Adventures in Rhetoric: The Traditional Library

In Brief: Librarians make frequent reference to “the traditional library” yet there is no accepted definition of the term. Responding to a debate that began at the 2013 ACRL National Conference, the author presents the results of a literature survey that explores the rhetorical usage and meaning of the phrase. Results indicate that the “traditional library” is commonly defined as a physical space emphasizing physical collections, and is often invoked as a counterpoint to the “modern” or “digital” library. A discussion of the potential value of such rhetoric follows.

Partial results of a Google Image Search using the keyword, “tradition.”


First: A Bit of Context

In a recent Lead Pipe editorial I accused do-it-yourself (DIY) library culture of being a survival strategy (Dorney, Ford, Leeder, & Vandegrift, 2013). “A traditional library,” I said, “is a dead library.” I repeated this statement as part of a panel presentation in front of a large group of librarians at the Association for College & Research Libraries (ACRL) National Conference in Indianapolis in April. I repeated it knowing full well that such Chicken Little rhetoric was likely to irritate, if not infuriate, a substantial proportion of my audience, but hoping that it would jump-start a constructive, creative conversation. I did not expect applause, nor did I receive any.

Instead, I found hornets. Glorious, buzzing hornets.

In case you missed the subsequent exchange, here’s a quick review. After a brief but lively debate in which several people passionately defended the traditional library’s future, the panel went on to explore examples of DIY culture such as Library Juice Press and the Library as Incubator Project, and to discuss how DIY might interact with longstanding, as-yet-unavoidable institutional structures like the academic tenure system. There was a lot of constructive, idealistic discussion, as well as a healthy dose of rabble-rousing.

Anecdotal feedback after the panel was encouraging. Attendees on Twitter and elsewhere described feeling empowered and excited to effect positive change in their libraries. Conference-goers even cited the panel as an “honorable mention” in the ACRL 2013 People’s Choice Awards. Yet a few days after the session came a blog post by library administrator Brian Mathews (2013). While Mathews refrained from participating in the discussion in Indianapolis, he wrote that he was “surprised by the attitude that the session generated. There was a lot of ‘damn the man’ talk,” he says, which he interprets as egotism and pessimism. According to Mathews, DIY culture is destructive while “startup thinking” is innovative. Unfortunately, he omits his references on startup thinking and refrains from sharing examples of such thinking in libraries beyond a nod to the #makeithappen philosophy. He concludes, “DIY feels more like a political statement than an innovation statement.”

Mathews appears to have missed the point: it’s both.

Meredith Farkas (2013), who was also at the ACRL panel session, responded to Mathews, noting that “[m]ost of the people at the presentation were talking about finding space to make innovative projects happen within traditional libraries.” Interestingly, in the same post she later returns to attack the same rhetoric, stating, “The notion that there is a ‘traditional library’ and that we need to move away from that is a fallacy. Does every generation think they invented change? Libraries have been changing and adapting and becoming what their communities need for at least the past century.” Her comments are echoed by Maoria Kirker (2013), who acknowledges that “tradition exists and will forever remain an element of librarianship,” but asserts that “[w]e need to stop using the word ‘traditional’” because it is so commonly misunderstood.

Ah, but there’s the rub. The “traditional library” is so deeply rooted a concept that even those who object to it can’t avoid using the term. It is a baseline against which we compare our progress, the tick marks on the wall against which we measure our growth. Without a traditional library there can be no modern library, no concise phrase that captures our past, and no thumbnail of our future. So what, exactly, is a traditional library? This article is a rhetorical adventure into that core question.

The Rhetoric of Tradition

As any scholar of language will tell you, the only true way to determine the meaning of a phrase is to survey the literature and see how it’s being used in practice. Regardless of what we think of the term, what do we mean when the words slip out; when we talk about the “traditional library” in our conversations and publications? The next section of this article presents the results of a literature survey of both the professional and popular library literature to pinpoint the active, everyday meaning of the phrase. I present the following amalgamation of quotes after searching Library, Information Science, and Technology Abstracts, JSTOR, Google, and Google Books for the term “traditional library.” For those interested, a crowdsource-friendly spreadsheet summary of the results is available for review and additional contributions.

While a wide array of librarian authors freely employ the phrase “traditional library,” only one specifically defines the qualities of such a library in detail. A panel of authors led by Raj Reddy (1999) from the International Technology Research Institute published a report on Digital Information in Japan that identifies the traditional library as an institution characterized by these traits:

  • emphasis on storage and preservation of physical items, particularly books and periodicals
  • cataloging at a high level rather than one of detail, e.g., author and subject indexes as opposed to full text
  • browsing based on physical proximity of related materials, e.g., books on sociology are near one another on the shelves
  • passivity; information is physically assembled in one place; users must travel to the library to learn what is there and make use of it (6).

According to this perspective, the traditional library is equivalent to the physical library: it is driven by a focus on physical items and physical spaces. The priority in such a library, as reflected in traditional library building design, is the housing and protection of the current and future print collection. As a result, write Latimer & Niegaard (2008), “[m]ost library buildings were, and still are, large, intimidating, and frequently unwelcoming” (55-56).

Reddy et al. are not alone in equating the term “traditional” to “physical”; on the contrary, the wide majority of those who referenced the “traditional library” based their work on the same definition. For instance, L.A. Ogunsola (2011) addresses the concept in an article entitled, “The Next Step in Librarianship: Is the Traditional Library Dead?” published in Library Philosophy and Practice. He writes, “[t]raditionally, libraries were collections of books, manuscripts, journals, and other sources of recorded information…. In a traditional library, the catalogue is used to find traditional library materials” (2). The apparent redundancy of this statement only underscores the embeddedness of the term “traditional” and its close ties to the physical world. Even popular sources such as Ask.com (“What is the difference,” n.d.) and LISWiki (“Digital library,” n.d.) define the traditional library as “manual” and “confined…within a physical boundary,” respectively.

Also common in the literature is the use of the term “traditional library” as a counterpoint to discussion of the “digital” or “online” library. Authors repeatedly employ the concept of the traditional library to frame discussion of how rapid changes in technology are affecting libraries. The comparisons reinforce the idea that traditional means print. David Lee King (2007), for one, crafted a Library 2.0 spectrum in which “[o]n the left-hand side of the spectrum are the Luddites. These are very traditional libraries and librarians who really don’t understand the need to change and/or adapt to emerging trends.” Or consider Diane Kresh’s statement in The Whole Digital Library Handbook: “While traditional libraries are limited by storage space, digital libraries have the potential to store much more information” (2).

The Traditional Library in Context

Historically speaking, the focus on print materials in a “traditional” library addressed the needs of the community and the times. In an article in The Library Quarterly, Dan Lacy (1969) writes “The original, we may properly say ‘traditional,’ pattern of library service in the United States was based on a relative immobility of users and of materials and on a political system that looked to local sources of support for social services of all kinds” (13). Lacy describes the early interlibrary loan system, noting its limitations due to the slow speed of mail and lack of rapid transit. In a brief yet insightful article in Scandinavian Library Quarterly, Roland Persson (2003) makes the similar observation, “[t]he traditional library is in harmony with the industrialised society and the modern library with, what we initially call the information and media society.” The distinction is based upon the economics of the time in which the library exists: those born in industrial times focus upon industrial products, while those born in information times focus upon media products. The boom in mass-production during the industrial period fed the traditional library’s emphasis upon print books.

When considering the historical implications of the “traditional library” concept, it’s helpful to revisit Farkas’s comment from above. She wrote, “Does every generation think they invented change? Libraries have been changing and adapting and becoming what their communities need for at least the past century.” She is not the only librarian to see the concept of the “traditional library” as a moving target. As described by Donald T. Hawkins (2012), a recent debate at the 2012 Charleston Conference argued this statement: “The traditional research library is dead.” A vote of the audience at that session found that popular opinion was divided nearly in half, with 52% of attendees agreeing that traditional libraries are dead, and 48% objecting. Hawkins encapsulates debater Derek Law’s (con) position as such: “Tradition is about evolution. Research libraries have existed for about 3,000 years. Traditional libraries have always adapted to changing media.”

Perhaps the traditional library should be considered more of a spectrum than a point of comparison, or perhaps it is one point upon the spectrum. Persson writes:

Most libraries find themselves in a state of motion transporting them from the traditional to the modern….Evolution is not constant or equally fast in all spheres. It is not unusual to see organisational changes adapt libraries to the modern model, whilst a library’s entire mentality and developmental strategies belong to those of the traditional model.

This may explain the apparent frustration expressed by some DIY-ers, where they are ready to embrace services or concepts relevant to modern libraries only to find resistance where traditional processes remain. In this case, then, where “traditional” is one point on a spectrum and “modern” is the opposite point, libraries can measure their progress against the qualities of each to determine their success by popular standards. If there are points where they still harbor traditional models, those points are brought into sharp relief by the comparison.

In the end, the common usage of the term “traditional library” is inseparable from its association with print collections and physical spaces. Even Michael Gorman (2000) admits, “I use the word ‘traditional’ with great reluctance and simply for want of anything better–its pejorative overtones of clinging to the past, of being place-centered and exclusively book-centered, bear no relationship to the experience of modern libraries.” The traditional library is a physical library: a building constructed first and foremost to house print collections; people are secondary. This characterization of the traditional library has become a touchstone against which librarians at every point in our ongoing journey into electronic media can evaluate, assess, and use to reassure themselves that they are, indeed, moving the field forward into the future. As David Lankes (2011) observes, “[t]housands of years of tradition serve as inspiration for our future, not as a set of shackles binding us” (1).

The Traditional Librarian

While this article is primarily concerned with representations of the library as institution, it can be difficult to separate portrayals of the “traditional library” from those of the “traditional librarian.” The rhetoric shifts easily between the two, as the place and the people who created it are tied closely together. If the traditional library emphasizes collections over people, the traditional librarian must, by definition, be book-oriented. If the traditional library prioritizes the preservation of print materials, the traditional librarian must be a gatekeeper. Discussion of one leads to discussion of the other. For instance, Kirker begins her recent blog post by challenging the “traditional library” concept, but then goes on to comment, “if an outsider was looking in, it’s my opinion that they’d hear the word ‘traditional’ and apply the age-old stereotype of The Music Man‘s Marian the Librarian.” While the traditional library rhetoric revolves around physical spaces and print collections, the traditional librarian concept is a culturally recognized image: bun, glasses, and all.

Rhetorically speaking, the term “traditional librarian” is not commonly used, but may be replaced with the “librarian stereotype,” which is frequent in the literature. From studies of Hollywood characterizations of the profession (Walker & Lawson, 1993) to Pinterest boards collecting images depicting librarians (for instance, the “Librarian stereotypes” board by Peter Alsbjers Blogg and Ruth Kneale), the librarian stereotype is a concept both prevalent and provocative that inspires extensive debate and commentary. In fact, it is so widely used that it has inspired substantial rhetorical study already (Lutz, 2005; Stoddart & Lee, 2005; Carmichael, J.V., 1992) that need not be replicated here.

So What?

Regardless of whether we agree with the usage of any particular term, rhetoric has meaning and impact. At its essence, “rhetoric [is] a form of communication that uses particular symbolic expressions to persuade a targeted audience” (Lansford, 2011, 1478). While Farkas and Gorman both object to the rhetorical concept of the “traditional library” as it is commonly used, and the fact that it is a term frequently employed to signal the end of a particular era, they overlook the intrinsic, symbolic value of the term. It is political and innovative, providing a platform for those seeking new ways to embrace change.

If we define it rhetorically as an institution focused on physical spaces and materials, then there remains no question: the traditional library is dead. That doesn’t mean libraries as an institution are dead, nor does it mean that the physical library as a component of some larger organization is dead. The traditional library has been replaced with an expanded vision of itself, one that encompasses traditional values and features but extends outward to include the vastness of free and licensed digital resources as well as spaces and services that are entirely people-focused. The contemporary library, in contrast to the traditional library, resides online, teaches, reaches out and asserts its value across its community.

Gorman (2000) writes, “my idea of a ‘traditional library’ is one that selects, collects, and gives access to all the forms of recorded knowledge and information that are relevant to its mission and to the needs of the community it serves, and assists and instructs in the use of those resources.” Though unable to alter the common usage of “traditional,” Gorman reminds readers of the root functions of any library, regardless of platform or format. Lankes takes this one step further, noting that librarianship “is not about cataloging, or books, or buildings, or committees–it is about learning, knowledge, and social action” (1). Those who object to the rhetoric of tradition point to the long history of libraries and their constant adaptation to new directions in culture and technology.

Language is always a moving target, and the rhetoric employed at any single point in time serves as little more than reference point against which to compare the past and the future. The concepts of “traditional” and “modern” will always be relative to the present and, as such, have ever-evolving definitions. Yet flawed as these terms are, they still serve a purpose in informing the field, inspiring comparison, and inciting continuous improvement; in short, rhetoric inspires change, and change is how we survive.

What do you think? Do you find “the traditional library” to be a useful concept, or is it more damaging than it is valuable? You’re invited to continue the debate in the comments below.


Many thanks go to Julie Jergens of Hi Miss Julie as well as several Lead Pipe editors — Brett, Ellie, Emily, and Erin — for their thoughtful feedback that helped to shape and improve this article.


Carmichael, J. V., Jr. (1992). The Male librarian and the feminine image: A Survey of stereotype, status, and gender perceptions. Library and Information Science Research 14, 411-46. Retrieved from http://libres.uncg.edu/ir/uncg/f/J_Carmichael_Male_1992.pdf.

Digital library [Wiki page]. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://liswiki.org/wiki/Digital_library#A_shift_from_traditional_library_to_virtual_library.

Dorney, E., Ford, E., Leeder, K., & Vandegrift, M. (2013, April 3). Editorial: DIY library culture and the academy. In the Library with the Lead Pipe.

Farkas, M. (2013, April 24). DIY vs. startup. or false dichotomies and labels [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://meredith.wolfwater.com/wordpress/2013/04/24/diy-vs-startup-or-false-dichotomies-and-labels/.

Gorman, M. (2000). Our enduring values: Librarianship in the 21st century. Chicago: American Library Association.

Hawkins, D.T. (2012, November 10). Hyde Park corner debate: The Traditional research library is dead [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://www.against-the-grain.com/2012/11/hyde-park-corner-debate-the-traditional-research-library-is-dead/.

King, D. (2007, August 1). Am I a 2.0 librarian and the library 2.0 spectrum [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://www.davidleeking.com/2007/08/01/am-i-a-20-librarian-and-the-library-20-spectrum/#.UaYunJz3XRY.

Kirker, M. (2013, May 6). Tradition and the rhetoric of the modern library [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://maoriakirker.wordpress.com/2013/05/06/tradition-and-rhetoric/.

Kresh, D., Ed. (2007). The Whole digital library handbook. Chicago: American Library Association.

Lacy, D. (1969). The Traditional library. The Library Quarterly, 39(1), 13-22.

Lansford, T. (2011). Rhetoric. In G.T. Kurian, (Ed.), The Encyclopedia of political science, v. 5, (p. 1478). Washington, DC: CQ Press.

Lankes, D. (2011). The Atlas of new librarianship. Cambridge: The MIT Press.

Latimer, K., & Niegaard, H. (2008). IFLA library building guidelines: Developments & reflections. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.

Lutz, C. (2005). From old maids to action heroes: Librarians and the meanings of librarian stereotypes. (Unpublished Master’s thesis). University of Maryland, College Park, MD. Retrieved from http://drum.lib.umd.edu/handle/1903/2670.

Mathews, B. (2013, April 14). DIY vs. STARTUP: Choose your flavor of change [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://chronicle.com/blognetwork/theubiquitouslibrarian/2013/04/14/diy-vs-startup-choose-your-flavor-of-change/.

Ogunsola, L.A. (2011). The Next step in librarianship: Is the traditional library dead? Library Philosophy and Practice. Paper 606.

Persson, R. (2003). Traditional and modern in the library world. Scandinavian library quarterly, 36(1). Retrieved from http://slq.nu/?article=traditional-and-modern-in-the-library-world.

Reddy, R., Ager, T., Chellappa, R, Croft, W.B., Davis-Brown, B., Mendel, J.M., & Shamos, M.I. (1999). WTEC panel report on digital information organization in Japan. Baltimore: International Technology Research Institute. Retrieved from http://euro.ecom.cmu.edu/people/faculty/mshamos/1999DigitalJapan.pdf.

Stoddart, R.A., & Lee, A.R. (2005). Paradoxical views of “librarian” in the rhetoric of library science literature: A Fantasy theme analysis. Georgia Library Quarterly, 41(4), 5-10. Retrieved from http://scholarworks.boisestate.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1006&context=lib_facpubs.

Walker, S., & Lawson, V.L. (1993). The Librarian stereotype and the movies. MC Journal: The Journal of Academic Media Librarianship, 1(1), 16-28.

What is the difference between traditional library and modern/digital library? [Website]. (2012). Retrieved from http://www.ask.com/answers/175814981/what-is-the-difference-between-traditional-library-and-modern-digital-library.

16 Responses

  1. I enjoy the premise of this article and while I agree with the subject, I think it’s limiting (and ultimately defeatist to the topic) to not have really gone further back. Perusing through articles from Library Journal (UK) from 1903 or Special Libraries from 1915 or even ALA proceedings from the 19th century, you’ll see that they’re discussing the exact same thing. The rhetoric of traditional libraries and attempts to change it by the newer generation in basically the tenant of what we call librarianship since 1876.

    I’d like see everyone complaining now about change to address that historical perspective that it ALWAYS asks for change.

  2. We get so caught up in comparing the form and practical functioning of different types of libraries that it becomes all too easy to believe that these forms and functions are the definition of a library. We must remember that form and function are merely strategies employed to try and achieve deeper goals and serve essential functions in our communities.

    By throwing these differences in library form and function into stark contrast, it highlights what aspects of librarianship are artifacts of circumstance, and what represent the underlying and enduring purposes and values of libraries.

    These changes, this evolution, is a powerful opportunity for us to reflect on our core reasons for existence, independent of our circumstantial functioning.

    From this perspective, ALL options and resources, ALL working models and theories, are equally available to us, and all equally subject to assessment and evaluation. “Traditional” vs. “modern”, physical vs. digital – each is unique and potentially useful to our patrons, each has its limits.

    If we focus on PURPOSE and not on FORMAT, it resolves this entire debate and allows us to move forward with all extant information tools available to us.

  3. Farkas’s comment about every generation inventing change is incredibly insightful. In my studies, one thing I’ve noticed is that libraries change. And all the time. Whether it is moving from card catalogues to electronic catalogues, or closed stacks to open stacks, or any of the myriad of other changes just in the last twenty years, change is continuous.

    Perhaps a good definition of “traditional library” is “the library I grew up with”. Except that the libraries I grew up with switched from card to electronic catalogues. They introduced barcodes. They stopped stamping the return date anywhere, but instead provided a printed paper slip. There is no traditional library. Except, well, it’s the physical library isn’t it (because that’s what I grew up with). That’s the only definition that makes sense to me.

    My view is that a library is a library is a library, as John said, we should focus on the purpose, not the format.

    Regarding traditional librarians: If I say I say I’m studying librarianship, people say “Oh, you like books then?”, I say “well yes (who doesn’t?), but that’s not why I want to be a librarian…”. I then normally have to explain how the library isn’t dead, and how even if no one ever made a physical book ever again, there would still be a need for librarians and libraries.

    Thanks for this interesting article.

    PS You seem to be missing the Gorman reference in your list.

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  5. Raina Bloom

    Thank you for this piece/ongoing discussion. It’s important to note what the rhetoric of “tradition” allows us to distance ourselves from in library history – I’d like to call attention to the section “The Traditional Librarian” and stress that all of our cultural touchstones for that figure/image/stereotype are female. Discussions of the current profession’s relationship its history often fail to take into account that librarianship is, statistically speaking, a woman’s field. Given both that and western culture’s anxiety about the feminine, what does it mean if we announce the death of the traditional library/librarian? What are we rejecting when we do that? What are we casting aside that is of potential value? And, most urgently, why?

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  7. Beth Posner

    Binary images of librarians and libraries – as omnipotent or powerless, as know it alls or know nothings – abound in popular culture. The dichotomy between old school print gatekeeping versus high tech digital innovation represents another example. The reality, however, for most libraries and librarians, lies somewhere in between. And, as librarians working to connect people and information we should maintain the best of our “traditions” while also incorporating the best of new formats, services, policies and procedures. There is no need to force false choices between opposite poles. It’s all part of an evolutionary continuum of librarianship. As such, I think it would be more rhetorically useful if libraries are represented, discussed and considered wholistically rather than as traditional or modern.

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