The Future of the Library : User as Content

Future of the Library book cover
The Future of the Library: From Electric Media to Digital Media
Robert K. Logan and Marshall McLuhan

Chapter 1 – The Library: The Physical Extension of Man’s Memory (Mother of the Muses) — A Study in Media

User as Content (pp. 12-13)

The cognitive agent is and becomes the thing known. — Aristotle

The twelfth-century German physicist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg wrote ‘A book is a mirror; when a jackass looks into it he does not see St. Paul looking back.” The eminent librarian Jesse Shera expressed a similar sentiment.

A book is a “container for things contained” yet what that thing may be dependent upon him who reads. For the author the book is the physical embodiment of that he thought he put theme, but to the reader its content is a variable. (1971, p.21)

Both the physicist and the librarian are making the same point, namely, the user is the content. This insight into the nature of the book applies to all media, including the library. The content of a library, paradoxically is not its books but its users, as a recent study of the use of campus libraries by university faculty revealed. it was found that the dominant criterion for selection of a library was the geographical proximity of the library to the professor’s office. The depth of the collection in research’s field was not as important a criterion as convenience (Dougherty & Blomquist, 1971, pp. 64-65). The research was able to convert the nearest library into a research facility that met his needs. In other words, the content of this conveniently located facility was its user. Any library can be converted from the facility it was designed to be, into the facility the user wishes it to become. A library designed for research can be used for entertainment, and vice-versa. As we move into greater use of electronic media, the user of the library will change even more. As the user changes, so will the library’s content or the use to which the content of the library will be subjected. In other words, as the ground in which the library exists changes, so will the figure of the library. The nineteenth-century notion of the library storing basically twentieth-century material will have to cope with the needs of twenty-first century users.