Real Libraries in a Digital World: The Launch of the Digital Public Library of America
The launch last week of the Digital Public Library of America offers the public a chance to see 2.4 million archival items normally out of reach. This brings up the much debated topic of the role libraries and archives play in the digital age – specifically, do we need them in a publicly accessible physical space?

The answer is ‘Yes’ and with good reason. 

Digital collections comprise only a fraction of the materials available in this country’s libraries and archives.  Beyond that, libraries offer intangible benefits that the digital world never can.  When archival and library repositories embrace the future by providing digital access to collections both rare and common, the role of the physical space changes.  Beyond the tactile pleasure of print books and the historical value of original documents, the library is a community space.  And perhaps, most importantly of all, it is where the skill and knowledge of librarians and archivists can be engaged to public benefit. 

On Marketplace Tech, Maureen Sullivan, President of the American Library Association, was quoted:

“We in the library field and all of our supporters have to do the very best we can to help the funders and decision makers understand that this is an enhancement and not a replacement for today’s library…traditional libraries offer programs and services – and an atmosphere – you can’t get online.”

If anything, both virtual and physical spaces where these professionals can assist the public are ever more important as many more inexperienced researchers gain access to primary sources.  Librarians and archivists help to guide users in how to find the right information and to verify authenticity of sources, something that cannot be automated.  As author Neil Gaiman has stated, “Google can bring you back 100,000 answers, a librarian can bring you back the right one.”  

Let’s not forget, also, that each item available through the Digital Public Library of America has been selected, preserved, scanned and described by information professionals.  Librarians and archivists are the driving force behind digital projects like this because they see it as a way to expand access to their materials, an extension of their longstanding commitment to serve the public. 

Francis Blouin, Professor and Director of the Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan, adds, “libraries need to change from content providers to a place that helps people navigate the content.”  He concludes, “There is a sense that the older generation have a romantic longing for the experiences in a public library, but what is good and enduring needs to match to the digital library reality.”  The key to the bright new future is to view exciting new projects like the Digital Public Library of America as additional resources that enhance the library experience, not as a replacement.