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Can The Internet Overcome Its Chaos and Turn into a 21st-century Library?

Digital Library shelf. (2021). [Photograph]

The idea of the library is changing in the 21st century. The library as a collection of knowledge is no longer limited to a physical space; with the internet, information can exist anywhere and everywhere. How we access information is changing too; social media allows everyone to be creators of knowledge and sharers of information. Addressed here is how the internet and social media are changing how libraries and librarians operate in a digital society.

There are two important elements that constitute the library as an institution of information and knowledge:

  • the organization of a collection of records, and

  • the sense of community created by that collection of records.

Mittler (2016, p. 227) identifies that “cataloging is the main prerequisite for library usage” in modern libraries. When Internet Library Portals were first introduced in the late 1990s, Davidsen (2005, p. 14) recognized that their purpose was to “bring order out of [the] chaos” of the information readily available on the internet.

Be it a physical library or an Internet Library Portal, the structuring of information is recognized as a central idea to what defines a library. Indeed, Jacob (2002, p. 49) identifies the library as a space “both structured and structuring”. This statement can be understood by recognizing that libraries order the information within them and are responsible for structuring how the community responds to and uses the information included in the collection.

Pipe, B., Cultura Travel, and Getty Images. (n.d.). New York Public Library [Photograph].

Fisher (2011, p. 263) notes that in the context of the Western world, the library profession was introduced in the Victorian Age, when “notions of public service were being formed”. There is a relationship between the idea of public service and the accessibility of the information contained in libraries for the community.

Indeed, Jacob (2002, p. 41) believes that we should understand libraries “in terms of relationships” between the collection and the people who organize and use them. Jacob (2002, p. 42) expands on their definition to say that libraries are “ways of externalizing memories…[they are] socially active”. Libraries are therefore not only spaces where information is ordered, but “relationships” where information is “socially active” in ideas of public service, community, and culture. To understand what a library is and how they are changing in the 21st century, we must understand libraries as spaces of both knowledge and culture.

Following the definition of the library established thus far, the internet cannot be considered a library as it does not organize the information it contains; as Davidsen has recognized, Internet Library Portals had to be introduced to achieve this structuring of information.

Where the internet does suit the definition of a library, though, is when we articulate the culture of the internet. Jacob (2002, p. 47) makes an interesting definition of libraries in the ancient world as “autarchic collections of memory”. This definition can be adopted by the internet, where the internet is an autarchic collection of disorganized memories rather than the structured knowledge of a physical library. The greatest challenge to libraries in the 21st century is how the internet displays disorganized information. To overcome this challenge, we can develop our understanding of the library as “socially active”, recognizing the relationship between the information and the people who use it.

To understand the library as “socially active”, Jacob (2002, p. 56) argues that we must look at “the relationship between storage technologies and the circulation of knowledge in a particular society at a particular time”. The internet is a “storage technology”, and thus according to Jacob, we must look at how the internet is changing how we interact with knowledge. Fisher (2011, p. 274) identifies how “the post-modern influence that social media currently exert indicates that they will emerge as the major channel used to convey…ideas and responses, as well as in initiating discussion and setting agendas”.

To see how libraries will change in the 21st century, we must look at how the relationship between individuals, the internet, and social media will change how information is shared in society.

Vladgrin and Thinkstock. (2014). Social media and information [Graphic].

When looking at how information is shared in society, we are required to look at how the role of librarians and information services professionals is changing. If the internet and social media give rise to “autarchic collections of memory”, what is the need for the services of a professional librarian? Jacob (2002, p. 48) recognizes that librarians “manifest…power [of information]…through control”: the question for our digital age, where social media democratizes who owns and controls information, is how a loss of control will change how information is shared in society.

Fisher (2011, p. 275) argues that social media has given rise to “information workers” and that these have replaced the services of professional librarians. Fisher decides this is not the way forward and that there is still a strong need for information services professionals. Even if the trend of “information workers” is not desirable for libraries, it is a responsible and accurate representation of how information is shared in our digital society, and therefore, we must continue to discuss how “information workers” are changing how we access and use information.

It is important to discuss how libraries are changing in the 21st century, as it helps us assess how the access and the use of information are changing in a digital world. Traditional libraries are physical spaces of ordered knowledge, with information being controlled by professional librarians. The internet and social media are changing how information is being created, used, and accessed by individuals, with less order and control.

In the 21st century, the library has become less of a physical space and more of a relationship between the people who access, use, and share information.

The critical question for us now, is how to train individuals to navigate this new reality. Are traditional education systems out of touch in doing this? How do we verify knowledge when everyone has an authority over the information? These are the exiting challenges we get to meet as we continue to understand our position as "information workers" in a digital society.


Davidsen, S. L. (2005). The Internet Public Library and the History of Library Portals. Journal of Library Administration, 43(1–2), 5–18.

Fisher, B. (2011). Redefining librarianship. In D. Baker & W. Evans (Eds.), Libraries and Society: Role, Responsibility and Future in an Age of Change (1st ed., pp. 263–278). Chandos Publishing.

Jacob, C. (2002). Gathering Memory: Thoughts on the History of Libraries. Diogenes, 49(196), 41–57.

Mittler, E. (2016). The Library as History: Library History Research after the Cultural Turn. Quærendo, 46, 222–240.


  1. Digital Library shelf. (2021). [Photograph]. ZBW Mediatalk.

  2. Pipe, B., Cultura Travel, & Getty Images. (n.d.). New York Public Library [Photograph]. Lonely Planet.

  3. Vladgrin & Thinkstock. (2014). Social media and information [Graphic]. School Library Journal.


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Amy Mogensen

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