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The 21st Century Library: Books may gather dust in the stacks, but librarians are busier than ever

By Joseph Lichterman, Daily News Editor
Published October 16, 2011

When University Prof. Asa Gray, sailed for Europe in 1838, he was given $5,000 and was charged with the task of purchasing a collection of books to start the fledging University of Michigan’s library.

Gray purchased volumes on a wide array of topics, covering everything from classical literature to zoology, and he sent more than 3,000 books back to Ann Arbor.

Over the past century, the University Library grew to be one of the largest university library systems in the world, but until the Internet came to prominence over the past two decades, the general function of a library remained unchanged from Gray’s humble beginnings in the 1830s.

The Internet, however, has radically altered the way people interact with information and redefined the library’s place in academia and society. Thirty years ago, if a student needed to know the capital of Mozambique, she would have to go to the library and ask a reference librarian for assistance to find out that the capital is Maputo.

Now, all a student needs to do is run a Google search on her iPhone and within 30 seconds — and without leaving her bedroom — she could find out that Maputo has a population of 1.07 million and that the average temperature in July is 64 degrees Fahrenheit.

So while the instantaneous nature of the Internet has made The United States Postal Service insignificant (When was the last time you sent a letter?) and has fostered a 24-hour demand for news and information, it’d be easy to assume that libraries, at the University and elsewhere, would also be victims of the Internet’s accessibility and travel down the same path as Borders Inc., CDs and handwritten thank you notes.

But that’s not the case.

While it's possible to go through four years at the University without ever checking out a book, libraries are hardly irrelevant. They are evolving, and in some cases even thriving, in the face of technological change.

The University Library has taken steps to move more of its resources online, has partnered with Google to digitize its collection of books and continues to increase the number of online databases available to students and faculty.

Similarly, the School of Information is training the next generation of information professionals with the skills to manage and preserve information in the age of the Internet — whether they call themselves librarians or not, according to School of Information Dean Jeffrey MacKie-Mason.

“The word 'librarian' is attached to a building, but the building is neither here nor there. It’s the information services you provide with the content wherever it might be,” MacKie-Mason said. “And a lot of people who specialize in library and information services work in organizations that don’t look anything like libraries and aren’t libraries.”

The University’s Board of Regents chartered the School of Information in 1996, but the school has been educating librarians in one form or another since it was inaugurated as the Department of Library Science in 1926.

Thirty-four students were in the first class to earn degrees from the Department of Library Sciences in 1927, and the next year the department became the third institution in the country to be accredited by the American Library Association — an accreditation it hasn’t lost since.

And while the program, its name, the degrees it offers and the technology it teaches has changed over the years, the School of Information’s goal has remained the same, MacKie-Mason said.

“Our mission is to bring together people, information and technology in more valuable ways,” MacKie-Mason said. “We have a very strong commitment to social improvement and social engagement. That, in part, has been the mission of library professionals for more than 100 years.”

Today, the School of Information ranks number five in U.S. News and World Report’s list of the best graduate library and information studies programs.