When University Prof. Asa Gray, sailed for Europe in 1838, he was given $5,000 and was charged with the task of purchasing a collection of books to start the fledging University of Michigan’s library.
Gray purchased volumes on a wide array of topics, covering everything from classical literature to zoology, and he sent more than 3,000 books back to Ann Arbor.
Over the past century, the University Library grew to be one of the largest university library systems in the world, but until the Internet came to prominence over the past two decades, the general function of a library remained unchanged from Gray’s humble beginnings in the 1830s.
The Internet, however, has radically altered the way people interact with information and redefined the library’s place in academia and society. Thirty years ago, if a student needed to know the capital of Mozambique, she would have to go to the library and ask a reference librarian for assistance to find out that the capital is Maputo.
Now, all a student needs to do is run a Google search on her iPhone and within 30 seconds — and without leaving her bedroom — she could find out that Maputo has a population of 1.07 million and that the average temperature in July is 64 degrees Fahrenheit.
So while the instantaneous nature of the Internet has made The United States Postal Service insignificant (When was the last time you sent a letter?) and has fostered a 24-hour demand for news and information, it’d be easy to assume that libraries, at the University and elsewhere, would also be victims of the Internet’s accessibility and travel down the same path as Borders Inc., CDs and handwritten thank you notes.
But that’s not the case.