Libraries, Functions and Types of

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The word "library" was originally drawn from the Latin term liber, which means book. Historically, the libraries of the world have been closely identified with the books that came to fill their respective shelves. As recent as the 1980s, it would have been possible to define the nature and future of libraries in terms quite similar to those used in the description of libraries in the fifteenth, the eighteenth, and the mid-twentieth centuries. For it is apparent to even the most casual of students that the character of libraries has remained remarkably stable throughout some four millennia. Across those four thousand years, librarians constructed libraries large and small that were designed to effectively collect, organize, preserve, and make accessible the graphic records of society. In practical terms, this meant that librarians, the managers of these ever-growing libraries, collected large numbers of books and periodicals, arranged them for relatively easy use, and made these collections accessible to at least part of the community (if not the whole community). This broad definition of the nature and function of libraries served quite nicely until recently.

What shattered this timeless consistency, of course, was the emergence of information technology (IT) and the onset of the "information era." The emergence of the e-book, the e-journal, and hypertext writing systems appears to be rapidly undermining previous commitments to the print-on-paper communication system that played such a fundamental part in constituting the libraries of the world. Authors and publishers are increasingly recognizing IT as the new "core" or "defining" technology of the information era. It is apparent that knowledge production is being rapidly shifted to this new medium in an attempt by authors and publishers to amplify intellectual capacity through the enlightened adoption of a new medium that promises to enhance productivity, while concomitantly lowering the costs of knowledge production. It is also clear that librarians are being asked to devote ever-larger proportions of their limited resources to the provision of digital information services, and are being required to devote ever-smaller proportions of their budgets to the traditional print-on-paper materials.

The dramatic and accelerating development of the digital communication system and its rapid adoption by large segments of society has forced a wide-ranging revision of the notion of "library" and a reconsideration of the role of the librarian within the context of the now-dominant information economy. Initially, this development was viewed by library interests in much the same contradictory fashion as it was by society at large. For some, the idea of using IT to eliminate the print-on-paper system was a positive and exciting new development, while for others it promised an intensely unappealing future. Many librarians viewed the emergence of the information revolution as the long-sought opportunity to transcend the limitations imposed on libraries by the print-on-paper system, while to others the much celebrated "death of the book" heralded little more than cultural decline. As a result, the last decade of the twentieth century was marked by heated and highly polemical arguments about the nature and extent of the information revolution and its implications for the future of libraries.


While the digital revolution has forced an intensifying debate about the future of libraries, much, nevertheless, remains the same. For example, for several centuries the principal types of libraries have remained unchanged. What differentiates these library types is the nature of their clienteles; and thus governmental, public, academic, school, and special libraries are found, serving information-seeking patrons throughout the world.

The first of these types to emerge in time was the library serving government. From the beginnings of centralized civilizations some five thousand years ago, it was necessary for governments to collect and organize for efficient use, large (and eventually huge) amounts of information. Then as now, some of the largest libraries in any country are government libraries serving special clienteles of civil servants, legislators, or members of the judicial and executive branches of the government, and are supported with public resources. For example, in Washington, D.C., there are literally hundreds of governmental libraries ranging in size from the mammoth Library of Congress, generally considered the largest library in the world, to small libraries containing only a few thousand volumes and serving only a few individuals. The same could be said for each of the most sophisticated world capitals such as Moscow, Paris, London, and Berlin. The government library category would also include thousands of libraries serving state, provincial, and municipal governments.

Another large and extremely diverse group of libraries can be categorized as special libraries that serve a wide variety of business enterprises. In any developed nation, thousands of special libraries serving companies large and small offer sophisticated information services to the employees of their respective companies. These libraries are funded with corporate resources and thus consider their collections and services to be proprietary and accessible only to those who work for the company. Special libraries offer a wide range of services to company employees but focus on two: preserving and organizing vital records relating to the operation of the company, and providing a resource from which the research staff of the company can mine ideas for new products and services.

Equally significant are the public libraries of the world; that is, those libraries established as public trusts, administered with public funds, and open to every element of the citizenry, from children to adults. Free and readily accessible to local inhabitants, these libraries constitute the very cornerstone of information access for citizens, and virtually every community in the developed countries, from Great Britain to Sweden to the United States, proudly boasts the existence of significant numbers of public libraries that are open to all of their citizens. While these libraries offer many services, the emphasis on recreational or leisure reading is a unique characteristic of public library service.

Academic libraries are those libraries that serve the students and faculty of the colleges and universities of the world. The collections of these academic libraries can range from a few thousand well-chosen volumes in the library of a small community college to the approximate ten million volumes found in the complex system of libraries serving Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Unlike their public library counterparts, the academic library is little concerned with recreational or leisure reading and is devoted almost exclusively to the collection, preservation, and preparation for use of scholarly research materials that may never be widely used but are viewed as having research significance.

School libraries complete our categorization of library types. The school library is devoted to the support of the educational programs of elementary and secondary schools in countries throughout the world. Heavily oriented toward didactic material viewed as useful by schoolteachers, and smaller than academic libraries, the school library is an integral part of the education of children.

Perhaps it would be appropriate to end this section on contemporary libraries by noting the great variations in the number and nature of libraries that exist from country to country and continent to continent. The most extensive system is that found in the United States, which boasts some 8,500 public libraries, over 3,500 academic libraries, and literally tens of thousands of government, school, and special libraries. This massive library system is managed by some 250,000 professional librarians. Most of the Western European countries also have large and well-supported systems, but Eastern Europe, Africa, and most of Asia lag far behind. Thus, it should be no surprise to find that American and Western European libraries have also taken the lead in deploying information technologies in the service of their diverse clienteles.


While the information revolution has placed enormous pressure on libraries as they try to find their way across this dramatic technological divide, librarians continue to carry out a series of basic functions in the service of their overarching goal of making information readily available to their clienteles.

Perhaps first and foremost in the functions carried out by libraries is the never-ending collection of recorded information deemed of value to the users of libraries. Hundreds of thousands of librarians have devoted millions of hours to the assembly of the tens of thousands of library collections found throughout the world. Such collection development requires special awareness of the nature of knowledge production and the nature and extent of user needs, and remains one of the most important functions of the librarian. The glorious fruits of the labors of those responsible for the collection development function over the years can be seen in the magnificent book collections to be found in the great national libraries of the world, such as the Library of Congress, with nearly twenty million volumes, and the national libraries of England, France, Germany, and Russia, with nearly as many volumes. Such collections, painstakingly assembled, represent a virtually complete memory of the cultural history of their respective nations, and as such remain invaluable. These print-on-paper resources are, of course, now being joined by massive amounts of digital information stored in the computers of the libraries.

Once such large and valuable collections were assembled in countless libraries across the world, it next fell to the library profession to preserve those collections across time. Thus, librarians have pioneered techniques for restoring old books to usable states, and are leaders in the project to ensure that all future books will be printed on materials designed to last for hundreds of years. Librarians have also been in the forefront of the discussion of the most effective ways to collect, organize, store, and preserve digital communications.

Another enormously costly aspect of the effort to preserve library collections has been the construction of library buildings specially designed to conserve the priceless contents of the libraries of the world. These libraries have become ever more expensive, and, depending on the size of the collection, can run to hundreds of millions of dollars to build. Many people hope this huge cost can be eliminated in the future as digital communication comes to replace traditional books and periodicals in the knowledge production system. Then, a computer might well become the library, but it must be noted that it would be many years before the accumulated knowledge of the world, stored in millions of books, periodicals, and manuscripts, could be translated onto the new digital medium. Thus, it appears that librarians will be faced with the daunting task of managing yet one more medium in the future.

Large collections of books are virtually unusable without careful attention to organization for ready access. As a result, the cataloging and classification of library materials remains a central function of the libraries of the world. Using various classification schemes such as the Library of Congress Classification scheme or the Dewey Decimal Classification scheme, librarians have prepared detailed catalogs that act as efficient guides to the contents of their ever-larger collections. Providing author, title, and subject access to library collections, these catalogs remain essential to the proper utilization of any library. Librarians have also been working to develop search engines that will facilitate searching the multitude of databases available to library patrons via the Internet.

Finally, libraries must be interpreted for effective use. This library function is implemented by librarians who are prepared to answer user requests for specific information related to research projects and classwork. Librarians also prepare a wide variety of reference and bibliographic tools designed to provide library patrons with guidance in the use of specific elements of the collections of a library, such as periodical holdings, book reviews, or biographies of prominent individuals. Librarians are particularly committed to providing extensive formal and informal instruction to users who are seeking guidance in navigating their way through complex library collections and gaining what librarians refer to as "information literacy."

Information Technology and Libraries

Thus, while the types and the functions of libraries have remained much the same as they have been for several millennia, it is essential to note that the revolutionary spread of integrated digital communication systems has dramatically complicated and influenced the way in which libraries function in modern society. Perhaps an initial glance at several of the largest national libraries of the world—the Library of Congress and the Bibliotheque de France—will make this point clear. The Library of Congress, located in Washington, D.C., is housed in two expansive and expensive buildings and contains more than twenty million volumes in its collections. It is charged with a multitude of roles, including providing extensive reference and research services to the U.S. Congress, serving as the largest scholarly research library in the world, and offering a widely praised books-for-the-blind program. Even at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the Library of Congress receives a book every five seconds and has a massive number of unprocessed items waiting to be cataloged. At the same time, the Library of Congress has taken a leadership role in the deployment of IT in libraries. Perhaps the most dramatic venture is the American Memory Project, which is designed ultimately to translate a vast amount of the collection of the library into a digital format that will be accessible via the Internet from all over the world. In attempting to transfer such huge amounts of printed material to digital formats, the Library of Congress has been forced to deploy the most sophisticated and expensive IT available today, and most experts estimate that it will still cost millions of dollars and take decades for the American Memory Project to encompass any significant portion of the vast holdings of the Library of Congress.

The tremendous controversy surrounding the architectural design of the Bibliotheque de France illustrates the problems associated with the construction of library buildings in the information era. When the plans were first presented to the French public in 1991, there was a huge public outcry because it appeared that the Bibliotheque de France had been designed by architects who seemed to think that the book was "dead" in the digital era. Thus, very little provision was made for the preservation and use of books and periodicals in the new French national library. Many critics railed against the design, suggesting that it threatened the "collective memory" of the French people as represented by the millions of books in the library. The architects were urged to plan for the deployment of the latest technology for reproducing and storing information without gambling on the survival of the traditional book collection that represents the "collective memory" of the nation. The outcry in the early 1990s was so great that the French architects were forced to return to the drawing board and develop a design for a building that would be more friendly to the print-on-paper materials in the collection.

College and university libraries throughout the world should face a quite similar if less extensive set of problems as they enter the information era. Ever-larger amounts of the material they acquire is being produced in digital formats, and college and university students are especially sophisticated users of the new IT and are increasingly insistent that coursework and course readings be accessible via the Internet. Such demands have forced university administrators, faculty, and academic librarians to invest substantial amounts of money in IT and e-books and e-journals. At the same time, librarians must constantly attempt to stay abreast of the rapidly changing information environment so that they can adequately interpret the emerging "electronic library" for students and faculty.

Indeed, it appears that students and their parents are pushing the IT revolution at all levels of education as they demand ever-wider access to a growing array of IT. Students throughout the world are increasingly aware of the burgeoning information economy and the kinds of job opportunities available in that sector. Thus, their demands for ready access to e-mail, Internet services, online coursework, and digital reading materials and research resources are at least in part intensely pragmatic as they rush to qualify for the new employment opportunities in the information economy.

Virtually all libraries have been significantly influenced by the emergence of the new IT and the widespread development of the Internet. For instance, a vast majority of the libraries in the United States, and many more libraries throughout the world, have eliminated the old library card catalog and replaced it with an Online Public Access Catalog (OPAC). Almost as many libraries now provide Internet access to library patrons via dozens of computer terminals available to the general public.

Far fewer libraries have been able to completely replace their print-on-paper collections with e-journals and e-books, but nevertheless, there are many libraries worldwide, especially in the special library sector, which have gone virtually digital where in a very real sense the whole library is contained in a computer. An example of a totally digital and commercial library would be Microsoft's This huge database comprises the largest collection of digital art and photography in the world, and half a million individuals visit this digital art library each day via the Internet. Those who discover art or photography that they want to own on the site can purchase these materials from

Thus, by the beginning of the twenty-first century, every aspect of human existence has been influenced by the new IT. However, two particularly pressing information-era issues emerged to trouble all of those who were charged with planning library development.

Commodification of Information

In 1973, Daniel Bell, the distinguished Harvard University sociologist, published his now-famous book titled The Coming of Post-Industrial Society, in which he forecast, with amazing accuracy, the coming of the information revolution, an era he predicted would mark a complete break with our industrial past. Central to his work was the notion that the information society would be characterized by a changeover from a goods-producing to an information-producing society. He went further to insist that, in time, information would come to represent the most important commodity sold in the new electronically linked world marketplace. Two decades later, Bell's prediction was confirmed when Bill Gates, the president of Microsoft (and by then the wealthiest man in the world), noted in his 1995 book titled The Road Ahead that digital information had indeed become a central commodity in a massive global information marketplace, and that brash and uncivilized market forces were definitely at play in the public sector of the economy as well. Virtually everyone now concurs with this conclusion, but many remain troubled by the implications of the dramatic and relentless commodification of information.

One concern is essentially political. That is, many students of the notion of "democracy" in the Western world have pointed out that a key characteristic of the democratic model is the insistence that the success of democratic systems depends on the extensive and enlightened participation of citizens in the political process. An important corollary, and a central justification for the public library systems of the world, is the belief that enlightened participation by the citizenry is dependent on widespread and easy access to "free" information defined as a public good and provided with public tax funds.

Librarians and others remain skeptical of the idea that the commodification of information and the privatization of information delivery systems is conducive to the democratic process. They fear that such a process, if left unchecked, would actually lead to the restriction of access to information for those citizens who lack the financial resources necessary to buy significant amounts of digital information in the information marketplace. That is, many fear that the commodification of information, and the abandonment of the idea of information as a public good, would lead to an ever-larger gap between the "information rich" and the "information poor" in society and have the ultimate effect of undermining the democratic process. Thus, it should come as no surprise to find that the librarians of the world are at the fore-front of the effort to provide widespread access to information to all of the citizens of a nation via a system of public, school, government, and academic libraries defined as public goods and supported by the state.

Many other critics, many of them librarians, see grave cultural implications in the insistence that all information of value will come to be defined as a commodity and that all information sales and services should be privatized. These critics are also troubled by the suggestion that all valuable information will come to be seen as practical or instrumental. And they insist that this notion would undermine the cultural value of books and reading, where great books are viewed as "priceless," and are often quite "unpopular" with the mass reading audience. The aggressive and instrumental commodification of information is seen as a recipe for cultural decline and the destruction of not just the book, but more importantly, the "great books." Librarians insist that the provision of public tax support for libraries has guaranteed the existence of a culture of great writing, because librarians have always attempted to purchase and preserve only the best that had been thought and written in their respective societies. In a real sense, librarians argue, they have acted as subsidies for the high-culture industry, and thus they fear that the commodification of information and the privatization of information delivery systems could ultimately undermine the cultural life of the nation.

It must be noted that advocates of the e-book and the commodification of cultural production insist that the information revolution does not threaten literacy, but rather simply promises to undermine the old print literacy. What will emerge, they insist, is a new hypertext writing system that will significantly alter the way people write and read as individuals create "texts" that are no longer linear and that tend to empower readers, who will be able to manipulate books in ways rarely imagined before the information era.

The Library as Place

Michael Levy, writing for the January 1, 2000, issue of Newsweek, concluded that by the year 2020 some 90 percent of books sold would be published as e-books. It is assessments such as these, widely endorsed by many experts, that lead librarians to wonder what "place" they will occupy in the new millenium. Richard Lanham sums up this dilemma in his book The Electronic Word (1993) when he notes that "the library world feels dépaysé today.… Both of its physical entities, the buildings and the books they contain, can no longer form the basis for planning" (p. 134).

Library buildings are hugely expensive to build and operate, and at present virtually all of the libraries in the developed West, at least, are filled to capacity. In the minds of many this situation will slowly, and happily, disappear as more and more of the books that currently stand in ordered rows on library shelves are digitized and transferred to a computer system located "somewhere" on the Internet. And as virtually everyone agrees that more and more new books will be published as e-books, it follows that society is rapidly approaching the time when it will no longer be necessary to build any new libraries, and some would go so far as to insist that society may well be able to close those buildings still operating by the beginning of the twenty-second century. These concerns and developments are forcing librarians to carefully analyze the role of the library in the information era and explicitly attempt to imagine a completely new library landscape where large traditional library buildings are slowly replaced by computers holding massive numbers of e-books and e-journals. Where will librarians work, what will they do, and how should they be trained when the library is no longer a "place"?

In the past, librarians could focus on the collection and preservation of books, and because access to books and periodicals depended on ownership, libraries could offer a valuable service to a select group of users by simply buying and housing as many books as possible. The new IT promises to break the linkage between ownership and access, and information seekers can now "access" information in a wide range of information markets. These users are extremely sophisticated consumers of information services and demand ever-more effective delivery systems. Librarians are struggling to define new programs that will effectively compete with the vast array of information services available through the Internet. The ability of the library profession to successfully fit into the new information environment will dictate the future of the library.

While it seems certain that libraries of the twenty-first century will appear quite different than those of the twentieth century, the precise direction and speed of the change remain murky. What seems likely is that answers to such questions will emerge over the course of the new century as librarians and communication specialists experiment, investigate, and analyze developments in countless libraries throughout the world. It also seems obvious that the pace of change will vary widely from country to country, and even from region to region within individual countries.

Perhaps the most responsible way to conclude would be to say that most interested parties seem to agree that society cannot simply walk away from the collective fruits of the intellect as represented in the untold millions of words-on-paper so thoughtfully housed and made accessible in the libraries of the world. And at the same time, almost everyone is equally certain that IT and the e-book must be effectively deployed by a profession that boasts three thousand years of sustained commitment to the responsible collection, preservation, and effective organization for use of the recorded knowledge of civilization—no matter in what format that knowledge may come.

See also:Archives, Public Records, and Records Management; Archivists; Community Networks; Internet and the World Wide Web; Librarians; Libraries, Digital; Libraries, History of; Libraries, National; Library Automation; Preservation and Conservation of Information; Reference Services and Information Access.


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Michael H. Harris