions, conclusions--certainly seem to be the bulk of communication. Some basic knowledge can be communicated in biographies or introductory surveys of a discipline in that, besides the individual ideas, some sense of the organizing framework used is also communicated. But, in its essence, knowledge (as the term is defined here) means the sum of a person's complete intellectual structure of ideas and experiences. Though parts may be communicated, it is ultimately a private aspect of mind. Finally, wisdom is also very private in that it depends on how a person uses their knowledge structure.

From this view of the spectrum, it seems quite obvious that the library is involved at the "ideas" level. This may involve some of the fuzzy borderlands between data or knowledge, but ultimately ideas are the only level that can be recorded and communicated in its entirety. As Wilson puts it, "Information is a process. Knowledge is a state. Information is a flow of messages. Knowledge is a stock."[4] (It could be debated that the complete "fullness" of an idea can never be communicated, that there is always some clarity lost. I believe most of this "loss" is due to the fact that the personal experiences that produced the idea cannot be fully transferred nor can all the relationships the idea shares with others in the author's knowledge structure. With these considerations in mind, it must be admitted that, even if the complete fullness of an idea is not communicable, it is much more communicable than with true data, knowledge, or wisdom.) If ideas are the only part of the only information level that is recorded and transferred, then this is necessarily where libraries are involved.

Recording Ideas

So why do people record ideas? There are a great number of reasons, but the most important is probably for longevity--so the idea isn't forgotten. Writing can also help clarify an idea. Written records can often reach a much larger audience than the author can with the spoken word; this is increasingly true with the Internet. Also, recorded ideas can be available for future generations. Today, an idea must be recorded before it can be covered by copyright [5] or trademark [6]. Also, it is much easier to sell ideas in a recorded format.

What the Library Does

So there seems to be a high motivation for people to record ideas, and once they are recorded, it is possible to collect them. Libraries do this. The question is: Why? I believe that the answer comes from the information spectrum: A library collects recorded ideas in order to increase the knowledge of the individuals it serves. (Since knowledge is a personal mental construction, knowledge must necessarily be developed individually. A library increases community knowledge only an individual at a time; it cannot influence a community's knowledge directly.) There may be a large difference in the intended audience served by different libraries. My personal library is only intended to serve me. A public library likely intends to reach any person in the town or county it serves. Special, school, and academic libraries all have their own target audiences, usually clarified in their mission statements.

Quality of Records

But this insight into the purpose of libraries raises further issues. If library's utility (nay, its very existence) is determined by its collection of recorded ideas, then the extent and quality of both the records and ideas in its collection must be carefully monitored. In the past, when books took hundreds of man-hours to copy, their value was magnificent. This lead to libraries with chains on every book [7] and vaults of books no one was allowed to access [8]. Though generally less extreme measures are taken today, practically every library has a reference section of non-circulating books, perhaps a closed-stacks area where books must be paged, a conservation department, and perhaps even a vault or back room with a few treasured items that aren't even in the catalog [9]. This care for the records can lead to the question of whether librarians are keepers of books or of their contents [10].

Of course a balance must be struck between conservation and utility. Every library has limited resources and so every library must maintain its records in such a way as to get the most use out of them. But it must always be remembered why the library has the materials in the first place--to be used. Indeed, this is even Ranganatham's first law. [11] Eventually there comes a point when a library spends more resources on preserving a physical record than permitted when compared the use of the idea it contains. This is not to say that old books or other information relics have no worth--they may be extremely valuable to rare book dealers or to museums. But a library's focus is ideas, and so, when a library finds it has a record too valuable to permit general use, it should transcribe the ideas it contains (whenever possible) and sell or donate the work to an appropriate institution. Indeed, I would like to see a closer tie between libraries and museums for archiving and preserving old works.

Quality of Ideas

Besides maintaining the quality and usability of its records, a library often monitors the quality of the ideas it presents. It should not censor or filter out those ideas that it could present at no extra cost, but rather use the resources it does have--money, time, and space--to select those materials with the highest quality and greatest interest for the community it serves. Part of this quality is a balance of different ideas. But this does not mean that the library must have everything ever published on all sides of a debate. It should strive to select those works most representative and well presented of the different views.

It is a minefield of strong emotions that a library must navigate in so selecting materials. Because it exists for the increase of knowledge of individuals in its community, it should try to cater to as many individuals as it can. It is hard to predict what ideas will be most influential, or what mix of entertaining and thought-provoking materials should be maintained. This is part of the issue of social responsibility verses intellectual freedom. In the end, I think each library decides what it means by "a quality collection." [12]

Place in the Information Industry

There is a growing number of institutions and business involved in the information spectrum, and it is often hard to tell where the library fits in. The first major competitor is the Internet: are libraries obsolete? Well, certainly not yet! Webpages are only one medium, and a library contains many media (including the Internet!). Books, as an example pointed out by Wilson [13], are much better than electronic media for a linear, in-depth coverage of an idea or story. Secondly, the library has the advantages of quality, organization, and availability that the Internet does not. By that, I mean that a library has selected quality materials, has them organized for easy retrieval (or at least has a reference librarian, possibly the greatest search engine ever made [14], on hand to help), and it is usually free or very low cost to the community. The Internet can contain anything anyone wants to write, has very little structure, and requires both a computer and a connection.

A second, possibly competing institution is a school or college. They too aim to increase the knowledge of their users. The pivotal difference I see here is that schools actually test that the information was actually retained in a knowledge structure; they do not simply provide the information. Libraries are more of a resource for individuals for self-education, and they impose no requirement of what knowledge must be gained with the ideas it offers.

Also, there are other commercial players in the information business: movie theaters, video stores, music stores, and book stores. I think the largest difference between these is that libraries have a different focus on "quality" than simple entertainment: their collection is usually more scholarly, artistic, or critically acclaimed. Libraries strive to have a more intellectually balanced viewpoint. Yet this is not a difference in kind, but a difference of degree and attention: a library certainly should have entertaining materials, and a video store will surely have something thought-provoking. But when their overall respective collections are considered, there is usually a difference. This difference is similar to that between the television channels A&E and FOX: both have serials, movies, and specials, but their target audience and collections as a whole differ.

Even in places where their collections do overlap, I still see a difference between a library and, say, a bookstore. A library is a place to go to find information (ideas) in general on a topic. A bookstore is a place to go in order to find a certain book to own.


Information can be roughly divided into four levels: data, ideas, knowledge, and wisdom. Since data, knowledge, and wisdom comprise of personal experiences or involve a personal mental structure, it seems that ideas are the main information that people communicate. Libraries collect the records of these ideas for in order to increase the knowledge of the people they serve, whether that is one person or the entire public. Though a library cannot exist without these records, the reason it does so in the first place is to provide access to the ideas within the records. As such, the value of the records should never prevent or hinder users' access to the ideas. Also, a library should strive to maintain a collection of ideas of the greatest quality and balance permitted by its available resources. Though the goals of increasing learning and access to information (ideas) is shared by other institutions, they all have a different medium, intent, or audience. This means that libraries still fill a certain niche in the information field. If they continue to fill this niche well, it should ensure their survival for quite some time into the future.


(Click on an endnote number to return to the associated point in the text.)

1   MacLeish, Archibald. "O the Librarian's Profession." Champion of a Cause. ALA, 1971. p43-53.

2   Quiroga, Luz. Guest class lecture. LIS 670. University of Hawaii-Manoa, Honolulu, HI. 12 Mar 2001.

3   Cleveland, Barlsa. The Knowledge Executive: Leadership in an Information Society. New York: Truman Talley Locks, 1985. p22-3.

4   Wilson, Pauline. "Mission and Information: What Business are We In?" The Journal of Academic Librarianship. 14 (May 1988): 84.

5   U.S. Copyright Office. "Copyright Basics." <> Accessed: 12 Mar 2001.

6   U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. "FAQs -- Email Response Messaging." <> Last Modified: 26 Jan 2001.

7   "Paperback Computer." The Machine that changed the world. Part 3. Video. Princeton, N.J.: Films for the Humanities and Sciences, 1992.

8   The Name of the Rose. Video. Los Angeles: Embassy Home Entertainment, 1987.

9   Morris, Robin, Stacy Judy, and Zach Tomaszewski. Group discussion. LIS 610. University of Hawaii-Manoa, Honolulu, HI. 21 Feb 2001.

10   MacLeish, Archibald. "O the Librarian's Profession." Champion of a Cause. ALA, 1971. p43-53.

11   Finks, Lee W. "Ranganathan's Five Laws of Library Science: Their Endurig Appeal." Southeastern Librarian. (Winter, 1981): 142-5.

12   Class discussion. LIS 610. University of Hawaii-Manoa, Honolulu, HI. 21 Feb 2001.

13   Wilson, Pauline. "Mission and Information: What Business are We In?" The Journal of Academic Librarianship. 14 (May 1988): 85.

14   Group discussion. LIS 610. University of Hawaii-Manoa, Honolulu, HI. 28 Feb 2001.