- Let’s Call It the “Ubiquitous Library” Instead . . .
Framing an argument with the right terminology is critical to making any case effectively. Sometimes such framing is to clarify understanding, while in others it is rhetorical and persuasive. Politics is a particular example of the latter. Since at least 1984 when Duane Webster first developed and wrote "Organizational Projections for Envisioning Research Library Futures," we have been struggling as much with the terminology as with the work of transforming libraries. "The intent of these organizational projections is to suggest alternative library futures in order to assess competing possibilities for research libraries in the next decade." 1
The work has been updated several times and posits four basic futures—from a very traditional print-based model (not likely) to an IT-driven information agency model (which appears now to be closer to reality). The paper does not suggest terms or labels for the four futures that describe these library models. Since then the literature has grappled with the transformation we are experiencing, and terms like paradigm shift (to describe the phenomenon) or virtual library (to describe the outcome) have been much used. An exact phrase search for "virtual library" on Google yields 5,070,0000 matches while Yahoo results in a mere 2,800,000. These huge numbers alone suggest that "virtual library" is not a descriptive term of much use or precision for framing what is happening in libraries today although we throw it out rhetorically with great frequency. Digital library and electronic library are no better terms, I might add.
I want to suggest a term we have been using increasingly at the University of Maryland Libraries—the ubiquitous library.2 An exact phrase search on Google yields a mere 114 instances of the term and in Yahoo a slightly larger 126 matches. This means we can add significant meaning and precision to the term that make it useful for framing. I think, too, that it is a better fit with what is happening and with what we mean than the term virtual library or commonly used alternatives. I claim neither "rights" nor originality in adopting the term. It was used in the pages of this journal an issue ago to describe chat reference.3 In 1999, the term was used by Michael Keller to describe networked access to significant content, much previously in print.4 Similarly the Monash [End Page 293] University Information Technology Web site describes an R&D project to develo a "ubiquitous library" client to locate and return items to users from anywhere in the Caulfield Library.5
Why is it a better term as opposed to virtual/digital/electronic library? One of the key challenges in describing what libraries are becoming has been the struggle to incorporate the real experience that library as place does not seem to be disappearing. There are many reasons. Perhaps the most important is that human beings tend to be "social" and need places to gather for intellectual work involving others on our campuses—hence coffee shops, group study spaces, Information Commons, and—yes—reference desks. Moreover, the staying power of books that seem to have an ergonomic advantage for linear reading and large, one-of-a-kind special collections of historic materials that are unlikely to be digitized in the foreseeable future both require physical space. Nonetheless, the rapid changes in scholarly information—the fuel for the engines of research and teaching in our colleges and universities—are the result of information technology and pervasively affect what we in libraries do.
I want to posit a premise—that the real challenge to the scholarly information exchange (using networked information technology) that underlies much of what academic librarians do is simply to lower costs and optimize access. That appears to me to best characterize how the ubiquitous library will emerge. How the staff and librarians of all libraries meet these basic challenges is critically important to the future. It is amply clear that the academic library as a place will be sustained. At the same time, it will become ubiquitous because of the use of advanced networking and computing to support innovation in how libraries work with...