What IS a Library?

For the record, this is not a library, it is a book storeThis week, after tweeting a link to ALA’s President Molly Raphael’s statement regarding the destruction of the Occupy Wall Street Library in New York City, I became engaged in a conversation on Twitter about what constitutes a library. To me this seems obvious, but I had a hard time coming up with a hard, fast definition. I discovered that, like Justice Stewart, I’m of the know-it-when-I-see-it mindset when it comes to identifying it – a library that is. I am not sure I can define it in terms that reconcile with the statement from ALA. If I say the dissolution or destruction of any library is wrong I need a concrete definition for library, because while it may be uncool (and probably illegal) for someone to come into my home and destroy my personal library, I’m not sure that warrants a statement from the ALA President. Let me be clear, I am in complete and total agreement with the statement from ALA. I will happily defend that statement and ALA’s choice to make it. The problem I ran into was defining a library in terms that fit with it. Not just the OWS library but any library of this type. Even after doing some digging (see below) I still didn’t feel like I could offer a succinct definition, not the 140 character kind Twitter requires and probably not even a 140 word one.

For example, the Merriam Webster definition could apply to my private library, well not the morgue part but the rest of it, so that doesn’t work. Ditto for Oxford. The Whole Library Handbook requires that it be ” organized by information professionals or other experts”. So again that would apply to my private library. But this definition also leads us into that whole merry circle of a conversation (or shouting match and sniping remarks) about what constitutes an information professional. I don’t think a collection needs to be organized by an MLS holding person to qualify as a library. You could throw publicly accessible into the definition to rule out my home library because I only begrudging lend books to friends so I’m not about to let the public en masse have access to it. But there are many great libraries not freely available to the public. I read a couple more articles, linked below, but they didn’t help either. So I give up, I’m taking it to the masses, what do you think?

What makes a library a library?


Merriam Webster:

1. a : a place in which literary, musical, artistic, or reference materials (as books, manuscripts, recordings, or films) are kept for use but not for sale
b : a collection of such materials

2 a : a collection resembling or suggesting a library
b : morgue 2

3 a : a series of related books issued by a publisher
b : a collection of publications on the same subject

From the Oxford Dictionaries

a building or room containing collections of books, periodicals, and sometimes films and recorded music for people to read , borrow, or refer to

From American Libraries

The Whole Library Handbook offers this definition:

“A library is a collection of resources in a variety of formats that is (1) organized by information professionals or other experts who (2) provide convenient physical, digital, bibliographic, or intellectual access and (3) offer targeted services and programs (4) with the mission of educating, informing, or entertaining a variety of audiences (5) and the goal of stimulating individual learning and advancing society as a whole.” (p.2)

From YouTube


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15 thoughts on “What IS a Library?

  1. Without a doubt, this is THE critical question facing our profession in the next decade, whether we admit it or not. I really appreciate your take on the question, and I certainly don’t have much of an answer, but I’m thrilled to see the questioned being raised within our own ranks.

    I’d add that I feel that this critical “definition drift” is due to how, in general, information science/studies has eschewed theory. We NEED theory, we need it as much as we need controlled vocabularies, because without it this kind of question ends up being defined by the people least qualified to do so (like, politicians trying to gut library funding). 😦


    1. Thanks KimBoo. I agree with you, I see this definition as growing in importance, as we advocate for patron rights, from ebooks to internet access to digital literacy to good old fashioned literacy and book censorship, the definition of exactly what is a library and what does it stand for is increasingly important. I haven’t given it a lot of thought before because as I said, I know it when I see it, but as I start talking to more and more people outside of libraries I’ve noticed how important it truly is.


    2. This now makes it TWO questions I struggle with: defining the library and library education.

      With library education I am finding unbalance–either too much theory and not enough practical or vice versa. I teach cataloging fundamentals to non-librarians and I have MLS folks clamoring to be in the class because they didn’t get fundamentals! We need to step back and take a look at where theory and practical come together and quit trying to teach everything to everyone. If, as Kimboo suggests, we teach critical thinking, this will allow library students to learn fundamentals and be intelligent enough to then apply those to the specific libraries they work in (offering specific advanced classes for those interested, of course).

      Critical thinking broadens the mind, opens up perspectives and creates opportunity for innovation. THEN, when people go to conferences they will be enticed to engage in more creative conversations with their colleagues. OR, shockingly enough, to engage in these conversations at *gasp* work! It will have become part of the profession! As David Lankes says, lack of imagination is our greatest enemy.

      Now, back to deconstructing “library” as a concept. 😛


  2. My working definition: a curated collection of resources made available for the specific purpose of lending or providing access to a group of people*. I’ve always hated that a private collection of books, intended for collection rather than sharing, can be called “a library,” because, of course, it isn’t one.

    *Whether that group is “the whole public” or “employees of the organization” or “shareholders in said library,” as in the case of Ben Franklin’s library, back in the day, it’s all valid. So say I. 😉


    1. This was my thought, too. The intention of a library is to provide access to a dedicated community; it doesn’t necessarily have to be public. In that respect, my personal collection doesn’t count, because my household doesn’t count as a “community,” at least not to my mind.


  3. I so love what KimBoo York stated. I was so disappointed that my library school education gave up librarianship for what was seen as a more practical education. Given that the more practical was technology based, it changed with the wind. Theory gives basis to the practical and though the tools may change, the essence of librarian should endure.

    Will ‘library’ be redefined or simply clarified as it expands beyond print collections and the confines of brick and mortar?


  4. Don’t know about a “library”. I can do what a “public library” is though.

    A place open to all that provides free access to reading material and information in both printed and electronic form.

    This may not be what the definition is in ten years time (likewise, ten years ago, you could have deleted “or electronic”), although I certainly I hope it will be… but it is the definition today, and that is all we can ever say with certainty.

    If I was trying to address the dangers of current UK trends, I would also add something about paid staff who ensure neutrality and universality of access as well but, being we are going for a basic definition, I’m going to be good and just stick with the first parargraph.


  5. I think users and patrons define a library according to their needs. A patron that wants to use the library for research would define it as a centralized hub of informative resources. A patron that want to do online socializing would say that a library is an digital environment with accessiablity to the world wide web.


  6. Excellent definitions. I have been looking for a useful definition of a library for a while now – that’s what brought me to this blog. However, let’s not forget another part of our communities. We, as librarians, should make a good attempt to make information accessible to all persons, e.g., the visually, physically, speech, hearing impaired and developmentally delayed people.


  7. A definition I came up with for an assignment:
    “a curated collection of information sources intended for use”
    (With the foot notes:
    * “Curation”: choosing, sorting, managing, organising, administering, maintaining and preserving.
    * “Information sources” includes various material and resources in different formats, both physical (including paper, microfilm, tape, etc.) and electronic/digital. Information is meant to be taken to include entertainment, ephemera and so on, as well as the more specific types of information.
    * “Use” implies provisioning access, whether by lending or otherwise, and implies not archiving for conservation purposes.)

    I must have read Coral’s definition but I don’t recall doing so. But they do seem similar…


  8. The morgue part of the M-W definition:

    2 : a collection of reference works and files of reference material in a newspaper or news periodical office (“old news stories found in a newspaper morgue”)


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