Old Media, New Media: Librarians and Archivists Reflect

Rachel Ariel

Duke University

The most significant change in the library and in the librarian’s work in the past ten years has been the huge expansion of digital media. While a decade ago we already had online catalogs, databases, and websites and used personal computers for our daily work, much of the librarian’s work was still done in a traditional way. Book publishers sent their print catalogs in the mail, and librarians ordered books title by title. Dozens of print newspapers and journals were displayed on shelves in a central area of the library, a place popular among readers. The reference desk was busy with students asking for advice and assistance as they were searching for sources. Students and faculty alike still used the reference collection of encyclopedias, dictionaries, lexicons, all in printed book format.

Today, in addition to every student carrying his own laptop, most professors and all students walk around with a smartphone that grants them immediate access to every online source, as well as many other forms of Internet communication. Yet this ability to search and find material on one’s own, anywhere, creates difficulties in finding and selecting the right material within the seemingly infinite quantity and diversity of online information.

Our library still receives some printed academic journals that are not available electronically, yet the shelves that house them have moved from the main floor to the basement and use has very much declined. In all disciplines, in science, social studies, and humanities, digital representation of journal articles has replaced the paper format. Scholars and students have direct access to discovery tools, but the number of journals and articles available online has become enormous, with multiple ways of access. One of the most important roles of the librarian nowadays is to support and teach our patrons what the discovery tools are and how to use them. The abundance and variety of options is overwhelming, and learning to find and select the best resources is the challenge facing scholars and students.

The digital revolution has also brought e-books to the library. Gloomy expectations predicting the imminent disappearance of the printed book have not materialized. Digital publications have not replaced printed ones, and our readers want and use both formats. Librarians still maintain and manage collections that are now composed of both physical and digital material.

The advancement of the Internet and the World Wide Web enabled the development of one of the more exciting concepts in today’s scholarly world: open access. Providing unrestricted access, without financial or legal barriers, via the Internet, to peer-reviewed scholarly research allows anyone who is interested to benefit from new scholarly work. Academic libraries serve as open access repositories for scholarly works created by faculty and students and thus support the dissemination of knowledge beyond the academic world.

The expansion of digital media has transformed the work of scholars and librarians alike. The old tasks have not gone away—subject knowledge is still prized as are librarians’ skills in finding and evaluating information. But the digital world has opened up new possibilities and challenged us to learn new skills.

Originally from Israel, Rachel Ariel studied History, Political Science, and Education at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Jewish Studies at the Hebrew College in Boston. Upon coming to North Carolina in 1994, Rachel became one of the two founding teachers of the new Jewish Community Day School of Durham-Chapel Hill. Rachel was the director of Jewish Studies at the Lerner School. Since 2006 Rachel serves as the librarian for Judaica and Hebraica at Duke University Libraries.