The question of when the library will open is therefore not merely one that involves when a certain set of doors may reopen or when an instruction session may be scheduled. To answer the question going forward might well require the embrace of a definition of “library” even more diffuse than recent decades, with their exponential expansion of online resources, have already brought us.
That is not to suggest than an all-virtual, all-electronic library is inevitable or even desirable. Our physical spaces still matter. And all the electronic resources in the world hold little value when electricity and internet connectivity become sudden luxuries. But as climate-related operational disruption becomes more common, we may need to think of the library not as one place, but rather as a network of both physical and online resources whose user communities and staffing are fluid, distributed and sufficiently flexible to accommodate both short-term and longer interruptions to services along one or more of its nodes.
At both conceptual and practical levels, library networks are nothing new. Libraries have long entered into cooperative agreements with one another, exchanging cataloging data, sharing materials via interlibrary lending and offering means of entry, in-person materials checkout, or even access to licensed electronic resources, though usually under very prescribed circumstances. Public universities, by statute or long-standing practice, are typically open to the general reader. Through controlled digital lending, or CDL, recently made more prominent by pandemic needs and a stronger assertion of fair use, sharing of e-resources has also become more common. The HathiTrust partnership, for example, has made excellent use of CDL, relying on its massive corpus of digitized print works and careful legal work to make materials available in times of need.
This decentralized, distributed notion of the library will be the work of a generation of both scholars and librarians. It will necessarily require the thoughts and contributions of many. In this piece, I will I offer a few suggestions.
Read the Complete Op/Ed (about 1550 words)