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Lively Debate Affirms the Importance of Libraries

April 27, 2012

By Susan Hildreth, IMLS Director

On April 18th I participated in an Oxford-style debate that was part of Harvard Library’s Strategic Conversations series.  The question “are libraries obsolete” was supported by  James Tracy, headmaster of Cushing Academy, and David Lankes, professor at Syracuse University’s School of  Information Studies, and opposed by myself and John Palfrey, professor and vice dean for library and information resources at Harvard Law School.  We were assisted by articulate student debaters from the Harvard Speech and Parliamentary Debate Society.  The debate was very formal with many points of order and information raised by the speakers and the audience.

Some provocative thoughts were expressed.  Here are a couple excerpts from my notes:

  • “The only thing that stands in the way of the future of libraries is a lack of imagination; libraries and librarians are more important than ever.”
  • “Libraries were created on a deficiency model.. and now, either those deficiencies don’t exist or there are other organizations that can address them better than libraries.”
  • And my personal favorite, “Libraries are at risk, but not librarians, we need more of these learned guides not fewer.”

Obviously we had a very lively discussion. The outcome was resounding support for the opposition: Libraries are NOT obsolete.  The result from an audience primarily comprised of librarians was not surprising, but great fun was had by all!

You can watch the debate here: