The Enduring Library: Technology, Tradition, and the Quest for Balance

Colin Johnston (Goldsmiths College Library, University of London, London, UK)

New Library World

ISSN: 0307-4803

Article publication date: 1 July 2004




Johnston, C. (2004), "The Enduring Library: Technology, Tradition, and the Quest for Balance", New Library World, Vol. 105 No. 7/8, pp. 305-306.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Gorman sets his stall out early. He seeks to “describe our present and future library life, our use of technology, and our ways of looking at what we do … also … to describe a balanced approach that will enable us to incorporate technology (especially digital technology) harmoniously without compromising our basic values” (introduction). Gorman begins by examining where libraries stand today: the challenges they face and the opportunities open to them. Only by examining the past can we understand the impact of technology on society in general and libraries in particular. He retains a healthy scepticism, reminding us of the hype that has accompanied the recent electronic developments in the profession, but he is no Luddite. The thread running through the book is a discussion of the balance between the best aspects of a traditional service combined with appropriate, new (electronic) developments: the secret is getting the balance right.

Libraries are not in a unique position, for they have often found themselves in periods of upheaval and change, and today things are no different. The bottom line is adapt or die; however, this is one challenge the profession have risen to with alacrity over the past 15 years. Libraries still rely on the “core competencies”, which Gorman identifies as cataloguing, reference work, acquisitions and collection development, and he discusses them at length. He outlines the lamentable growing trend in the diminution of reference services, arguing they are “crucial to the library's struggle to improve democracy and to bring knowledge and information … to all who ask” (p. 80). Gorman believes we have reached a state of “near perfection in the bibliographic control of ‘traditional’ library materials” (p. 82) and this expertise should not be wasted. The questions of identification, accessibility, preservation and transmission of (electronic) information are identified but not tackled in any concrete way. They will be answered, but only “if we employ wisdom and insight” (p. 93). And once catalogued, will these “worthwhile” materials remain permanently on the Web, also, how are these documents to be identified? Gorman does not say.

Gorman, optimistically, believes that when the digital revolution is logically examined, the situation will become clear, and a proper equilibrium will be achieved. His general approach is to cite past practices as a defence believing, as it were, that if they were good in the past then they are still good: I am not so sure this argument will persuade many library administrators. He fails to appreciate that the application of such a critique – no matter how devastating – cannot overcome vested interests, additional agendas, power games, skewed priorities and the like. Librarians are just as capable of promoting their own agendas as anyone else. He saves some of his strongest invective (applicable to both the US and the UK) for university LIS departments and their reluctance to teach the core competences. This “shameful state of affairs” might eventually lead to librarianship “descending into a fractious and incoherent dissolution with grave consequences for our culture and society” (p. 121).

I have a lot of sympathy for many of Gorman's opinions, his arguments are eloquent and sometimes provocative. He paints a large canvass, as the sub‐title of his book suggests, sometimes with the paint spread a little thinly, but this makes it a suitable text for students of library and information studies (and for those who are concerned with the future of librarianship). If nothing else, it will give readers a sense of place in a profession that is changing faster than some would wish. There is plenty to debate, from Gorman's “core competencies” to the preservation conundrum. For this reason, perhaps his manifesto might have been better served with a bibliography to support the end‐of‐chapter references. In the end, Gorman poses more challenging questions than he answers – certainly more than you would expect for a book of just under 150 pages – and that is the way it should be.

Related articles