Aberdeen is progressing on plans for a new library. There are many opposed to a new library. Some think the old one could be renovated more cheaply. Others are opposed to any library. But while all this is going on, few people, except those of us who use libraries for research, have noticed that libraries are being dismantled. They don't possess the holdings they once did. And they are dispensing with some of the services.
Computers are most often cited as the reasons behind these changes. Storing hard copy books and papers is one of the most expensive and problematic things libraries do. To accommodate the ever-burgeoning production of books, libraries have to expand. They have to add more shelf space. Even with the process of deselection--the culling out of outdated, unused materials--new books keep coming in. As texts became digitized so that they can be stored on computers and transmitted over the Internet and World Wide Web, librarians thought they had found a solution to the storage problems.
However, another way of dealing with the storage of hard copy was for libraries to join together in networks and share holdings with other libraries. Not every library needed to have every book if the network of libraries coordinated their purchases of books. Certain libraries within a network would be designated to concentrate on certain categories of important materials and make them available to each other. That way, important texts were available while cutting down on the shelf space needed. The networks created a system of inter-library loans so that books could circulate among the libraries within the networks. That worked well. Sometimes it delayed access to materials, but they were eventually available. In South Dakota, under the auspices of the Department of Education, the libraries created the South Dakota Library Network (SDLN), which included every library in the state, most of which participated in the Inter-Library Loan program. When the catalog was digitized and put on line, a user would search for materials from any computer and make a request for them from a local library. I have used the service extensively for myself and students over the years.
Then, some years ago the South Dakota State Library, which held many significant materials decided to change the nature of its mission. It stopped being the storage facility for hard copy and concentrated on electronic texts. As a state employee at a university and for the Dept. of Game, Fish, and Parks during summers, I made heavy use of the state library. It provided films and other audio-visual and specialty materials that were not available elsewhere. However, it has changed from being the repository for materials to being a facilitator for access to other data bases.
But the South Dakota Library Network that linked more than 150 libraries in South Dakota, including the State Library, is being taken down. The only comment readily available on the dismantling of the network comes from the newspaper in Vermillion in an interview with a librarian. The story says that there is a goal of having all libraries off the network by the end of this year, except for university libraries under the control of the Board of Regents. The decision, it says, was by the state Department of Education. There is no explanation of the reasoning for this.
This movement seems to mean that a researcher will no longer have available the catalog listings from the libraries in South Dakota and that the coordination of library holdings is ended. From a researchers point of view, this could complicate, in some cases terminate, access to resources. As a researcher into regional matters, I found that some of the most valuable and informative materials are in local libraries. By consulting the SDLN, I could find material and request it through inter-library loan or visit the library which possesses it. Some very small libraries hold archived material from the local community which is in formats too cumbersome or fragile to move around, and an on site visit is necessary to examine it. In one project involving the role of churches in the settling and community organization of the plains, a historian and I visited many libraries that had materials which cataloged on the network but required on-site visits. The network made knowledge of the materials possible. I don't know how the dismantling of the network affects knowledge of such materials. They might be put on other data bases, but no announcements or explanations for the ending of the network have been issued to inform users of the network catalog.
The matter of dispensing with hard copy materials because they are digitized is quite another matter. A professors' organization I belong has many members who will not accept Internet sources on research papers unless the writers have established that the texts are authentic, accurate, and verifiable. Computers are fallible. We know about viruses and hackers who vandalize materials, but we tend to gloss over the fact that computer systems often malfunction. I have had an experience with how serious those malfunctions can be. I have contributed a number of articles to a reference work. The process to insure the reliability of the reference requires that every entry be checked by fact checkers for authenticity, accuracy, and documentation. I had written an entry on an author where I came across a sentence in source that said "he did subscribe to a theory that people could be characterized by class distinctions." I quoted the sentence from an electronic source. However, the fact checker had access to the printed source and found that the sentence read, "he did NOT [my emphasis] subscribe to a theory that people could be characterized by class distinctions." I had included the sentence because it indicated something about an author that I, and most scholars, had not known. Needless to say, I had to rewrite the entry and intensify my own critical appraisal of source materials. When we contacted the publishers of the electronic version, they could not explain how the error occurred, but did find other instances, which they could not explain either. The fact-checkers said they found many such errors and flagged sources cited from electronic texts so that they could check them for accuracy as a first priority.
This illustrates the flaw in the thinking of those who think that we can dispense with printed materials and rely upon computerized texts to save space and to make texts more easily available. The texts are vulnerable to electronic malfunctions as well as to malicious attacks from hackers.
When I taught full time, I often held hours in the university library where I could help students with assembling their list of sources for research papers. One of the sources often consulted for factual background was the microfilms of the local newspaper. Looking for articles on microfilm is a most unpleasant experience because scrolling through the films is hard on the eyes and for many produces the same effect as motion sickness. I recently had an inquiry about a court case of some years back and I met the inquirer at the library to look at some microfilms. We found that the library no longer stocked the microfilms, but had to request the year we wanted from the library at the South Dakota State Historical Society.
And that brings up the matter or who controls the libraries. The South Dakota State Historical Society is part of the Department of Tourism, which states that its mission is
"to promote the state as a premier vacation destination to all visitors and to support and serve the South Dakota visitor industry." In other words, it is part of the economic development apparatus in which state government is involved. The Society is not under the auspices of any agency devoted to knowledge, research, scholarship, or teaching. As the economic development activities of the state resulted in such affairs as the recent EB-5 fleecing of Chinese and Korean investors, one can only wonder what kind of priorities the Historical Society operates under.
The same goes for the Department of Education, which oversees the state library and the network of libraries. The Department of Education is a political agency designed to carry out the political preferences of the dominant party. It is not an agency devoted to education, except as it conforms to the political dicta of the ruling party. In dismantling the South Dakota Library Network, one must ask if there is any educational aspect of the decision, or if it, like nearly all of South Dakota governance, is a matter of political control.
We may chortle at the dolts who think Obama can use the nation's armed forces to take over a state under the guise of a military training exercise. But when one finds decisions and alignments of information and knowledge resources with agencies of known bumbling and political subterfuge, one must ask if it is happening through conspiracies or plain old South Dakota dumb.
Update: Here is more on the subject of libraries: http://www.alternet.org/books/why-libraries-matter-more-ever-age-google
A Gallup survey from 2013 found that libraries are not just popular, they’re extremely popular. Over 90 percent of Americans feel that libraries are a vital part of their communities. Compare this to 53 percent for the police, 27 percent for public schools, and just 7 percent for Congress, and you’re looking at perhaps the greatest success of the public sector.
James Palfrey, in his new book BiblioTech: Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google, gives some truly bummer statistics on what’s happening to this beloved institution. A government report showed that while the nation’s public libraries served 298 million people in 2010 (that’s 96 percent of the U.S. population), states had cut funding by 38 percent and the federal government by 19 percent between 2000 and 2010. “It seems extraordinary that a public service with such reach should be, in effect, punished despite its success,” writes Palfrey.