Librarian Steve Thomas has a short piece placing the recent rise of the "library as place" meme as a defensive move against arguments that "if everything is online, we don't need libraries." The whole post is worth reading, but here are a couple paragraphs:

So now, the mantra in libraries is collaborative learning. We have to provide space for the students to study, and we have to let them study in groups, and talk and make noise. We have to provide facilities for them – not just computers, but coffee and exhibitions. The Information Commons is now the “Learning Commons” – again the emphasis is on the user rather than the provider. It’s not the information that’s important, it’s what the user can do with that information.

If I sound cynical, I don’t mean to be. (I just can’t help myself!) I think the early adopters of the WWW were thinking in the right direction, if perhaps over-enthusiastically. The web has had an extraordinary effect, and made access to information much easier, but the death of the book was a mis-fire. We may see the end of printed textbooks, but there are no indications of books generally being replaced by online access. And the Library as Place concepts are likely to lead to some kind of renaissance for libraries, making them more attractive and interesting spaces, while retaining something of the mystique of being the repository of all knowledge.

And — ironically — it is the web and electronic access which makes this possible. As more and more journals and their back-sets become available online, we can shift many thousands of bulky volumes to off-site stores, freeing up space for study areas. Wireless networking and notebook computers can allow students to access information from all parts of the library, whether online or in print – finally making the Hybrid Library into a reality. In effect, the whole library becomes a “Learning Commons” – a place to learn which is available to all, equally.

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