TJ Revisited: the digital age and the role of libraries

A few years ago I was fortunate to visit Washington DC with my sister and grandpa. Naturally, we toured several museums and historical places including the Library of Congress. Their special collections that are on display for the public are quite striking. The most amazing one in my opinion is the personal library of America’s third President, Thomas Jefferson. (I had yet to enter my library program so don’t fault me for not knowing it existed.)

Throughout the course of earning my MLIS, I have had many conversations on the role of  archives and special collections, which lead me to think back on that historical personal library and its importance. It is great that thousands upon thousands of documents have been recreated online for the sake of preservation but you cannot simply digitize away Jefferson’s personal library. This leads me to believe that the library as place is more significant today than it ever has been.

What makes Jefferson’s library so valuable is not merely each material item’s condition, nor is it that every item in the collection is one of a kind. It is that there is only one personal library of the Founding Father and if it disappears it cannot be reproduced in its original form. For the same reason, libraries as physical spaces are ever-increasing in significance as more and more in our communities are shut down due to budget overhauls. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the community impact of some libraries are determined by abandoning others.

In the digital age, some pieces of information get buried somewhere on a server or are deleted from a personal computer but nothing online is lost forever (despite what you may think of your Facebook pictures).  And so, Jefferson’s collection stands alone not primarily because of what it is but because of what everything else is not and cannot be. We cherish the rare, the unique and the irreplaceable in an earnest attempt to hold onto something that once gone is gone forever. This is such an important role for libraries to assume and while I will agree that certain things should be done away with to make room for new growth, some things are worth hanging onto.

Jefferson's library recreated for the Thomas Jefferson exhibition. Photo by David Sharpe

For more information on Thomas Jefferson’s personal library see: http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/jefferson/jefflib.html

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