"And the library?
"It can look like the most archaic institution of all. Yet its past bodes well for its future, because libraries were never warehouses of books. They have always been and always will be centers of learning. Their central position in the world of learning makes them ideally suited to mediate between the printed and the digital modes of communication."
This, from the introduction to Robert Darnton's The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future.
I've been a fan of Darnton's ever since reading The Great Cat Massacre many years ago. As a historian with an annales disposition, he has done some of the most interesting and useful work on the history of the book and printing and the way they have affected society and the diffusion of knowledge of anyone in the past fifty years. As an innovator and experimenter (he founded the Gutenberg-e program), he has taken what he's learned from all of that scholarly work and looked for ways to apply it in shaping the intellectual infrastructure of the 21st century. Now, as Director of the Harvard University Library, he is perfectly placed to assess the state of libraries and the convergence of print and digital.
Plus, he's a damn fine writer. I would put this book on the absolutely must read list for any librarian who actually wants to understand better why the question of "how do we make libraries relevant" is a complete hand-wringing red-herring waste of time.
Of course, it's a book. It's 206 pages (plus intro and index), and I know that a lot of the hip young techno (hand-wringing) librarians don't like to read books. They get everything they need from blogs and twitter. Look at it this way -- very few of Darnton's sentences are longer than 140 characters. Take a deep breath and pretend it's just a really long twitter feed. I know you can do it. Two evenings, max.
It's a collection of essays (most reworked somewhat) that he's written over a number of years, divided into three sections -- looking into the future, studying the present, and considering the past and the implications that our past has for our future. He has particularly insightful things to say about the Google Books settlement (agree with him or not, his arguments need to be considered), the advantages or disadvantages of electronic books, the importance of open access, and why the history of books matters.
Darnton is neither a technophile evangelist for the coming digital revolution, nor a grudging apologist for how it used to be "better". His long historical perspective puts him in the position of someone who is excited about what the new technologies can offer us without losing his understanding of the importance of what we've had in the past and what needs to be preserved as we move eagerly into the unknown future.
Librarians, and the institutions that they build, have always played a critical role in the advancement and preservation of learning and culture. Darnton's book helps to explain why that is even more the case now than ever.