Welcome mats have been spread at academic and public libraries around the world, from Crawfordsville to Madras, India to Cambridge, England to Bergen, Norway and many places in between. A life in the academy draws one into libraries as safe, valuable places where people want to be helpful. Montgomery County is fortunate to have state-of-the-art libraries, Lilly Library at Wabash College and the beautiful Crawfordsville District Public Library. Both have well trained teams of colleagues committed to serving the community.
Libraries are treasure houses of our heritage, both preserving resources from our past and striving to keep up with latest materials and make the most important available to an informed public.
Libraries houses people who are resourceful in helping us find needed and wanted information. Professional librarians are well trained, usually with college degrees and Master of Library Science degrees. They are prepared to be curators as well as preservationists. The work of curation is selecting resources that are most appropriate and important for the library’s diverse clientele, which ranges from toddlers to elderly, from rich to poor, from highly educated to those just grasping at knowledge.
In the past, librarians have served as one mediating structure of society making information available to citizens — teachers, editors, publishers, authors, influencers. I once told a conference of academic librarians, ‘The Wabash College library does not have junk!’ meaning materials of little use or poor quality. When I joined the Wabash faculty in 1965, one of my first assignments was to identify library books in my area of expertise to be discarded. The conference ended, and a librarian from a prominent institution over 200 years old, told me, ‘My library stores a lot of junk.’ He referred to archived materials from the late 18th century — part of our American history.
Libraries are now rapidly changing and facing unforeseen challenges and opportunities. As responsible citizens, we must pay heed these challenges.
The formats, types, and uses of treasures housed in our libraries evolve are as knowledge transforms. Publishers are making materials available in digital forms distributed through Internet networks instead of in printed formats. Open access publishing shifts costs from subscribers. All this at a time when research in every field increases our store of knowledge exponentially. Moreover, the Internet permits anyone to post anything at all, to whom it may concern. Much of it is false, misleading, obscene, or worse.
Libraries have always served many groups with overlapping needs. Current demographic changes increase the diversity of clienteles and opportunities to explore alternative solutions. The diversity of languages used at home and in libraries, even in Montgomery County, is remarkable. Demand increases for additional materials and programs, including tutoring. Librarians grapple with how to remain welcoming places for everyone.
All our institutions endeavor to balance the challenges and opportunities of digital transformation of information. When computers replace bookshelves, providing Internet access for students and others becomes a major responsibility. Training and retraining staff is unending. Planning for changes in our treasure houses and for future curating and preserving becomes daunting.
Threats to professionalism and freedom of librarians to determine who gets access to what by politicians, identity groups, and irate individuals lead to disruptions at libraries, schools, library boards, and outside professionals’ homes.
Our positive and constructive support is necessary to preserve the freedom necessary for all libraries to serve their respective clienteles and freedom for librarians to do their work, constrained only by their professional guidelines and the advice of their respective boards. We need to provide the funding and other resources to enable our libraries to continue as treasure houses of information and services for all of us.
Walk into Crawfordsville libraries and marvel at what is available. Give thanks for how libraries have served our community since Wabash College was founded in 1832 and since Andrew Carnegie funded the Carnegie Library in Crawfordsville in 1901. Give thanks that libraries continue to serve us and help structure our common future.
Raymond B. Williams, Crawfordsville, LaFollette Distinguished Professor in the Humanities emeritus, contributed this guest column.