Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Library, the Word

I stepped outside of libraryland this past weekend, on a trip out of state. It's always interesting to hear the reactions of strangers when you tell them you're a librarian. This time I got a sympathetic "Oh, I have an iPad now, so I guess we won't need libraries much longer," which made me grind my teeth a little, and it got me thinking about the average perspective of what the word library means. Of course libraries have power users, and libraries also have patrons who look for librarian assistance with absolutely everything in their lives, but what about the average person? Does the average person truly think that thanks to Apple, there is now no need for a library?

Since before I became a librarian, libraries have been in transition, yet the word endures. (To put this in perspective, the library in my high school was called a media center.) In some ways this is to our advantage, in that we don't have to introduce people to what a library is or do a hard sell to convince them to use it. Or do we? Because in a way, people have a very definite idea of what a library is, even if that library they imagine doesn't really exist anymore. We're still using the term, even if it's inaccurate. What to do?

The obvious recourse is to delete the word library from the vocabulary -- fine, iTunes, it's all yours! -- and call ourselves something else. It's time for a clean break: There are too many associations and assumptions held by the average person about what a library is and what it is not. But then we are faced with the question that has stumped better minds than mine: What replaces the word library? For all of the library traditions that blind us to new possibilities and directions, there are also some that are worth keeping as we move forward. A commitment to service is one, and so is a focus on users' needs. A methodical approach to collecting and grooming relevant content is another. So, what single word is descriptive and short and doesn't imply stacks of musty scrolls? Suggestions are welcome.

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