Thanks to Susie Robertshaw for pointing out a good article in the November issue of the New Yorker by Anthony Grafton about the various current large scale digitization efforts and the future of libraries. I really like the way he uses library history to illuminate his view of our future as one in which, "these streams of data, rich as they are, will illuminate, rather than eliminate, books and prints and manuscripts that only the library can put in front of you."
That is not a particularly challenging conclusion. I worry it is bit too comforting for librarians, especially ones who don't work in the world's great libraries like the NYPL. But I think that academic librarians can take some comfort in the fact that people will need help learning the techniques that enable them to recognize the need to take what Grafton calls the "narrower path" to thorough research. Here are a couple more quotes from this article that I think make the point.
"The rush to digitize the written record is one of a number of critical moments in the long saga of our drive to accumulate, store, and retrieve information efficiently. It will result not in the infotopia that the prophets conjure up but in one in a long series of new information ecologies, all of them challenging, in which readers, writers, and producers of text have learned to survive."
"The supposed universal library, then, will be not a seamless mass of books, easily linked and studied together, but a patchwork of interfaces and databases, some open to anyone with a computer and WiFi, others closed to those without access or money. The real challenge now is how to chart the tectonic plates of information that are crashing into one another and then to learn to navigate the new landscapes they are creating."
When librarians and faculty help students learn to survive challenging information ecologies and chart tectonic plates of information, we are helping them become more information literate. It was a challenge in the ancient Mediterranean world and it will continue to be one in the digital world.