As the nature of physical libraries change, and as the types of materials and services that are offered evolves, librarians at all types of libraries hear a lot about how the need for libraries is disappearing. We hear how young people don't read (um, no - ever heard of Harry Potter, Artemis Fowl, Percy Jackson, and a few others that Sarah can tell you ALL about?), how ebooks are the future and no one uses print anymore (um, again, no - surveys from different kinds of sources continues to show that most people still prefer print for extended reading). And especially fun is the bit about how young people are all technology experts and libraries know nothing about technology... SMH.
It can be pretty discouraging when people, especially in educational settings who should know better, ignore your resources and don't require their students to use them. That's OK - we will keep working with the folks who come in and continue to reach out to those that don't. But as budgets get tight, libraries look like mighty attractive targets for budget cuts - you know, because we don't bring in revenue (kind of the point, we're not here to sell resources to students) and because we don't teach students (um, you might want to rethink that one as well - the amount of clock hours of library instruction that happen at college and university libraries every year would likely shock some folks, just saying...). So the question gets asked again - "What do libraries do?"
Every librarian can go on about what we do, and the value of libraries - and given half an opportunity, we will. But a colleague shared this posting from a blog, and it answers the question so well that I will share it with you instead of giving you MY version of this speech (and apologies in advance - I have not found the attribution for this yet. When I do, I will correct the oversight)...
Dave Tyckoson, associate dean of the Henry Madden Library, California State University–Fresno, noted that the question got him thinking and he replied at length. His response synthesizes many of the answers I received, so I have quoted from it extensively. He says:
“Over the years we have stopped doing things such as filing catalog cards, revising looseleaf services, and mailing articles through interlibrary loan, but those are all pretty minor activities. And each one has been replaced with something that is the equivalent process done in a better way online. But all of those activities are just tinkering with our processes. To answer your question, I chose to look at the bigger picture of what libraries do and how that is evolving.
The way that I define libraries, we have four primary functions that we do to support our community. We have done [them] for a long time and I believe that we will continue for the foreseeable future.
1. Collecting and preserving information. No matter what the information is, what format it takes, where it comes from, or what language it is in, libraries continue to build collections of interest to their communities.
2. Organizing information. What began as simple (yet effective) author lists of books now includes MARC records, FRBR, RDA, and metadata. How we organize information has changed significantly, but I see no time in the future when librarians will stop organizing the information in their collections.
3. Assisting users. Whether we call it reference or research or just plain help, librarians provide personal service to make sure that each person finds the information that meets his or her needs. Whether it is an individual or a group; through face-to-face, telephone, email, or chat assistance; finding a single document or researching a broad subject area; librarians are there to help. This is the service that personalizes the library for members of the community. As long as libraries serve communities, people in those communities will want help—and librarians will be there to provide it.
4. Promoting information unique to the community. This is the newest function of libraries, having begun in earnest only in the last two decades. This area also reflects a change in what is valued in the collections that libraries build. In olden times, when information was relatively scarce and hard to find, the library was often the single source for information for the community. In today’s world, where information is abundant and instantly available, it is the unique information in the collection that has the greatest value. Librarians are the ones digitizing these resources and making them available to the rest of the world. Commercially published books, journals, videos, and music can easily be replaced, but this local information cannot. This role is not only not going away, it is becoming increasingly important. [This is more of a function at universities, where institutional repositories are more common, though I expect to see it at our level as things continue to develop]
I do not see any of [these] as something that we will stop doing. We will continue to build collections, we will continue to organize collections and develop access tools for them, we will continue to help people seeking information, and we will increasingly digitize and promote local information. How we do those things will vary over time, but that we do them will not. We will probably purchase less published information and spend less time cataloging it, but we will increase our efforts in helping people find and use it and will definitely do more to digitize and promote local information. Tomorrow’s tools will look as different from the ones we use today as the iPad is from the card catalog. But tools are not what is really important.”