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  • Writer's pictureCultural Practices


Professor Christopher Pressler, John Rylands University Librarian, The University of Manchester

John Rylands Library
John Rylands Library

Librarians who began practising in the last twenty years have had the phrases, ‘the death of the book,’ and ‘the end of libraries’ ringing in our ears for much of our careers. Yet, relegate a book to the store and you unleash a flood of emails to the University Librarian. If libraries are dying, a lot of people haven’t noticed. One of the finest characteristics of humans is our ability to share. In the academic library context this has meant, and is still defined by the Library’s contribution to the archiving and discovery of human activity. At the heart of all universities, the library in its many facets continues to balance tensions between print and digital collections, between the demands of teaching and research, between the humanities and sciences, and perhaps most importantly, between access to research information and support for its creation in academic practice.

I write this in the time of COVID-19, a pandemic that has reached into every part of our world. The pandemic is causing me to consider the role of libraries as our world changes.

Libraries are present at the generation of ideas, in delivering content to the desktop and the desk top. Libraries bring people into contact with innovation, with innovators and with each other. They draw an inconceivably long line of thought in every discipline to the minds of current thinkers. Libraries are critical in our need to share and to discover. They are vital in allowing access to our recorded thoughts by those who follow us.

Shiyali Ramamrita Ranganathan (1892-1972) was an Indian librarian and mathematician. Amongst the many professional positions he held, the most significant was as the first University Librarian of the University of Madras. Complaining to the University administration of the loneliness of the role, the University sent him to what was then the only School of Librarianship in Britain, at University College London. He returned to India filled with ideas and plans to transform not only the purpose of his university library in Madras, but of all libraries.

I am not the first librarian to consider the place of libraries in a crisis. Jorge Luis Borges, a former National Librarian of Argentina writes in The Library of Babel in 1941:

‘Epidemics, heretical conflicts, peregrinations which inevitably degenerate into banditry, have decimated the population. I believe I have mentioned the suicides, more and more frequent with the years. Perhaps my old age and fearlessness deceive me, but I suspect that the human species – the unique species – is about to be extinguished, but the Library will endure: illuminated, solitary, infinite, perfectly motionless, equipped with precious volumes, useless, incorruptible, secret.’

Faced with such an onslaught my profession seeks not only to create order but also to be useful. Ranganathan’s Five Laws of Library Science, his greatest contribution to even our current predicament are principles upon which the practice of librarianship still rests:

  1. Books are for use.

  2. Every reader his [or her] book.

  3. Every book its reader.

  4. Save the time of the reader.

  5. The library is a growing organism.

These typically succinct compressions of what it means to manage vast quantities of information for an immeasurable number of readers have carried the world’s libraries through some unsettling times. Ranganathan intended for them to resonate in librarianship, as did Newton’s Three Laws of Motion in physics. The question is, given they were first published in 1931 are they still relevant in a world where so much content is beyond the library’s physical walls?

One example of where the answer is an unequivocal but expensive “yes” is the transformation of the availability of eTextbooks. Manchester is amongst the most comprehensive collections in the world and for the first time in my career I can ensure that Law II above is attainable.

The Internet is the railway of our generation. It has transformed life, at least in the western world. The library profession took a while to realise that it, unfavourably caricatured as it often is, had found itself in the midst of the greatest shift in human society for generations.

I have heard keynote speakers at conferences challenging the profession to wake up (in the early years of the web) or give up (more recently). The use of one library is in a sense the use of all the world’s libraries. The systems of Inter-Library Loans and now, shared digital resources, allows access to quantities of books and electronic content across countries and continents, halted only by licences and local laws. Librarians have been at the forefront of challenging these commercial practices that are detrimental to students and to the sharing of ideas, indeed to society. We have never been asleep and we’ll never give up.

In addition to the Five Laws of Library Science, Ranganathan can be cited as an early promoter of open access. He believed passionately in the social mission of all libraries.

The open source movements in the field of information technology have had substantial impact on the development of applications and on the growth of the web. They still face obstacles in corporations who see the Internet as the next opportunity to control information. Media tycoons are becoming multi-media tycoons. In libraries, relatively small initiatives such as institutional repositories have questioned the business models of corporate publishing, but not critically. It might be observed that in both library and IT departments, it is possible for ideas to flourish in small environments. Competitive marketing is another matter.

Libraries, and indeed university IT departments have at their best sought to provide a setting for experiment without cutting the cord to commerce. However, predictions about national data management infrastructures have met obstacles in both financial limitation and research competitiveness that will be difficult to overcome in the foreseeable future.

It has proven almost impossible to agree a global solution to free at point of use information. Even in a pandemic the barriers remain for the most part up. Libraries were once chained to the walls of cathedrals, now they are bound by third-party licenses.

Commentators, who use the term ‘the future of libraries,’ do imply an understanding that all libraries are in some way linked. What is missing, in defining the future of libraries in this way, is that not all libraries serve the same purpose. Even in higher education the differences are stark.

This is derived from age. Collecting takes time and enough time offers breadth and depth. In the UK sector this is most notable in Oxford and Cambridge, but other large print collections exist at Manchester, Edinburgh and the London School of Economics. In these libraries a combination of investment, attraction to benefactors or even geographical location serves to increase the scale of collections.

In the past the size of print collections has distinguished the Library.

Universities have used their libraries not only to appeal to students but also to researchers, who in turn have added depth to the collection. In this way, libraries have been major contributors to the formation of hierarchy in British universities, not only in themselves but also in what they support and whom they attract.

In the future the size of digital collections will distinguish the Library.

There have been attempts in recent years to level university library holdings. Most notoriously, Google at one point held the cards to the ability of our institutions to continue to think of their libraries as special owing to size. Any mission to digitise all of the world’s books means, if not immediately then almost certainly eventually, that all universities will at least in principle be in a position to offer access to comparable library collections.

However, despite its current position, Google is only an example of how the world is changing around our libraries. Very few companies exist forever, or survive unchanged and unchallenged. Many of the materials in research libraries will outlive us and will need care long after Google itself becomes a footnote. The content of libraries teaches us much, but the most important lesson is that change is constant.

With or without Google, mass digitisation of books and journals will be a strong trend in combination with pervasive computing. The legal implications of these developments are yet to be resolved. Google’s mass digitisation programmes, now including languages and cultures beyond the English-speaking world, have already become the largest single transfer of knowledge from one format to another in human history. However, they are also only part of that history, not its conclusion.

Printed or digitised, Ranganathan’s laws remind us that the library is made up of more than books. A library is space – collections – readers – librarians. Google is focused on collections, as is the case with almost all technology. As an advertising company it is not surprising that it wishes to use content to attract advertisers to its services, in fact we could learn a lot from them. What might be learnt reciprocally is that the library as a space filled with people is part of an open digital future. It is not closed by it.

I remember two things most clearly as a trainee librarian: the unpredictability of questions at the enquiry desk: the demanding queues at the issue desk. I still see both in libraries. Even with many services available online and self-issue now ubiquitous, readers continue to visit the physical library and they still expect to find librarians inside it. This is especially so for subject specialists in large research libraries. The web has greatly improved our ability to communicate but, as with dating sites, it is a tool for actually meeting people rather than a substitute for human contact. Libraries will continue to embrace technology but only to enhance existing services, not to replace them.

In the late 1990s, as the Internet was beginning to impact on academia, we began to use the phrase ‘the hybrid library,’ to describe the emerging environment of print and digital collections. The term has been out-of-use for some time but may be appropriate now, not to describe the collections, as such a fusion is now common, but to describe the readers’ future experience of the physical library. A reader still wishes to work in the library but increasingly works with greater access to digital collections via mobile devices. The library will continue to provide suitable environments for both solace and collaboration, but will be enhanced by the web. Reading rooms will progressively merge with websites.

Of course, there are discipline variations for the academic library. Its physical use is less important to science than to the humanities, although content is still managed in both fields by the library. Most digital book collections are subscription services, not the open to all vision of Ranganathan’s pre-war print experiments. Information has never been freer than it is now, but it has also never been free.

There are also the differences in libraries. For most academic libraries, electronic resources have been transformative. ‘Early English Books Online; and ‘Eighteenth Century Books Online,’ a vast digitisation by Google of books from that period in the collections of Oxford, Manchester, Cambridge and other universities put collections onto the shelves of universities that could never acquire the original materials. For the large research libraries, the opportunity to redefine historic and special collections as the heart of their service is already the next iteration of the hybrid library. Digitisation of manuscripts brings greater demand to see the original.

The near future for all libraries will depend on genuine innovation in their web presences. The distant future for most standard research libraries will be defined by an acceptance that size is no longer everything, but that close collaboration between librarians and academics in exploiting the complex scientific research web, in parallel with dynamic access to historic collections (some of which are already born digital), will be what readers want. In the future the library will continue to be a ‘growing organism.’

The very few libraries with comprehensive digital collections, extensive print collections and significant digital and physical access to vast special collections will remain the world’s great libraries. I am privileged to note that The University of Manchester Library is one of these libraries. However the balance between print and digital content shifts, however the world changes, I believe the Five Laws of Library Science will remain resonant to future colleagues. I also believe that, to appropriate Borges’ phrase, libraries will always illuminate.



Christopher Pressler was appointed as John Rylands University Librarian and Director of The University of Manchester Library in February 2019. He has also held the positions of University Librarian and Director of the Irish Modern Archives Research Centre at Dublin City University, University Librarian at the University of London and University Librarian at the University of Nottingham. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, has been listed in Who’s Who from 2013 and is Professor of Collecting Practices at the University of Manchester. He holds degrees from Queen’s University Belfast, Nottingham Trent University and the University of Sheffield. Chris has held positions on many boards and committees around the world and has published widely in fiction and on rare books and archives. His next book will be published in 2021 and is concerned with the role, purpose and future of libraries.

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