At the very beginning, Cmiel raised the question about library’s roles in the information age. He contended that the answer did not lie in the debates between “books and bytes”, but rather, we had to first understand how we read, learn and live together, and then we can examine library’s roles. For the rest of this chapter, Cmiel described the evolution process of library’s role as an information-center from 1940s to 1990s.
In the 1940s, a new model was introduced into libraries: libraries not only provided books, but also played a role as information-center for public and research community. For public libraries, as the emergence of the word “communication”, some reformers advocated that libraries should provide information the public needed, which required libraries to extend their collections in terms of subject and format. However, due to the inertia inside library field and the outside pressure from censorship battles, the reform only changed the libraries to a very small extent, and most of the library collections were still books. On the other hand, research libraries began to realize that books were not the only thing researchers needed, and therefore, how to provide information for researchers’ better understanding of their fields became a challenge for libraries to think about. Moreover, the space issue urged libraries to use microfilm as a new medium of knowledge.
In the late 1950s and 1960s, the relationship between books and libraries was discussed again largely due to the development of computers. Since the computer technologies were improving rapidly during this period, some projects started to study the automation of libraries, and the discussions about bookless libraries appeared. In the first phrase of discussion, debates about book or computers exited between computer scientists and librarians. Later, a solution of “cross-fertilization” (p. 333) seemed to be accepted by the majority: computers and books can coexist in libraries.
However, in the 1970s, libraries shifted their focus from the optimistic visions in 1960s to provide services to the underprivileged groups, such as the poor or women, and then to the general public. Libraries redefined their missions as the information center for the community, which was similar to the ideas of reforms in 1940s. The differences between the reformers in 1940s and 1970s included: 1) the latter deemphasized the importance of books in library functions while the former still put books as the foundation of libraries; and 2) the latter treated their users as individuals, while the former treated them as members of communities.
Meanwhile, research libraries’ functions also had been changed due to the financial crisis and the emergence of online database. Libraries had to reduce their book acquisitions, and add more subscriptions of databases, which leads to an urgent discussion on paperless libraries. Many librarians tried to find a balance between books and bytes, and problem solving became libraries’ major role.
In the 1980s and 1990s, more research libraries and public libraries became computerized, while they received different feedbacks toward their changes. Many research libraries set higher priority for online databases over printed materials, which was criticized as an attack on the humanities; while public libraries were welcome to the computer-generated innovations, since they can attract more patrons into libraries and provide better services to meet their needs with the computer technologies.
At the end of this chapter, Cmiel pointed out two sources for the information-based library evolution: technophiles and political liberalism, and he argued that the former was the major reasons for research libraries’ changes, while the latter for the public libraries.