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Author: Deanna Marcum
Title: When Everyone Will Be a Librarian: The Future of Libraries
Publication info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
May 2002

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Source: When Everyone Will Be a Librarian: The Future of Libraries
Deanna Marcum

vol. 5, no. 1, May 2002
Article Type: Article

When Everyone Will Be a Librarian: The Future of Libraries

Deanna Marcum



New works in nontraditional formats present technical, legal, and cultural challenges to library institutions. Meeting these challenges will require cooperation between professional librarians, enthusiastic amateurs, and a wide range of communities. Such cooperation will be catalyzed by flexible notions of librarianship that deal with the future as they preserve the past.


Until now, libraries have been society's place for preserving information. Since World War II, and more dramatically with the advent of the World Wide Web in the mid-1990s, the kinds of things that are becoming part of the documentary record—and I'm defining the term "documentary" quite freely —are not the kinds of works that have typically gone into libraries' collections. So as librarians and scholars, we are having to figure out how we will serve society in the future by thinking carefully about the documentary record, whatever form that takes, and a shared responsibility for its preservation. We're talking about three challenges to the way we know how to do business: new kinds of works, a new range of potential partners, and a new idea of stewardship.

Let me just anticipate my conclusion: libraries of the future will require broad collaboration among scholars, technologists, librarians, and enthusiasts. If we are to capture for the future the new works of today, which are written in code and distributed on the Net, preservation of those works must begin at their creation. What does this mean for notions of "creation"? What kinds of organizational and technical structures must be in place to enable preservation to occur in a coherent way that will enable researchers to find what they seek? And how does broad participation in the act of preservation, which is central to future scholarship, affect the way we understand our roles as scholars and librarians? No longer keepers of the flame, perhaps, we must learn to behave like leaders and to redefine notions of stewardship.


Librarians have developed complex procedures for dealing with works: The Anglo-American Cataloging Rules. They respond to two fundamental questions: How do I describe this item, typically a book but by extension a film, record, or CD-ROM? And what is this item about? Although labor intensive, these rules work fairly well for print materials and for print-like materials, things with clear conceptual boundaries.

But much of the history of the last half of the twentieth century is not documented in book-like objects. For example, although we can treat a feature film like a well-defined item, what do we do with a television or a radio broadcast? Film and broadcast libraries can catalog these according to criteria supplied by the owners, but indeed, how can we be assured that the broadcast, as it was aired on several networks, is reflected in a tape that might be deposited in a collection? Indeed, how are we even assured that we will obtain a copy of at least something for the purposes of building a collection? In a film library of hundreds and hundreds of feet of film, how will we ever be able to know enough about each work to answer patrons' questions?

Problems of boundaries, ownership, permanence, and content multiply when we start to think about preserving content from the Web. Libraries have historically relied on the doctrine of first sale as the basis for building collections that they then make available to their patrons. With digital content, though, we now have site licenses for some resources, such as scholarly journals. Others, such as routine updates to MSNBC or are simply impossible to acquire. So, now when we try to create scholarly collections based on digital material, we ask, "What restrictions are attached to it?" Do I, as the library, have a legitimate copy of a digital work, and under what terms and conditions may I make it available to my patrons and to future patrons without infringing upon the copyright owner's rights? Finally, and dramatically in the instance of the Web, what are the boundaries of work? Is a PBS site that offers hyperlinks to other resources just the set of files on a computer or cluster of computers that is identified by PBS (or some other responsible authority)? Or does the site include all the files to which the site points? Finally, even if we assume that the owner of the site has granted a library permission to copy his files for purpose of creating a scholarly collection, who grants the library the right to copy and retain these associated sites?

The previous example illustrates some of the issues that might arise in the future if we try to create collections of materials that document our current events, popular culture, or even the diffusion of the information technologies themselves. Now, one of the achievements of the information technologies is the democratization of that technology and to some degree access to rare and unique materials that only scholars were able to see. This convergence of history, technology, and democracy means that not only are the traditional venues like the Library of Congress extending access to collections but non-traditional entities are getting into the business of history as well.

Consider this example from the New York Times (February 16, 2002): A new site,, has recently posted two letters about Abraham Lincoln by two of his cousins, Charles and John Hanks, who offered opposing views of Lincoln while he was running for president. It is common for talented amateurs to use philanthropic means to support their interest in Lincoln, American history, or European culture. It is unusual for talented enthusiasts—and by amateurs and enthusiasts, I mean individuals who are outside of the formal, scholarly institutionsto go directly to the public. What does this mean for the prospective user? Presumably, collections posted by recognized institutions like the Library of Congress are reliable in the sense that the documents are authentic, the mark-up conforms to professional standards, and there is provision to ensure stability of collections, now and in the future. But what of these other forms? Have the documents been vetted? Has the content been preserved when it was transformed from print to ASCII? And can future users rely on it to be there tomorrow, next year, 10 or 100 years from now?

Some of the questions I have posed in this example are technical and the technologists in this audience are well aware of the many dimensions to the issues raised in the context of persistence, authenticity, and reliability. But even if we solved these problems today and created the necessary tools tomorrow, I am not convinced that we would have fully served our societal mission. As this example suggests, it will not be enough to achieve consensus on what constitutes a digital work, what its boundaries are, how rights and privileges will be protected, and how to ensure that a digital archive does not degrade. It will not be enough to deploy these tools and systems to several hundred public and private scholarly institutions in Washington, New York, and the major universities. Precisely because the technology has democratized creation and access, we are now facing a future in which the societal responsibility for preservation resides not in the few with a well-defined curatorial mission but rather with the many who now have the means of creation. Otherwise, and with perhaps a few exceptions, much will become ephemera and documenting one of the key developments of the social and technological history of the late twentieth century will be lost.


So far, I have sketched some of the issues that arise when we think about the properties of digital works: they challenge our notions of boundary, ownership, authenticity, persistence, and reliability, and they can be created by a vast range of players. These are not only new works—the so-called "e-zines," for example—but also digital versions of the Great Works that enthusiasts as well as scholarly entities have chosen to make available.

Traditionally, building collections for scholarly use now and in the future could be safely left to librarians and archivists. Rivalries among institutions led to sufficient redundancy in the overall system and complementary missions meant that the system overall was efficient. Institutions like the Library of Congress published guides to collections, and students could patiently work their way through the maze of reference material and more or less figure out where relevant material was.

But the sheer volume of information, multiplicity of creators, and ephemeral properties of some of the digital resources suggests that formal selection and collection development policies in which institutions systematically acquire the digital material according to their respective missions will not be sufficient. Rather, we are looking a reversal of roles. No longer can preservation and scholarly collection development be safely left to a separate entity in the distribution system—the library. Instead, preparation for preserving the work must become part of the act of creating the work, whether it is a resource created by one of the traditional institutions or one that is the brainchild of a new player.

One reason for the change in roles arises from the legal regime: libraries and archives simply cannot acquire the rights that may enable them to preserve and provide access to digital works. First sale breaks down in the digital environment. A second, and perhaps more interesting reason, is the dynamic quality of the resource. How many of us remember the old command-line Internet? When we navigated as much by typing strings of characters as by point and clicking on images and icons? Has that Internet been saved so that our children's grandchildren can see how quaint it was and can speculate about what it meant to transform a mode of communication from command line to graphical interfaces, and to go from a few hundred thousand to several billion users in less than a decade? These are questions that future generations will ask and I fear that we have lost some of the data from which they might have wanted to build answers.

What, then, would it take to have preserved the Internet of 1992? Merely the active participation of every node. And what would that "active participation" consist of? Technologists and librarians can think of many requirements: persistent identifiers, metadata, registry systems, stable storage media, software to enable migration and emulation (depending on which strategy is most appropriate), retaining hardware where playback was required on a given platform (for example, e-books and play stations), etc. But most of all, it would have required organization and awareness, not just of a few but of everyone. Both, I fear, are currently lacking; and without them, we are headed for a future of spotty retention of relatively few resources and loss of important information. This is not to say that every page on every site belongs in an archive, but that coherent preservation of the raw digital data for some future history requires broad participation of more than one community—the community of scholars and librarians; it requires participation by all of us. And that poses a challenge not only for creators of digital content but also for those of us traditionally invested with this societal responsibility.


Thus far, I have argued that the digital environment enables new kinds of resources, and that these resources challenge our technology for cataloging and preserving them because of their properties, their volume, and the circumstances of their creation. In the example of the early Internet, which I just gave, everyone on the then small and limited network would have had to have participated in order to preserve the whole—putting aside the question of what "preservation" even meant in that context. Given the decentralization of content creation enabled by the information technologies, we are looking at a broad range of potential preservation agencies and partners, not all of whom share values, tools, and skills. This means we have a massive job of education on our hands as well as the massive job of creating the tools and structures that will enable would-be digital content creators to manage their content in a responsible way. That will be extremely difficult.

One source of hope arises from our experience with other new media, notably radio, television, and film. In the history of film librarianship, there are many stories of near misses and failures resulting from studio de-accession policies, which, in practice, meant dumping "old" films in the bay. This is not because the studio owners failed to appreciate preservation—I assume they liked libraries and museums—but rather because they could not see the value of their products as cultural artifacts. Indeed, it was not until the organization of the American Film Institute in the early 1960s that the scholarly value of early film was widely appreciated, and, thanks to worldwide distribution, copies of early American films were recovered from European holdings.

We have seen similar transformations in the value placed on collections in other media. Henry Ford called history "bunk" not because he did not appreciate the importance of history, but because he wanted to call attention to the significance of ordinary things in everyday life as distinguished from the high culture and antique artifacts then venerated in the marble halls of formal museums. He proceeded to support his own collections of what we now call material culture. Similarly, we can thank the amateur architectural historians in Charleston, New Orleans, and other colonial cities for preserving their old and sometimes dilapidated buildings; we now call this "historic preservation" and study it in graduate programs in history, architecture, archaeology, and anthropology.

Other examples of philanthropy and amateurism abound—Mt Vernon and Colonial Williamsburg are two that spring to mind. But these examples remind me that notions of what constituted history and archaeology were also changed, both to expand the definition of what was an appropriate topic of study as well as the way that the study itself was changed. The Valley of the Shadow and Perseus projects are two examples of the impact of computing technology for the humanities; we have yet to fully understand how the historical profession will evolve as a result of them. At a minimum, we can see an expansion in the types of resources sanctioned by the profession. So far, these are changes within the profession; we are not necessarily seeing an expansion in inclusion, although anecdotal evidence from the Perseus project suggests that it has encouraged a resurgence of popular interest in Latin.

Libraries have long been comfortable with volunteerism but we are accustomed to working with volunteers under the direction and within the framework of formal and well-understood library procedures. If we seek to build out the library organization into a coherent framework within which to preserve digital collections within a broad collaboration of many groups, the profession of librarianship may have to change. As an example of one type of change, a friend of mine, a professional writer who is physicist with a background in the history of science, tried to use some of the WPA collections that were posted to an early version of the Library of Congress's Web site. He abandoned this after a few tries because he found the extensive markup—the rendering in text and symbols of all of the characteristics of the document—irritating; they got in his way in a way that the original, tattered typescript might not.

So here we have an interesting clash in values: the literary values of the documentary editors who are facile in the subtleties of document mark-up and the meaning that this mark-up conveys to other scholars versus the desire for usability by a well-educated user. Imagine the response the mark-up might have garnered from a tired student who just wanted to finish a term paper. My point is not that mark-up is unnecessarily detailed, but rather that different audiences will have different needs, and the labor intensive treatment we have meted out to historical materials may be, in some cases, unnecessary and impossible to scale to the millions of millions of digital resources we have yet to encounter.

This is not unlike tensions in cataloging. Recall that I began my discussion with a passing reference to the Anglo-American Cataloging Rules. Powerful as these rules and procedures may be and useful as they have been for bringing coherence to resources in many venues, they can be baroque in detail and in some cases inhibit change. My goal tonight is not to discuss tensions in the cataloging community. It is, however, to point out that our technologies in the analog world are already stretched to the breaking point. Quite apart from the peculiar challenges of digital, we are faced with a need to think of new ways to cope with the onslaught of information and to think of these new tools in terms of broad participation in their use. This means that, as librarians, perhaps we should be thinking about making things as simple as possible, about capturing some notion of a reasonable first-pass, and of sharing the wealth. How easy can we make it and still put the resources away, so to speak, such that the grandchildren of our readers today can find them tomorrow?

Mark-up and cataloging are just two examples. My larger point is that in the broad collaboration among technologists, scholars, enthusiasts, and librarians, libraries offer an infrastructure into which participation can be folded. We have a history of doing this. Not all libraries are alike; the local public library is quite different from the library at a major research institution, but they also share a lot. Any one of us can walk into the door of either and find our way around. Yes, some of the techniques and tools will have to change. But libraries offer an architecture on which a digital tomorrow can be built. The ramifications of what that means have yet to be explored, but unless we do so, and do so in a broad, collaborative way, future scholarship may be compromised. Our history suggests we're a can-do sort, and I welcome you all to the new world of librarianship and preservation.

Deanna Marcum can be reached at <>