Future Libraries, Crawford & Gorman

Future Libraries book cover

More than sixty years ago, the great Indian librarian S. R. Ranganathan published his Five Laws of Library Science.(8) [Footnotes numbered as in book.] These brief statements remain, mutatis mutandis, as valid today as when they were promulgated. Ranganathan's Five Laws are:

  • Books are for use.
  • Books are for all; or, Every reader his book.
  • Every book its reader.
  • Save the time of the reader.
  • A library is a growing organism.

When one looks beyond the language of 1931, one can see truths in these laws that are as applicable to the practice of librarianship of tomorrow. In the process of thinking about the large issues addressed in this book, we have formulated Five New Laws of Library Science--based on a reinterpretation of Ranganathan's truths in the context of the library of today and its likely futures. We offer these laws in all humility, standing, as we do, on the shoulders of this giant of the library profession.

The new laws of library science are a framework within which libraries can survive and progress. They provide a tool enabling us to think about libraries and technology clearly and rationally.

The dominant ethic of librarianship is service. Libraries exist to serve the individual, community, and society as a whole. The word service connotes individual acts of help as well as the furtherance of the higher aspirations of humankind. Beyond that, service in librarianship implies an attention to quality, a desire to live up to and to surpass the expectations of library users. This law reminds us why we exist and urges us to consider any program or innovation in the light of service. The question "how will this change improve the service that this library gives?" is an analytical tool of great effectiveness. The urge to serve is at the root of successful careers in librarianship and its psychic rewards are many. In the words of Lee Finks: "It is, we should admit, a noble urge, this altruism of ours, one that seems both morally and psychological good."(9)

Another aspect of this law is its emphasis on humanity, by which we mean the individual and humankind as whole. Libraries do not exist to serve exclusivist groups (thought on occasion their sources of funding may make these seem to be true). Our true mission is both to the individual seeker of truth and to the wider goals and aspirations of the culture.

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In the early chapters of this book, we deal with the myths and realities that surround electronic technology with a continuing hysteria about "the death of the book," "the paperless society," and other dreams and nightmares. We hope to demonstrate that the truth of the matter lies in respecting all forms of communication for the strengths that each brings to the conquest of space and time; in acknowledging that the library of the future will use all kinds of carriers of knowledge and information; and in studying the realities of each means of communication in the light of the history of innovation in communication.

The plain fact is that each new means of communication enhances and supplements the strengths of all previous means. Moreover, this appears to be an ineluctable process. This is despite the fact that each new means is greeted with predictions that it will eliminate previous forms of communication. Here is Robert Benchley writing in 1928 on the advent of the talkies:

The movietone is a big success in the hinterland...One theatre man we heard talking about it said that, being a mechanical thing, it would unquestionably be perfected and...mean a revolution in the amusement filed. He said half the legitimate theatres in New York will be out of business as such within ten years. (10)

We do not advocate clinging to print-on-paper, images on film, or grooves on discs in cases when newer technology clearly offers better alternatives. Equally, we do not advocate replacing print-on-paper, etc., when new technology is less effective, more costly, or has other disadvantages. We believe very strongly that the best approach to the future of libraries lies in this utilitarianism. Furthermore, it is surely more affirming and positive to see each advance in communication as enriching and enhancing the universe of knowledge rather than to see it as narrowing and destroying choices.

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A false dichotomy has been created in the minds of many librarians. It is almost as though one has to pick between two sides, each of which is violently opposed to the other. In reality, one does not have to choose between being a Luddite and a soulless technocrat.

The history of progress in librarianship has been a story of the successful integration of new technologies and new means of communication into existing programs and services. Librarians have welcomed innovation and have, if anything, been sometimes overeager in the embrace of the new. The intelligent use of technology involves:

  • seeking answers to problems rather than seeking applications of interesting new technology;
  • weighing the cost-effectiveness, cost-benefit, and, above all, impact on service of any proposed innovation;
  • rethinking the program, service, or workflow that is being automated rather than automating what one has.

Online catalogues are demonstrably superior to card and microform catalogues. Networked indexing and abstracting services are demonstrably superior to their print forerunners. It goes without saying that modern libraries should have electronic circulation systems and acquisitions and serial control systems and should provide access, by one means or another, to the world of digitized data and facts of all kinds (numeric, bibliographic, image-based, and textual.

Looked at objectively, the relative roles of electronic communication and non-electronic communication (print, sound recordings, film/video, etc.) become clear. Electronic methods are best for "housekeeping" and for giving access to data and small, discrete packets of textual, numeric, and visual information (such as those found in many reference works). Each of the other media has areas in which it is the best. In particular, print-on-paper is and will be the preeminent medium for the communication of cumulative knowledge (for a detailed examination of this matter, see Chapter 2).

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Two of the professional values advanced by Lee Finks are stewardship and democratic values. the former calls upon us to "take responsibility for the library as an institution." In Finks' eloquent words:

The library and its fruits must exist 50 years from now, indeed a thousand years from now,for us to have fulfilled our mission. This, in essence, is Jesse Shera's notion of social epistemology, our concern with searching out and assuring the safe passage onward in time of that part of the "social transcript" that is worthy of standing as part of the library. If we don't do this, the culture of the present and past will be lost, which is a prospect that we cannot accept.(11)

People of the future will know only that which we preserve. This is a weighty responsibility and one that should be in the minds of all librarians. Our praiseworthy pursuit of the preservation of intellectual freedom for today's materials should, of course, be continued. However, it should be noted that allowing the records of the past to disappear is a kind of censorship. Libraries are the collective archive of human achievement and the knowledge of the ages. This important role must be at the forefront of any consideration of technological change.

Libraries are central to freedom--social, political, and intellectual freedom. We believe in universal education and trust in the wisdom of an informed and knowledgeable citizenry. It is scarcely exaggerated to say that a truly free society without libraries freely available to all is an oxymoron. A society without uncensored libraries is a society open to tyranny. In our view, libraries must preserve all records of all societies and communities and make those records available to all. Putting an emphasis on the speedy delivery of ephemeral "information" to the detriment of knowledge would be a betrayal of that trust.

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We live in an historical age. The little that is known about the past is not used to inform the actions of the present. Anyone can see the bad effects on society, politics, and daily life of ignoring Santayana's famous dictum:

Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement; and when experience is not retained...infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.(12)

We do not advocate clinging to old things because they are old, nor do we advocate discarding old things because they are old. The library of tomorrow must be one that retains no only the best of the past but also a sense of the history of libraries and of human communication. Without that, the library will be purely reactive, a thing of the moment, sometimes useful and sometimes not but never central to human society. With a sense of history and the knowledge of enduring values and the continuity of our mission, the library can never be destroyed. Along with this sense of time future being contained in time past,(13) there must be the acceptance of the challenge of innovation. It is neither the easiest of prescriptions nor the most fashionable, but libraries need to combine the past and the future in a rational, clear-headed, unsentimental manner. The chapters that follow are intended to show the practical implications of that approach and to constitute a survival guide for all those who value libraries.

9. Lee W. Finks, “Values without shame,” American Libraries, April 1989, pp. 352-356.

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