I love libraries–always have–and I can’t help noticing: they’re changing.

Libraries, traditionally, have been repositories for books. In fact the word derives from the Latin word for books, “liber.” But today you’ll also find newspapers, magazines, videotapes, films, CDs, computer programs and even terminals hooked up to the Internet. This is not your father’s library.

We are, as has been said ad nauseum, living in the Age of Information. And libraries are clearing-houses for the vast amounts of information being produced. As technology has changed the way information is disseminated, libraries have had to change, too.

The free public library, a place where anyone can pursue information, is an American invention. The first public library in North America opened in Salisbury, Connecticut, in 1803. Free public libraries found their way into Canada in 1882, when Ontario passed the Ontario Free Libraries Act.

There are many other kinds of libraries. There are national libraries, which maintain a collection of all works published within the country. The largest library of this type–the largest library in the world–is the U.S. Library of Congress, with a collection of more than 88 million pieces.

Research libraries are aimed at scholars and are usually quite specialized. Academic libraries serve primarily to support the programs of the school where they are located. Special libraries are designed to serve the needs of a specific profession; lawyers, for instance. In all, there are more than 135,000 libraries of all types in the U.S. and Canada.

This division in libraries points up one of the primary functions and challenges of libraries: classifying information. Librarians are very much like taxonomists. The latter must decide into what phylum, genus and species an animal or plant falls; the former must do the same with information.

Most libraries use one of three methods of classification; the Dewey Decimal System, the Universal Decimal Classification, a European adaptation of the Dewey system, or the Library of Congress system. In the decimal systems, all knowledge is divided into ten main classes, each of which is further subdivided with additional numerals, until you end up with something like 813.46, a book by or about American 19th century novelist Thomas Hardy. Very large libraries often use the Library of Congress system, which breaks knowledge down into 21 classes designated by letters. More letters and numbers are added for sub-classifications.

Classification is at the heart of library science because it is necessary for cataloguing. Information is useless if it cannot be located. The library catalogue is the tool that allows users to find the information they need. A library is only as good as its cataloguing system.

When I first started going to libraries this catalogue was kept on three-by-five-inch cards, and searching it was a pain. Today, many libraries have computerized catalogues; you simply input the title of the book you want, the author, the subject, or a key word, and the computer gives you a list of all works that match your search criteria.

If you cannot find the item you’re searching for, the library can search other libraries using various library computer networks. Inter-library loan agreements make it possible for you to borrow a book from a continent away.

The advent of the computer is changing libraries in other ways. Many libraries already offer access to the Internet, the vast network of interconnected computers that spans the world. But as I have discovered in my attempts to research topics on the Internet, getting at that information isn’t always easy. The Internet’s decentralized structure precludes the kind of coherent organization at which ordinary libraries excel.

This has given rise to a new breed of librarian, called (at least by one publication) a “cyberian;” someone who helps others find information on the Internet, just like a regular librarian can help you find information in the library..

Computers pose another challenge. Much of the information exchanged via computers is transient; it exists only as electrical impulses, perhaps temporarily recorded on tape or hard drive, but subject to erasure at any moment. Libraries have always been places that preserved knowledge, microfilming books and newspapers, re-binding and restoring old books, etc. Preserving electronic information is going to be much harder.

Ironically, in the midst of this information explosion, when people are looking more and more to their libraries to help them find the information they need, libraries, like many other public institutions, are facing funding cutbacks.

Classifying, cataloguing and preserving information may be at the core of library science, but these days, a large dollop of fund-raising skill is just as important.

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