Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Finding A Place For History In The Library Of The Future

  Is there a place for rare books, special collections, and archives in the ever-evolving entity known as the library? As we move to the future, these historical repositories may be one of the key factors that keep libraries relevant in the digital age. The archive’s unique material, connection with the community, and the ability to reunite material make these locations more important than ever.

Unique Material
            Archives and special collections amass vast amounts of rare and one-of-a-kind materials. Many of these items are from the local community. It has been the priority of many archives to digitize their collections, making it possible to share their information with few restrictions. The Association of College and Research Libraries writes that:

Many of these collections, particularly those that include rare or unique content or institution-specific materials such as university records and grey literature, are or will be digitized. OCLC Research reports that 97% of the 169 research libraries in the United States and Canada with special collections surveyed have “completed one or more digitization projects and/or have an active program”. (Association of College and Research Libraries Research Planning and Review Committee, 2012)
Once a collection is digitized, it is often placed on the Internet. This makes the collection more accessible to the public, researchers, and other institutions.
           In fact, the digitization of files makes sharing that information worldwide a possibility.  This leads to better cultural understanding, both at home and abroad. In his predictions about the futures of libraries, futurist Thomas Frey states: “Our ability to learn about and understand the cultures of the rest of the world are key to our ability to prepare ourselves for the global societies of the future.  At the same time that we learn about global societies, a new era of global systems will begin to emerge.” (Frey, The Future of Libraries, n.d.)  There is no better way to learn about a community than by examining first hand documents.

Community Connection
            Libraries are becoming the hub of many communities. The archive often gives a sense of perspective to a community, showing the evolution of the area over the years. Frey writes:

One of the most valuable things we can pass on to our children and grandchildren is the gift of perspective. Their ability to put themselves into our shoes 30-50 years ago, even for a moment, gives them a vastly different understanding of the world around us today. (Frey, The Library of the Future Series, Part 1: The Time Capsule Room, 2008)
This is important because it creates a sense of pride within a community, and often strengthens the bonds within the community as well.
            Community artifacts can take many forms. Traditionally, collections are usually comprised of old books, letters, and photographs. In his report Confronting the Future, Roger Levien looks ahead to the types of artifacts that we produce today that will be useful in the future. Levien writes:

These might include municipal records, such as demographic data, information on land and buildings, tax rolls, and police and fire records; educational records from the school system; local newspapers or blogs; personal remembrances and memoirs; historical and current photos; and the miscellaneous ephemera of public events. To the extent possible, these records would be digitized and linked to the Web or its successor. The local library would also catalog its unique local holdings. (Levien, 2011)
Projects like these engage the community and gain their support. If the community feels a bond with a resource such as a library or archive, they are more willing to fund it through hard times, and fight to keep the facilities and staff first rate.

Reunification of Material
            Another positive aspect for the future of archives in libraries is that as records are digitized and published, “lost” pieces of a collection are found at other institutions and with private citizens. Even though the physical original stays at its location, the digital records can be freely shared and reproduced between these entities. This may reunite collections that may not have been whole for hundreds of years. One example of this is the collection of Myron Eells. Eells’ collection was split after his death, and many pieces of it are resurfacing now. In his article about Eells’ collection, Michael Paulus writes, “The current state of Eells’ collection presents an example of the possibilities for restoring fragmented collections and of the opportunities for reconvergence among LAM [Libraries, Archives, and Museums] collections and institutions.” (Paulus, 2011) From an organization perspective, this is very important. As the Internet and searching evolve, records can now be located in a single easy to access space preventing researchers from having to physically visit multiple institutions.

            Digitization is the future for archives. As technology evolves, the archive will evolve with it. Possibly we will learn how to save smells and tastes one day, and there will be an archive waiting to store that information. Books may fall to eBooks like CDs fell to mp3’s, but there will always be a need to retain unique and local data.

Works Cited

Association of College and Research Libraries Research Planning and Review Committee. (2012). 2012 top ten trends in academic libraries A review of the trends and issues affecting academic libraries in higher education. College and Research Libraries News, 73(6), 311-320.

Frey, T. (2008). The Library of the Future Series, Part 1: The Time Capsule Room. Retrieved June 14, 2013, from The Da Vinci Institute:

Frey, T. (n.d.). The Future of Libraries. Retrieved June 14, 2013, from The Da Vinci Institute:

Levien, R. E. (2011). Confronting the Future: Strategic Visions for the 21st Century Public Library. Chicago: American Library Association.

Paulus, M. (2011). The Converging Histories and Futures of Libraries, Archives, and Museums as Seen through the Case of the Curious Collector Myron Eells. Libraries & the Cultural Record, 46(2), 185-205.



  1. Libraries have always been the gateway to information. As Chris mentions, I think that digital archiving is one of the most exciting avenues for libraries are taking. Technology, especially the internet, has given libraries the opportunity to offer their traditional resources online. A mid-Michigan library system, the Public Libraries of Saginaw (P.L.S.), have taken their first steps in offering digital collections. P.L.S. offers an obituary index online, which allows genealogists and patrons to easy, quick, and free access to library records (2013).

    If patrons are just looking for a cemetery location, the Library has offered a valuable service which does not even require patrons to stop and visit their library. At the very least, easy and instant access to digital archives helps patrons decide when and where they need to go before continuing research, and this is not even considering research time once they get to the library. P.L.S., a modestly size library system has had this particular digital repository accessed over 40 million times (Obituary Index, 2013). Consider the amount of foot traffic and material wear if patrons were coming to the library to look through card catalogs for that information.


    Obtiuary Index. (n.d.). Public Libraries of Saginaw. Retrieved from

  2. I think that ties in well with the point I made in my article about re-uniting collections. If every community took the initiative to create an obituary/grave yard index, these indexes could be collected at different levels (local/state/national) to share the information in a larger databse to create a "one-stop-shop" for researchers looking for this type of information.

    1. That's a great project I'd love to see happen. We have a fantastic group of local historians who volunteer in the Heritage Room at our library. One lady in particular is an expert on all the local cemeteries. More people should have access to her expertise and all of the incredible data she's put together.

  3. I think that is a great idea Chris, by creating a "one-stop-shop", will make it easier for patrons to find what they need without having to go to multiple locations. I for one would find this to be more effective especially when you are pressed for time as it is.

    1. Not only is it valuable for not having to go to multiple stops, it really assists with research for out-of-state (or possibly country) interests. This information may not be accessible to someone who could not afford to take a substantial trip just for the purpose of information gathering.