Libraries in the Twenty-first Century


As a new member of the Philosophical Society, I am very pleased and deeply honored to participate in the program today. I want to congratulate Sam Moore for his selection of this year’s theme, for, as will soon become apparent to you all, I think that there are few more interesting topics than books and libraries in the twenty-first century, nor many with more significant consequences for our society. 

It is very gratifying—if not a little humbling—to follow Dr. Billington on the program this morning. His erudition and vision have truly made the Library of Congress the world’s greatest library. As the director of the Institute of Museum and Library Services, my role in the federal firmament

is far less grand than Dr. Billington’s, but I suspect that most of you have never heard of the Institute of Museum and Library Services (or IMLS). So let me begin by telling you a little about it.

IMLS is an independent federal agency and the primary source of federal grants for the nation’s libraries and museums. Our grants to museums and libraries build institutional capacity, support core library and museum services, encourage excellence, and leverage significant state, local, and private resources.

IMLS was created in 1996 by the Museum and Library Services Act, which completely restructured the federal programs for supporting the nation’s museums and libraries. The act transferred the library programs, which dated to 1956, out of the Department of Education and grafted them onto what had been the Institute of Museum Services, which itself was created in 1975. The structure created in 1996 was reaffirmed this year by the Museum and Library Services Act of 2003, which passed Congress with strong support from the administration and broad bipartisan support in Congress. The bill passed in the House of Representatives by a margin of 416 to 2 and cleared the Senate by unanimous consent. It was signed by President Bush in a White House ceremony on September 25. Enactment of the MLSA is a major affirmation of the important role that museums and libraries play in our society.

Congress has not yet completed the appropriations process for FY 2004, but in the Omnibus Appropriation agreement that was reported just before Thanksgiving, we are slated to receive $262.5 million. To place that in context, the National Endowment for the Arts is funded at $122 million and the National Endowment for the Humanities at $137 million for a total of $259 million.

The total of $262.5 million can be divided into three categories: $199.4 million for library programs funded under the Library Services  and Technology Act, $31.5 million for museum programs funded under the Museum Services Act, and about $31.5 million in directed appropriations. If you ignore the final category—over which IMLS has no control and to which applicants have no access—the total funding for our core programs is $231 million.

This appropriation will represent an increase of 10.6 percent over the amount appropriated in 2003. The cumulative increase in our appropriations from 2002 to 2004 amounts to 18.7 percent, a significant increase by any reckoning and a strong indication of the importance that the administration and Congress places on the role of museums and libraries in our society. (Actually, the president asked for an even bigger increase of 15 percent this year, which would have resulted in a cumulative increase of 24 percent.) In fact, all of the cultural agencies—IMLS, NEA, and NEH—will enjoy increased funding next year. NEA will receive a bump of $7.5 million, its first increase in many years, and the NEH budget will increase by $12.1 million, the largest increase in its budget in a decade.

The majority of IMLS funding for libraries is distributed in formula grants to the state library administrative agency in each state. In most states funds for programs under the Library Services and Technology Act are used in a variety of important ways: supporting resource sharing, providing training and staff development opportunities, and statewide licensing of digital information services. So while you may not be aware of IMLS’s role, the funding we provide to your state library may be very important to the services that your library provides your community.

We also provide substantial funding through competitive grant programs called National Leadership Grants. These grants to institutions foster innovation and creativity and develop best practices. There are three main categories for National Leadership Grants for libraries: preservation or digitization, research and demonstration, and continuing education and training. There is a category for library-museum partnerships as well.

Another element of the IMLS programs that is very important to some states is the Native American Library Services grants, which provide funds for core library operations, technical assistance, and innovative projects for libraries serving Native Americans and Alaska Native villages. Although these Native American Library Services grants may be small, they have a significant impact on the library services available in these communities.

Part of the increase in our FY 2003 appropriation was an additional $10 million for IMLS to support recruitment and education for the next generation of librarians. This initiative, announced by First Lady Laura Bush in January 2002, is popularly known in the library community as the “Laura Bush initiative.” Congress did indeed appropriate the funds in accordance with the president’s request, and a new era in federal support for library education has begun. We have worked hard with the library profession for the past year and a half to shape and structure this program. On October 28 we announced the first grants in this program, totaling $9.98 million. The president’s budget request doubled the funding for this program in 2004 to $20 million, and it appears that Congress will go along.

So far I have been mostly talking about libraries. I should also add that IMLS provides support for museums as well as libraries through a range of programs that build institutional capacity, enhance technology, and foster creativity. There are four general museum grant programs:
• Museum Assessment Program: $450,000, administered by the American Association of Museums
• Conservation Assessment Program: $820,000, administered by Heritage Preservation
• Conservation Project Support: $2.8 million
• Learning Opportunity Grants (soon to be Museums for America): $15.4 million in 2002 and 2003, up to $17.5 million in 2004 request

We also provide substantial funding to museums through a National Leadership Grants program, which has three categories for museums: Museums Online, Museums in the Community, and Professional Practices. There is also a category for library-museum partnerships.

What motivated Congress to radically restructure the federal programs that support museums and libraries seven years ago? I think the record is clear that this evolution was the result of a simple recognition on the part of several members of Congress that libraries and museums share a common mission: education. Museums and libraries are both social institutions that provide resources and services in support of public education.

We all know that for democracy to survive and thrive, for people to be able to participate freely and effectively in governing themselves, citizens must be both educated and informed. As stated in the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act, “Democracy demands wisdom and vision in its citizens.” The founders of our nation knew this, and they often spoke and wrote of the importance of education and reading. Many might quote Thomas Jefferson or James Madison to support this assertion. But no one said it any better than Mirabeau Buonaparte Lamar, second president of the Republic of Texas, when he said, “The cultivated mind is the guardian genius of Democracy.”

Libraries cultivate minds. Libraries are central to educating and informing the citizens of our country. Libraries preserve our rich, diverse culture and history and transmit it from one generation to the next. Libraries supply accurate and dependable information to citizens and to their leaders alike for use in their everyday work. Libraries provide rich and stimulating opportunities for recreation and enjoyment. And perhaps most important, they serve as a primary social agency in support of education, providing resources and services that complement the structures of formal education and extend education into an enterprise that lasts the length of each citizen’s lifetime.

The educational purpose of libraries in the United States is beyond question. What we know today as the American public library came into being in Boston about 150 years ago. There was no doubt in the minds of the founders of the Boston Public Library that its mission was to be primarily educational. In their report to the Boston City Council, the trustees of the library wanted the public library in Boston to be “the crowning glory of our system of City schools” and of “the utmost importance as the means of completing our system of public education.” Communities that followed the Boston model and founded libraries in the 1850s and 1860s were explicit in citing the library’s purpose of supporting and extending the agencies of formal education in the community.

The education theme has remained a constant in the discourse of the American library profession. In 1946 the American Library Association promulgated a new National Plan for Public Library Service, which again asserted that “the public library is an essential unit in the American educational system. . . . It comes closer than any other institution to being the capstone of our educational system.”

In 1955, testimony in support of the Library Services Act, the first federal legislation to support library development, consistently emphasized the educational importance of the public library, asserting that libraries were second only to schools in the capacity to educate citizens. Library of Congress representative L. Q. Mumford testified that “for most people the public library is the chief—and sometimes the only—means of carrying on their education after they leave school.”

In recent years, however, the importance of education has almost disappeared from the rhetoric of librarians, replaced by a focus on information. Libraries and librarians are indeed good at organizing and providing access to information. But providing information and supporting education are not the same. There is a difference between information and knowledge. Many other agencies also provide access to information, and a number of other professions claim that expertise. The most important role of the library is supporting, enhancing, and facilitating the transfer of knowledge—in other words, education.

We often hear it said that today we are living in an information age. But in a world drowning in information, we are hungry for knowledge. That is why today, in the twenty-first century, we must be more than an information society. We must become a learning society. And that is why at IMLS we are dedicated to the purpose of creating and sustaining a nation of learners.

Today, libraries and museums are changing dramatically. The advent of networked digital information technology means that now we can be linked instantly to almost limitless information resources anywhere in the world. This simple fact is transforming the concept of what a museum or a library is. Libraries and museums have embraced the tremendous possibilities inherent in digital technology and have taken an active role in developing its potential.

For some years now I have repeating the refrain (to the point that it has become almost a mantra) that the boundaries are blurring. Originally, when I was director of the Texas State Library, I used this phrase to refer to the blurring of boundaries between and among the different types of libraries to help explain the imperative for multitype resource-sharing consortia. From my current perspective as director of IMLS, it is apparent to me that the same observation applies to the boundaries between libraries and other types of cultural agencies, especially archives and museums.

Nowadays we routinely think of museums, libraries, and archives as very different kinds of institutions. Yet historically these distinctions have not always been evident. The earliest libraries were in fact archives. What are often called “temple libraries” or “palace libraries” were collections of texts (usually cuneiform tablets) that documented the official religious activities of the temple or the government transactions of the palace court. Later, collections of other kinds of texts were called “museums,” in that they were buildings dedicated to honoring the muses. The great library of Alexandria, for example, was actually called the Museon, a temple to the muses.

In practice, there was little real differentiation between library, museum, and archives until the early modern period, when the development of typographic printing resulted in a dramatic increase in the volume of texts available, and these were differentiated from the collection of objects—library from museum. The practice of separating official records from other kinds of documents also arose around the same time, developing from the rational bureaucratization of governments.

My point is simply that the distinctions we now accept as common, between library, museum and archives, are really a matter of convention. And that convention appears to be unraveling under the impact of networked digital information technology.

Digital technology has enabled the creation of large-scale digital surrogate collections, which has dramatically enhanced knowledge about, and access to, library collections. This has had an especially noteworthy effect on access to unique materials held in rare book, manuscript, and special collections. Archives and museums have recently made dramatic progress in creating digital access to their collections in this way.

With this increasing development of digital surrogate collections accessible through the World Wide Web, a transformation in the use of materials from library, archival, and museum collections has occurred. People who formerly used such materials on-site in the respective institutions are now frequently (if not exclusively) consulting them on-line. Even more important, large numbers of individuals who heretofore made little or no use of these materials—who were perhaps even unaware of their existence—are now frequent users of the digital collections. And these new users are not concerned with, and may not even be aware of, whether the original materials are in a library, an archive, or a museum.

IMLS sponsors an annual conference called WebWise that focuses on digital library and museum projects, many of them funded by IMLS. A couple of years ago we heard consistent reports indicating that in the digital environment libraries are beginning to behave more like museums and museums are behaving more like libraries. Let me explain.

In the traditional nondigital environment, libraries organize their collections and present them for use in response to a user’s specific need or inquiry. A user comes into the library and asks, “What do you have on topic X?” For example, “Show me everything you have on impressionist painting, on Native American ritual objects, on Paleolithic protozoa.”

Conversely, museums traditionally organize selections from their collections in topical or thematic interpretive and didactic exercises we call exhibitions. A user comes into the museum and looks at what the museum staff has selected, presented and interpreted. A museum goer would not normally come into the museum and say “show me all of your impressionist paintings, show me all your Native American ritual objects, show me all your Paleolithic protozoa.”

In the digital environment, these behaviors are almost precisely reversed. Museums for the first time can present their entire collection, cataloged and surrounded with metadata, retrievable in response to a user’s specific interest or inquiry. And libraries have begun to organize selected items from their collections in thematic presentations that tell a particular story, even calling these presentations exhibitions. The boundaries indeed are blurring.

At IMLS we believe that collaboration is emerging as the strategy of the twenty-first century. It is aligned with how we are thinking about our communities as “holistic” environments, as social ecosystems in which we are part of an integrated whole.

Librarians have a consistent history of collaboration. Sharing resources is fundamental to the practice of the profession. Indeed, the concept of sharing underlies the very foundation of the modern library as a social agency. Libraries were established in order to pool scarce resources for the common good. The society libraries of the American colonial period arose from the simple fact that books were too scarce and too expensive—for any one individual to be able to acquire access to all they needed, so readers brought their individual collections together to share them. This ethic of sharing has remained strong in the practice of American librarianship ever since.

Naturally at IMLS we are interested in fostering collaboration between and among museums and libraries. It is inherent in our structure and mandated by our governing statute. But we also think it is imperative to reach out beyond the museum and library and to find nodes of intersecting interest, activity, and mission among other players in the community.

One of the potential partners in which we have the most interest at present is public broadcasting. Robert Coonrod, president of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, gave the keynote address at our WebWise conference last year in Washington. He provided a broad overview of the changes that broadcasters are going though, due in large part to the impact of digital technology. Those changes lead to the inescapable recognition of a pending convergence. Public broadcasters are becoming more and more like libraries and museums—just as libraries and museums are becoming more and more like broadcasters. Coonrod encouraged us to begin to explore what he called “community-based public service media collaboratives.” We already have examples of such collaborative projects in the landscape, many of them funded by IMLS. We are now actively exploring collaborative projects between IMLS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Recently, IMLS and CPB jointly sponsored a conference in Washington, focusing on supporting community-based collaborations that foster learning and civic engagement for the twenty-first century. This “Partnership for a Nation of Learners”—as we called it—is designed to support and promote collaborations that link active learners to an expanded network of community-based resources, with a special interest in collaborations that respond to specific community needs, produce public benefit, and promote civic engagement through the learning that occurs.

The meeting brought together representatives not only from the broadcasting, museum, and library professional communities but also from a range of funding organizations and nongovernmental organizations with an interest in the topic. Some very interesting issues arose in the discussions at that meeting.

Earlier I described the way in which, in the digital arena, museums are beginning to behave like libraries and libraries are beginning to behave like museums. At our meeting with the broadcasters I learned that, in the digital arena, public broadcasters are beginning to behave like museums and libraries.

We have been accustomed to thinking about broadcasters as providing access to rich educational resources, but in a strictly synchronous manner. If we wanted to enjoy the educational content that they provide, we were expected to tune in on Thursday evening at eight o’clock to see the latest program on the rings of Saturn or the explorations of Lewis and Clark or the plays of Shakespeare. But increasingly this “broadcast” content is no longer “broadcast” in the conventional sense. It is accessed through a cable or satellite connection. And increasingly we can also access and download the entire program from a Web site. 

What’s more, new digital devices like TiVo are transforming the way in which audiences interact with television programming, enabling the “viewer” to capture the broadcast, retain it for a later time, and then use it at the convenience of the receiver.

Traditional synchronous access to broadcast programming is declining and asynchronous use is becoming the norm. “Broadcasting” no longer adequately described what broadcasters do; instead it describes the technology that they formerly used to do what they do. The essence of their business is not “broadcasting;” it is creating and providing access to educational content and opportunities.

There is one other important transformation for broadcasters. In the traditional context, the programming available at eight o’clock on a Thursday evening is typically fifty minutes of content. This represents really only an executive summary of hours of material that have been captured or created and edited down to fit the available programming slot. But it is now common to make at least some of that additional material available to the user via the broadcaster’s Web site. We have all heard the instruction at the end of a show or segment that tells us we can find additional information at a specified URL.

In short, broadcasters are now trying to find ways to organize and present for use vast quantities of raw material, surround it with metadata, and make it retrievable in response to a specific user inquiry. This in turn leads to recognition of a pending convergence. Not only are museums and libraries and archives becoming more alike in the digital arena, but the boundaries between other traditionally very different organizations, like broadcasters, are blurring as well. It is time for us all to review, rethink, revise, or at least re-articulate our missions.

We know that libraries are not simply buildings where codex printon paper books are arranged and stored for potential use. The role of the library has always been much, much broader than that. It is nothing less than the preservation and transmission of knowledge and culture. And that mission remains unchanged. But it is important for us to understand that the technology is not the focus of our lives. Technology is not what we do—it is the tool we use to do what we do.

A learning society requires that we do more than develop the hardware, software, telecommunications networks, and other services and systems that supply and organize content. It requires additional structure and context to enable learners around the globe to put knowledge to good use.

As we boldly move to embrace the new world of digital possibilities, however, we must not forget that these technologies do not really replace the old technologies. The new and the old must continue to exist side by side. The new technology, in fact, enables museums and libraries to extend their reach, acquainting ever newer audiences with their rich resources and enticing them to come to make use of them on-site.

So with all the talk of “virtual libraries” and “museums without walls,” we must not lose sight of the fact that we still need real libraries and museums with walls. We must not abandon the notion of libraries and museums as a place—a place where parents can bring their children into contact with the world of learning and literacy in a social setting, interacting with other parents and children; a place where trained and caring people can teach the neophyte how to use technology; a place where expert professionals can help sort through the mass of information available on the Internet and distinguish the valid and relevant from the unreliable and irrelevant; a place where an individual can still just curl up with a good book or interact with authentic objects; a place that is a
vibrant and vital center of community life.

I am convinced that the future for libraries—and for librarians—remains very bright. It is filled with challenges and opportunities. But the importance of what libraries and librarians do, the indispensable role we play in our increasingly global society, will only grow. As Dr. Billington noted, librarians are the dreamkeepers.