Libriaries are storehouses of data

Data Central: The Library

What is one of the most common storehouses of data in any community? The library. And who maintains all this information? Librarians, of course. So librarians are far from immune to needing to understand how to collect, organize and analyze data. And with the digital world in which we now live, more data is being produced at a faster rate than any time in the past.

The Future of the Library

Libraries have traditionally been the places where printed materials – books, journals, magazines, maps and atlases – and electronic materials – microfiche, filmstrips, video recordings – were housed so that they would be accessible to the public. With systems like the Dewey Decimal System or the Library of Congress System, librarians kept the materials in their libraries well-organized and relatively easy to find. They also became very familiar with their holdings and the content of periodicals, such as journals, so that they were able to help library users efficiently.

Some people believe that with online search engines such as Google, there will not be a need for libraries in the future. Contrary to this belief, there are arguments against it, like the argument presented by John Palfrey in his book Bibliotech: Why Libraries Mean More Than Ever in the Age of Google (Tantor Media, Inc., 2015) and the fact that the number of libraries in the United States has grown, not shrunk, even as the digital world of information storage and retrieval grew.

The number of public libraries in the United States has grown rather steadily over the past two decades, though there has been a recent decline in the numbers. (Source: Public Libraries in the United States survey data files)

Palfrey believes this because the digital age has brought a huge increase in the amount of information that is published each year. Digital printing and self-publishing have increased the number of printed books, and ebooks and audiobooks have not only brought about a rise in the number of books available but also a rise in the way the books are presented. With easy access to publishing content online, through individual websites or through social media, such as Facebook, millions of people are able to get their ideas, opinions, research findings, performances and photographs into the virtual world.

All of this content represents potential information that libraries would traditionally obtain, organize, and preserve for public use. But to accomplish this, with the millions of pieces of information put online each year, is leading to changes in how librarians do their jobs. Librarians of the future will have to be able to find and organize the data electronically, and be able to help library patrons by analyzing the data and making connections among them, as these are the essential skills that make librarians so important.

One Library for All?

With so much data currently available, and knowing that data is only going to continue to grow, it will be impossible for one library or even a local or university library system to house it all. Thus, the library “system” is in for a change, and librarians will be working even more collaboratively with each other in a data system that spans not just across the country, but around the world. The Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) is just the beginning of a library system that makes information from numerous sources available through one library portal that is open to everyone.

The DPLA brings together information from libraries, archives and museums, and has over 13 million items, though it is only a few years old. The DPLA describes itself as a platform that holds items from the sources that “house” them, and these are made freely available through the internet to anyone who wants to view them. Even some special collections that would ordinarily require travel to view in person are now available online because the organization has joined DPLA. Eventually, all libraries and other information holders may become part of DPLA so that the public has access to all the information they may need on any subject.

The enormous task of being able to find the necessary data after it becomes part of such a big system will fall upon librarians. Future librarians will have to constantly update their knowledge of DPLA (or whatever successor system might be developed) and be able to analyze and synthesize more and more information to be able to serve their clients. Physical libraries will still be needed to serve the functions they do today and to provide users access to these experts in data organization and analysis.

Learn More

If you are interested in learning more about Digital Public Library of America or a career in the information resources industry, you may want to learn more about a degree in data science.