Skip to main content
A biannual publication offering insights into the use of digital historical collections

Heart or Muscle? The Library in the Digital Age

Edward Shephard

Head of Collection Development & Management, State University of New York, Binghamton

At the Readex Digital Institute in October 2008, the presentations and discussions were thought-provoking and stimulating. In her presentation "The Collections Collaborative: Putting Content into the Flow," Meg Bellinger, Associate University Librarian for Integrated Library Systems and Technical Services at Yale, included a slide showing the inscription over the entrance to the Sterling Memorial Library. It reads, "The Library is the Heart of the University."

There has been much talk in recent years about the Library losing its place of prominence as the heart or soul of the academy. Since the dawn of the Internet and the ever-quickening pace of digitized knowledge sources, the privileged position of the Library as the intellectual home of the university has—in the minds of students and even some faculty—given way to the perception that the real source of knowledge is the Web. Librarians increasingly find it necessary to promote their place on campus, to attract students and faculty back into the library or, at the very least, to justify their continued value to the academic mission of their institution.

That one slide gave me a moment's pause. I thought to myself, "Here we are at a Digital Institute, discussing the movement into the future, and—as the subtitle of the meeting states—"Exploring the Digital Universe." So why does this image of a physically grounded inscription in stone on the side of one of the great libraries of the world give such a feeling of incongruity? The notion of metaphor came immediately to mind. Perhaps someone in the room had used the word or the concept already that night. I don't exactly remember. But, having been trained as a historian of Early Modern Europe, the bodily metaphor of the library as the heart or soul of the University always conjures in my mind other depictions and dissertations from the same period. These often explore the concept of the polity as a body in a way that goes beyond an intellectual metaphor to one that is almost anatomical in its precision.

My mind picked up on the image of the Library as the University's heart—not in an intellectual sense but in a physical one. Cannot the Library be seen as the muscle that pumps information throughout the body of the university, just as the heart is the muscle that pumps life-giving blood throughout the body? Is not the network that distributes digital information to and from students, faculty and the Library analogous to the circulation system to the various organs of the university each of which has its own purpose in the functioning of the body? More and more the Library is the organ that distributes information out to the university community rather than the physical location to which this community must come to access it.

This physical analogy, as I thought about it more, can be taken even further. The various organs of the body rely on the bloodstream to provide the nutrients on which their proper and efficient functioning depends. In like manner, the Library provides the "nutrients" to the academic community for their curricular and research needs. Again, this provision is made more and more via the circulatory system of the information networks that unite the "organs" of the university into a unified, "corporeal" system.

And as long as I'm at it, let me take one step more, although it may break the unity of my somatic analogy a bit. Food is the source of the nutrients that the body uses for its metabolic and energy needs. Food, in this sense, is the edible material that the body ingests. It cannot be used by the body in its original, raw form but must be digested, broken down into components that are then absorbed into the bloodstream. There it is circulated through the body and made available for use at the cellular level, where it is recombined into proteins, lipids and other organic compounds which the body can then make use of for different purposes—vision, hearing, thought, locomotion, etc.

Similarly, the Library has traditionally been seen as having this same type of function in the academic community. One of the Library's roles has been to act as both a filter and a conduit for information, assessing the value, reliability and appropriateness of resources. Reference and consultation, instruction and collection development are all aspects of this mission whereby the Library and the Librarian act as a distribution agency for the information needs of its clients.

Perhaps I have taken the metaphor too far but the more I think about it, the more I believe it provides a good model for us to conceptualize the place and function of the Library in today's world and that of the future. The role of the Library in the information age must be an active muscular mechanism in the circulation and distribution of knowledge within the academy, no longer just a passive repository of accumulated wisdom. Librarians recognize that this new paradigm has been in existence for a long, long time, even if others do not. But with the ever-increasing pace of the digital environment, we see this side of our profession becoming more and more important and central to our roles in our communities. Actually, it is quite enjoyable to think of myself as one of the major "musclemen" of the information age!

Edward Shephard is the Head of Collection Development and Management in the Binghamton University Libraries. Publications include "Social and Geographic Mobility of the Eighteenth-Century Guild Artisan: An Analysis of Guild Receptions in Dijon, 1700-1790," published in Steven Kaplan & Cynthia Koepp, eds. Work in France: Representations, Meaning, Organization and Practice (Cornell University Press, 1986), translated into Spanish in Victoria López Barahona and José A. Nieto Sánchez, eds. El trabajo en la encrucijada: artesanos urbanos en la Europa de la Edad Moderna (Grupo Taller de Historia Social, Madrid, 1996) and translations in Antoine Faivre, Access to Western Esotericism (State University of New York Press, 1994) and of Kathrin H. Rosenfield, "Getting Inside Sophocles' Mind Through Hölderlin's Antigone," New Literary History (1999).

Stay in Touch

Receive product news, special offers and invitations, or the acclaimed Readex Report

Sign Up

By clicking "Sign Up", you acknowledge that you have read and understand our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use.