In Part 1 of this post, I sketched out the increasingly complex environment in which libraries now function and gave examples of formerly-straightforward questions that no longer have obvious answers. In this environment, the role and function of the library have become much less self-evident than they were throughout the centuries during which the answers to those questions seemed obvious. Even in an information environment characterized by serious structural turmoil, however, it seems clear that all libraries are still expected to fulfill two fundamental functions for their sponsoring institutions.
First, with their general or circulating collections and public services, they support the day-to-day intellectual activities of their sponsoring institutions. A municipality establishes a public library in order to help its citizens accomplish their private and public tasks: schoolwork, personal research, recreational reading, etc.; a college establishes an academic library to support the learning, teaching, and research that it expects of its community; a corporation creates a library in order to facilitate the work of its employees; etc.
Second, with what we traditionally call “special collections,” libraries create some kind of permanent (or at least functionally permanent) documentary record. The importance and centrality of this function will vary greatly from library to library, depending on the needs of the sponsoring institution—a fact that can lead to controversy if there’s a gap between what the host institution desires (and is willing to pay for) and what librarians believe the institution should desire and pay for.
How do different libraries balance and provide for these two basic functions in light of the increasingly complex and unpredictable information environment in which they do their work?
It depends. I propose the following basic taxonomy of library types and functions.
Library of Cultural Heritage – A library that is charged with preserving the cultural and intellectual heritage of an entire country, region, or (perhaps) ethnic group. While LCHs may offer indispensable resources to researchers, they are concerned primarily with preservation and curation, and secondarily with facilitating research. There may be no circulating collection at all, or circulation may be highly restricted so as to maximize the collection’s stability and permanence. In an LCH, there will be little if any differentiation between general and special collections, since the whole collection has more in common with what most large libraries would designate as special collections than with a typical research library’s circulating collection. An LCH will tend to create digital collections (by making and cataloging images of documents and realia from its holdings) rather than purchase access to digital collections created by others. (Examples: Library of Congress; British Library)
Research Library of Record – A library, typically funded by a large university or in some cases by a large municipality, with a broadly inclusive and relatively stable circulating collection. Its goal is to meet the needs of a broad range of students and scholars by documenting, as thoroughly as possible, the intellectual heritage of its host culture. An RLR will be characterized by a very generous collection budget and staffing that includes bibliographic experts in a variety of disciplines, many of them in the humanities. Access to the circulating collection may be somewhat constrained (limited to enrolled students and faculty, for example) even if the sponsoring institution is a public entity. A significant portion of its working collection will consist of online access to hosted digital content. An RLR will invariably have deep special collections as well as a comprehensive circulating collection. (Examples: Harvard University, Oxford University, New York Public Library, Princeton University)
Research Library of Utility – A large and reasonably comprehensive library that is nevertheless characterized by a changeable circulating collection to which books are added and from which they are withdrawn according to the expressed and demonstrated needs of the curriculum, physical space limitations, and the research agendas of its constituency. Although the collection’s makeup will reflect the curriculum and research foci of the institution, it will also include selected documents from a broad range of academic fields. Like an RLR, an RLU will provide access to extensive hosted online collections and will include a special collections area, one which is selectively deep according to regional interests and other areas of specialty. The majority of medium-to-large university libraries would fall under this category. (Examples: University of Michigan, University of Denver, Texas A&M University)
Academic Library of Utility – An academic library with a targeted, dynamic collection. The focus of this library is specifically to facilitate day-to-day study, teaching, and research on campus. The collection is less a permanent fund of content than it is a node for the accessing of content, some of which will be “owned” by the library but much of which is only made visible by the library and “purchased” upon use or request. (In some cases, “purchase” might mean “acquire access permanently for the entire constituent community,” while in others it means “acquire access either temporarily for the community or permanently for the requestor.”) Here the term “collection” itself becomes ambiguous. (Examples: community college libraries, liberal-arts college libraries, school libraries)
Public Library – With the exception of a few public libraries that are also RLRs (such as the New York Public Library), public libraries almost exclusively serve communities defined by political geography rather than academic mission. Rarely is it their mission to support in-depth research; instead, they usually support recreational reading, casual or personal research, primary and secondary education programs, and community space needs.
Restricted Library – The working libraries of government agencies, commercial companies, nonprofit organizations, hospitals, and research institutes would all fall under this designation. In the past, the library profession has used the term “special library” to refer to such libraries, but the word “special” may be too vague to be useful – it has come to have a specific meaning to librarians, but communicates little to those outside the profession. In practice, what seem to define all of these libraries are the following characteristics:
- Each holds a collection and offers services that are tightly focused on the day-to-day working needs of the organization’s members or employees;
- The library’s purpose is to further the corporate goals of a sponsoring organization;
- The library is open only to those formally affiliated with the organization.
Thus, what I’m calling a Restricted Library is characterized primarily by restriction in three senses: in its collecting scope, in its mission, and in the access it offers.
First: as difficult as it may be to do so in practice, these categories should be decoupled from considerations of prestige. There is no more or less honor in being an excellent Research Library of Record than in being an excellent Academic Library of Utility. Excellence should be measured by each library’s success at doing what its constituents have charged it to do.
Second: this rubric of classification deliberately ignores the important organizational category of “archive.” Why? Because an archive is not a library. Unlike all of the library types in the taxonomy above, an archive serves little or no access function, nor is its purpose to facilitate the day-to-day functioning of its corporate parent; its primary mission is to preserve and safeguard documents that contain important, sensitive, or legally-required information. This is not to say that an archive necessarily prevents all access—some, such as the National Archive of the United States, offer researchers more access, while others, such as the corporate archives of privately-held companies, offer little (if any) access to the public. But in all cases, an archive’s primary purpose is to preserve a record for purposes of corporate memory, rather than to promulgate public access to information resources. (The special collections of a research library should not be confused with an archive in this sense.)
Now, the big question: why bother to classify libraries in this way?
Speaking from inside the library world, I think the need for this kind of taxonomy becomes clear every time one of us says “We should/shouldn’t do X because we’re a library and that’s what libraries do.” I can’t count the number of times I’ve watched librarians and staff argue past each other because they don’t share a common understanding of what kind of library they work in. The radically changed scholarly environment in which we work makes it increasingly important that our strategic conversations be built on an explicitly shared understanding of library taxonomy—while recognizing that every library is, in some important ways, unique.
I think vendors tend to be more conscious of the fundamental differences between categories of library; they have a very strong financial incentive to understand their customers, whereas the incentives for librarians to understand their own libraries is more… mixed. (There’s a topic for another post.) But perhaps a simple system like this will be helpful to vendors and publishers as well.
I have no illusions that everyone will agree with the taxonomy proposed above. If a large enough number of people agree that it’s potentially useful, then I count on feedback from Scholarly Kitchen readers and others to help revise and refine it.