Can We Create a National Digital Library? Robert Darnton

October 28, 2010 Issue

The following talk was given at the opening of a conference at Harvard on October 1 to discuss the possibility of creating a National Digital Library.

The purpose of this meeting is to discuss a question of vital importance to the cultural life of our country: Can we create a National Digital Library? That is, a comprehensive library of digitized books that will be easily accessible to the general public. Simple as it sounds, the question is extraordinarily complex. It involves issues that concern the nature of the library to be built, the technological difficulties of designing it, the legal obstacles to getting it off the ground, the financial costs of constructing and maintaining it, and the political problems of mobilizing support for it.

Despite the complexities, the fundamental idea of a National Digital Library (or NDL) is, at its core, straightforward. The NDL would make the cultural patrimony of this country freely available to all of its citizens. It would be the digital equivalent of the Library of Congress, but instead of being confined to Capitol Hill, it would exist everywhere, bringing millions of books and other digitized material within clicking distance of public libraries, high schools, junior colleges, universities, retirement communities, and any person with access to the Internet.

The ambition behind this project goes back to the founding of this country. Thomas Jefferson formulated it succinctly: “Knowledge is the common property of mankind.” He was right—in principle. But in practice, most of humanity has been cut off from the accumulated wisdom of the ages. In Jefferson’s day, only a tiny elite had access to the world of learning. Today, thanks to the Internet, we can open up that world to all of our fellow citizens. We have the technical means to make Jefferson’s dream come true, but do we have the will? Read more…

What Libraries Can (Still) Do James Gleick

Deutsches Historiches Museum/Arne Psille/Art Resource Heinrich Lukas Arnold: The Reading Room, circa 1840

Of the many institutions suffering through the world’s metamorphosis from analog to digital (real to virtual, offline to online), few are as beleaguered as that bedrock of our culture, the public library. Budgets are being slashed by state and local governments. Even the best libraries are cutting staff and hours. Their information desks are seemingly superseded by Google, their encyclopedias are gathering dust. And their defining product, the one that lines their shelves, now arrives in the form of a weightless doppelgänger that doesn’t require shelves.

In the technocracy, all the world’s information comes to us on screens—desk, pocket, wrist, goggles—and no one trudges through wind and rain with library card in hand to find a single worn object. After all, when you want the text of Magna Carta, you don’t track down the original. Same with books? “Libraries are screwed,” said Eli Neiburger, a Michigan library director, in a much-quoted presentation at a Library Journalconference in 2010. “Libraries are screwed because we are invested in the codex, and the codex has become outmoded.”

So is the library, storehouse and lender of books, as anachronistic as the record store, the telephone booth, and the Playboy centerfold? Perversely, the most popular service at some libraries has become free Internet access. People wait in line for terminals that will let them play solitaire and Minecraft, and librarians provide coffee. Other patrons stay in their cars outside just to use the Wi-Fi. No one can be happy with a situation that reduces the library to a Starbucks wannabe.

Perhaps worst of all: the “bookless library” is now a thing. You can look it up in Wikipedia.

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Reinventing the library by Alberto Manguel

The Oberlausitzische Library of Sciences in Gorlitz, Germany. Credit Florian Monheim/Arcaid via Corbis

Plato, in the “Timaeus,” says that when one of the wisest men of Greece, the statesman Solon, visited Egypt, he was told by an old priest that the Greeks were like mere children because they possessed no truly ancient traditions or notions “gray with time.” In Egypt, the priest continued proudly, “there is nothing great or beautiful or remarkable that is done here, or in your country, or in any other land that has not been long since put into writing and preserved in our temples.”

Such colossal ambition coalesced under the Ptolemaic dynasty. In the third century B.C., more than half a century after Plato wrote his dialogues, the kings ordered that every book in the known world be collected and placed in the great library they had founded in Alexandria. Hardly anything is known of it except its fame: neither its site (it was perhaps a section of the House of the Muses) nor how it was used, nor even how it came to its end. Yet, as one of history’s most distinguished ghosts, the Library of Alexandria became the archetype of all libraries.

Libraries come in countless shapes and sizes. They can be like the Library of Congress or as modest as that of the children’s concentration camp in Auschwitz-Birkenau, where the older girls were in charge of eight volumes that had to be hidden every night so that the Nazi guards wouldn’t confiscate them. They can be built from books found in the garbage, like the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass., set up in 1980 by the 24-year-old Aaron Lansky from volumes discarded by the younger generations who no longer spoke the tongue of their elders, or they can be catalogued in the mind of their exiled readers, in the hope of resurrection, like the libraries plundered by the Israeli soldiers in the occupied territories of Palestine. It is in the nature of libraries to adapt to changing circumstances and threats, and all libraries exist in constant danger of being destroyed by war, vermin, fire, water or the idiocies of bureaucracy.

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Librarians as Agents of Transformation by R. David Lankes

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“Librarians as Agents of Transformation” Informatie aan Zee 2015. Oostende, Belgium.

Abstract: What can be learned from the U.S. librarians’ response to the economic crisis, and the importance of hope and optimism in librarianship.



Major Points: Major points

Librarian as Outsider by Nora Almeida

Academic librarians are worried about power. And powerlessness. They are particularly concerned with the way power dynamics shape their identities as educators and inform their pedagogical capacity.

Recent library scholarship has introduced a number of compelling arguments for pedagogical alternatives to what Freire calls the “banking concept of education,” which conceives of students as passive “receptacles,” teachers as “depositors,” and knowledge as capital. If James Elmborg’s seminal 2006 article Critical Information Literacy: Implications for Instructional Practice is any indication (it’s been cited more than 250 times as I write this), the banking concept of education doesn’t work for information literacy instruction. Elmborg begins his article with a problem and ends it with a challenge: “the real task for libraries in treating information literacy seriously lies not in defining it or describing it, but in developing a critical practice of librarianship — a theoretically informed praxis.” This is a daunting task, particularly considering the logistical reality of information literacy instruction, which typically happens in ‘one-shot’ library sessions. While a “problem-posing” approach is difficult to achieve in the context of the one-shot, a critical approach is not just an alternative but an imperative.

Here’s why.

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Question for Retired or Near-Retirement Professionals: What Advice Would you Give your Earlier Self? ​


Actually, this is not a terribly difficult question to answer, as I believe I often speak to my earlier self each time that I speak with a mentee. I advise library students to immerse themselves in the profession from day one Learn to think like an information specialist, walk the talk. Taking courses and attending conferences is only part of the larger equation. To become a librarian or information professional means to adopt the mindset of a professional.

Study best practices, adopt them early. Learn to take initiative based on sound fact-finding, informational interviews, case studies and networking. Adopt educational technology and promote its use. Learn a bit of coding.

As a female librarian, I would say that one should expect as much from oneself as one would from a man. Learn to manage up as well as across and down. Remember that professional development and continuing education is as much your own responsibility as that of your employer, if even more. It is to invest in yourself. Hold yourself accountable for troubleshooting and fact-finding without continually asking others for assistance.

If you are an academic librarian, do not confine yourself to the world of information science. Read and participate in events and professional organizations that interface with the library and staff. Read about trends in higher education, in publishing, in technology. Learn as much as you can about your users, those stakeholders who have an impact on your service and who will benefit from honest dialog about your profession and the services librarians provide.

Becoming a professional is not limited to a 9 to 5 timeslot. In the 21st century, it is an evolving process that is often attended to best beyond the confines of one’s employment. For one who is passionate about the profession, the pursuit for excellence will provide camaraderie, intellectual stimulation and immense personal satisfaction. It will allow you to not only grow spiritually but widen your opportunities for future employment as well as bolster your self-esteem and self-image.

– Stephanie Gross, Electronic Reserves Librarian, Yeshiva University

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More On Mentoring: Ask a Special Librarian – May Edition (Pt 2) | INALJ

Ask a Special Librarian – May Edition (Part 2 of 2)

Tracy Z. Maleeff
Library Resources Manager at Duane Morris LLP in Philadelphia
@LibrarySherpa &

Joshua LaPorte
Law Library Assistant – University of Connecticut
@joshualaporte &

It’s a banner month for all you readers. You get not one but two editions of “Ask a Special Librarian!” The reason for this special occasion is to introduce you all to my future co-columnist. Beginning next month, Josh LaPorte will be fielding your questions and writing about special librarian concerns. We will be both collaborating on posts as well as taking turns. This change will bring a different perspective for you readers and allow for us to get more creative with this column. It’s a win-win and we thank you for coming along on this journey with us.







So, who is this Josh LaPorte? The son of a librarian, Josh has worked in libraries since he was a teenager.  He currently manages the front desk and collection maintenance at the UConn School of Law Library in Hartford, Connecticut.  Prior to his service at UConn, Josh worked for two library services contracting companies providing services to a wide variety of corporate, not-for-profit, legal, academic, and public libraries around the United States. Josh also worked for several years as a community organizer for a small non-profit organization in Hartford.  He is Vice-Chair of the Connecticut Bar Association Paralegals Section, and is a member of the American Association of Law Libraries, Law Librarians of New England, and the Southern New England Law Librarians Association.

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