So a librarian goes to an inaugural ball… (this sounds like the intro to a corny joke) but there I was, a librarian in a glamorous room filled with flowers, jazz music and hors de overves; the Capitol Building, where Obama had presented his historic inauguration speech was less than a block away.
The unique event, coordinated by the National Coalition for Technology in Education and aptly named “The Bytes & Books Inaugural Ball” was sponsored by organizations such as PBS, Apple, Intel, McGraw Hill, Scholastic, Texas Instruments, and many others.
The ball was held January 20th in The Folger Shakespeare Library on Capitol Avenue in Washington, DC, home to the world’s largest and finest collection of Shakespeare materials and to major collections of other rare Renaissance books, manuscripts, and works of art.
“We had originally planned to call this the Book Ball” explained Event Coordinator Tiffany Reedy, “But these days its not just about books anymore. It’s about bytes, computers… the information age.”
I had attended the event primarily because it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to talk face-to-face with education leaders, members of Congress, administration officials, corporate leaders in technology, media members and other dignitaries about what President-elect Barack Obama had pledged to launch – “the most sweeping effort…this country has ever seen” to modernize school buildings and equip classrooms and libraries with computers and technology as part of his economic stimulus plan.
I also had personal reasons for attending the ball - my career as Marketing Coordinator of the Farmington Library in Connecticut, and my passion for literature, for libraries, and my questions about what was in store for these institutions of the future. I felt there was something wonderfully symbolic about holding a black-tie inaugural gala in a public library. It was a meaningful step in celebrating the history of libraries, and introducing the new changes in store.
Wandering through the Folger Shakespeare Library in my ball gown and heels, I gently ran my fingers along the elegant bound volumes filling shelves that climbed towards curved ceilings. Inhaling the air in the Library, I could taste the faint but magical aroma of old books and leather. The Folger Library was historic; a classic, a testament to the literature and academia that shaped our country. However, the Folger Library was also a relic – a library of a very different era.
Even as I wandered the Folger Library, I overheard conversation among a group of guests, about whether the term “library” was actually out of date in an information society. Rather than enter into a semantics debate with guests at the ball, I paused to reflect on the functions of a library or information service in today's world.
While the image of a "patron" approaching a genial person called "librarian" in a book-filled building should not be completely lost, the contemporary function of this interaction can be described in electronic terms. The "information specialist" is a professional who has been educated and trained to help individuals meet their information needs. This contemporary revolution in libraries is a direct result of the information age, and the fact that our methods of storing and archiving information have fundamentally changed, forever.
Consider Google’s massive digitization initiative to build a World Digital Library (WDL). Consider the popularity of Wikipedia, the multilingual, web-based, free-content encyclopedia. These are merely two examples of the information age, a term which Wikipedia defines at “the present era, generally beginning within ten years of 1990, and alluding to the global economy's shift in focus away from the production of physical goods (as exemplified by the industrial age) and towards the manipulation of information.”
At the Farmington Library we strive to meet the changing needs of information age patrons by offering a fusion of physical and virtual services. Like most contemporary libraries, our catalog is accessible over cyberspace. We offer wireless internet, downloadable books, and computer classes on topics such setting up e-mail accounts, utilizing search engines, using e-bay, facebook, linked in, ancestry.com. Our library boasts a computer lab, a business center, and our teen department features Wii games and imacs. Already, we have had inquiries from patrons who want our library to order Amazon Kindle, the revolutionary technology for downloading and reading books, newspapers and magazine – a format that someday, in the not so distant future, may serve as a virtual alternative to books or printed paper.
“Computer classes in libraries are a step in the right direction.” Agreed Ann Lee Flynn, Director of Education Technology for the National School Boards Association, who was one of the distinguished guests at the ball. “The world is changing so fast! Our kids especially, are living in a 21st century world. Our schools and libraries must take the initiative to lead these changes. In order to engage the coming generations, we will need the right technology, and the right professional development for the teachers and librarians implementing these technologies. The question is, are we preparing kids for our past or for their future? It is a challenge to prepare for a future that doesn’t even exist in our own imaginations yet.”
None of us has a crystal ball. However, it is not hard to foresee the profound changes just over the horizon. Libraries are required to adapt, while still being asked to remain the same. The population that is now utilizing libraries have grown up with the Internet and with connectivity. They demand ubiquitous, personalized and speedy access to information. The library of the future must meet all their needs while still meeting the needs of their parents and grandparents.
What is the library of the future? Guests at the Books and Bytes Inaugural Ball in Washington, DC were all hopeful that the new administration would identify these new definitions, and initiate these changes. The only consensus of the night was that libraries were in the process of reinventing themselves. In the information age, information is the key. The tools and technologies for accessing this information are changing at warp speed. We must adapt to that change if we are to survive – weather this means checking out books or transmitting digitized files.