The Sixth Estate

What is the purpose of libraries?

I’m not going to debate whether or not libraries have a purpose. Anyone that advances the argument that libraries have no purpose in the 21st century is ignorant.  I mean literally ignorant.

Basic computer literacy requires the knowledge of the difference between a subscription database and the Internet and anyone who regularly does research knows that the Internet does not come close to containing all. Regarding academic law libraries, a claim that they are useless shows an ignorance in who actually pays what bills in a law school and a willingness to delegate often over a million dollars a year budget spending to individuals who are not experts in the subject of library purchasing.  Traditionally libraries and librarians blame themselves in situations like these for not better educating the public, but there’s only so much you can do for someone who chooses to speak publicly on a subject that they, as we say back home, don’t know shit from apple butter about.

But back to the purpose of libraries…

I’ve asked myself “what is the purpose of libraries?” several times over the course of my almost ten year career. Like most young librarians, I started with Ragnathan but I’ve since found the Five Laws to be both too confining in its use of book imagery and too vague with the fifth law of “the library is a growing organism.”  One can cram just about any action into that and call it valid…which many may be considered a benefit of that law.  Personally, though, I prefer a little more structure in my purpose statements.

My current iteration is just one line : “The purpose of the library is to provide access to ideas.”

Lets unpack the two main parts of this – “provide access” and “ideas”.

Provide access:

  • Actual physical access, regardless of format
  • Findability access, through applications of metadata and other discovery tools
  • Throughout time, so preservation and archiving duties are covered
  • Defense of access, in terms of intellectual freedom and defense against things like closed formats or publisher actions that prevent access

I’ve written before about my philosophy of ideas, but the tl;dr erosion is this: Ideas are the root of a society or culture.  It comes in three varieties – data, information and knowledge.  Ideas also have three aspects to them – content, container and conveyance.  Ideas don’t just come from static receptacles like books or journal articles.  They are also found via art or community gathernings, thus I believe it’s right and proper for libraries to provide access to those.  

Libraries provide access to content and try to not let the idea’s container or conveyance impede them, which is becoming increasingly difficult.  But it’s a fight I believe that libraries must continue to fight if for no other reason than no one else will.  This may maran that libraries must enter into non-traditional duties like publishing if that’s what it takes to continue to provide access.  They will also have to branch out into software/container development as well as brave new worlds such as maker stations that assist people in the creation of their own content.

In medieval times, it was thought that were three general estates of the Realm: the nobility, the clergy and the commoners.  In modern times, they concept of the fourth estate (traditional media) and fifth estate (bloggers and other online actors like wikileaks) have been developed to describe the power that these groups and organizations have against, for lack of better word, “The man.”  The fourth and fifth are great (mostly) at creating content, but who is preserving it, who is protecting access to it? Who is enabling people in developing the knowledge and skills in order to understand the other estates.  

Libraries, that’s who. The Sixth Estate.


Photo Credit: Leo Reynolds via Compfight cc


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