Higher Learning

What defines a great library?
Answered by Michael A. Keller and Sarah Thomas
  • Michael A. Keller

    Michael A. Keller

  • Sarah Thomas

    Sarah Thomas

  1. Michael A. Keller University Librarian and Director of Academic Information Resources, Stanford University


    You might think that I would respond by saying, "A great library is a great big library." But actually, I think a great library is one that stimulates curiosity. My first library experience, that I remember to this day, was in the Children's Library in Westbury, Long Island, N.Y., where there was a weekly reading time for different aged kids in the library on a Saturday.

    The library had open shelves, lots of books categorized by age group in the fiction zone and categorized by call number and so forth in the non-fiction room, all open on the shelves, librarians that were interested in being helpful. But, as well, objects. I remember a great big globe. I remember some kind of a glass case filled with birds that had been captured and stuffed but they retained their plumage. They retained some degree of their character.

    Just being in that space began to stimulate my thinking and stimulate my curiosity. So, for me, a great library is one that helps people expand their imaginations, expand their intellectual horizons, assists them in getting work done or getting tasks done that they want or need to get done.

    It is absolutely true that the big libraries, the great big libraries like this one and our buddies over at Berkeley and UCLA and USC and so forth, offer such a great wealth that one can be stimulated just by the extent of literature in any given subject. By literature, I mean everything from recordings to maps to archives to rare books to common books to journals in physical form and in digital form.

    So first of all and foremost is the role of the library, large or small, in stimulating the imagination and then responding to it in some effective way. In effect, every library is an opening point to a vast literature which is stored somewhere, we hope. So I went from my work as a music librarian at Cornell, a great music library and a great big university library, an actually wonderful library, to doing research in some quite small libraries in Italy as well as in the Vatican library and the Vatican archive.

    We collect a lot of stuff. But the deep knowledge is often somewhere else. So you end up, in this funny life of mine, in the Children's Library of Westbury. You end up somehow getting into the library profession. You end up working in some great big libraries, then all of a sudden, because of your research interests, you discovery a shelf in highly specialized, very small libraries in very distant places. It's been an incredible career.

    More answers from Michael A. Keller »

  2. Sarah Thomas Bodley's Librarian, Bodleian Libraries


    I think a great library is one which facilitates the creation of new knowledge, because that's what we're about. We're in this great chain of all the recorded thoughts that have been captured in some way, whether on paper or on film or now in digital form -- are able to be accessed by people who are trying to build their own knowledge framework, whether they're learning what went before. But why are they doing that? It's so that they can contribute something to society as well. We need to be able -- a great library is one that creates those connections for people and facilitates those connections.

    We do that through these four identifications of knowledge, the organization of it, making it, interpreting it enough so that people can find it, and then preserving it. I do think that's what a great library is, it's inspirational. That's why our buildings are so grand often, because it's that desire to in the 19th century maybe to shock and awe people about knowledge, and why today, they've moved to being in their own way inspirational but fitting the idiom of the 21st century which is more informal, more relaxed. It's still the same experience, I think. You come, you learn, you're inspired, and you give back.

    More answers from Sarah Thomas »

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