In this project, I explore how innovations in paper, electricity and automation, and digital technologies spurred moments of information overload, forcing public libraries to reshape their physical space and librarians to redefine their roles. Coined by social scientist Bertram Gross in 1964, information overload “occurs when the amount of input to a system exceeds its processing capacity” (Gross). In the context of this paper, “input” can be defined as information and/or data collected and processed by the “system” of a public library. For example, the “input” into the “system” of a Western medieval library would have been limited to a handful of hand-copied religious texts. After the invention of the printing press and movable type in the 16th century however, the exponential “input” of printed material into the burgeoning “systems” of public libraries sparked the need for new methods of classification, storage, and retrieval of resources.
With each technological turn, both the growth in quantity and shifting formats of information “inputs” -- from printed books discovered through a card catalog, to downloading a dataset discovered through a Google search -- changed the public library “system” physically as well as changed the function of librarians. Paper tools like index cards and the card catalog drove the standardization of physical spaces in public libraries, and defined the role of librarians as architects of information. Innovations in electricity and automation liberated space in the library, as computer terminals replaced the behemoth card catalogs. New methods of searching and storing information changed the role of the librarian from information architect to information wayfinder, as librarians trained users to search in a new way for the first time in a century.
Digital technologies and the birth of the internet gave rise to powerful search engines, more users accessing that information on their own devices, and more public spaces providing access with free Wifi. Once again, public libraries have altered their physical spaces to accommodate the changing relationship between patron and structure, as more seating and study spaces replace the computer labs of yore. In addition to wayfinding support, public librarians are now faced with the challenge of training users in information literacy. Because of an overload of information available online, librarians are now being called upon to educate searchers in the difference between “fake news” and real journalism, aggregated content sites and scholarly work, and the difference between a top search result from Google and a top search result from an academic database.
The technological reactions to information overload have led to a crisis of identity in public libraries. In today’s information society, there is a pervasive and dangerous misconception that in a world with seemingly unfettered access to seemingly infinite information, where nearly 4.5 million Google searches are conducted every minute (DOMO), there is no longer a need for the physical space of public libraries or the information expertise of librarians. In a now infamous 2018 Forbes op-ed (since deleted thanks to outrage from librarians and public library users alike, but still available here via the American Library Association (ALA)), writer Panos Mourdoukoutas argues that “Amazon...can replace local libraries and save taxpayers lots of money, while enhancing the value of their stock” (Mourdoukoutas 1). Mourdoukoutas argues that the historic value of a public library, which he defines narrowly as physical book lending, a “comfortable” place to read, and a place to hold community events, are now defunct as other entities can fulfill these needs without costing taxpayers anything. He suggests Amazon bookstores can provide the physical and e-books any reader could want, the internet and search engines can field any queries, that Starbucks can provide a comfortable place to read and work with free wifi, and that “there’s no shortage of places to hold community events.” (Mourdoukoutas 1).
Though it makes a library student roll their eyes and feel queasy at the same time, Mourdoukatas’ piece starkly illustrates one of the greatest challenges facing public libraries today: the misconception between what people believe to be the function of a public library, and the reality of what a vital role public libraries, theoretically and in practice, play in a democratic society. In this paper, I argue that librarians and public libraries have had to redefine themselves as physical spaces and information experts with each new technological era. Information overload is at the heart of this disconnect between the reality and perception of public libraries.