In libraries, access is divided into two realms: the physical and the digital. The creation and expansion of online communities has increased the need for digital access to information. Additionally, as technology advances, the need for physical access diminishes and the demand for digital access explodes.
As more archives are able to digitize media, and as more journals leave the world of dead tree format publications in favor of the digital printing press, the number of communities which can access that information expands. No longer is access limited to who can physical get to information - today, a German scholar of early African-American literature can just as easily access and study a collection of manuscripts in an American HBCU's library as one of those library's current students can. While access may have once been limited to those within a 50 mile radius of reasonable travel, scholars from around the world can now learn from these digitized pieces of information.
While the power of digital archiving cannot be overstated, the need for physical access to information remains a constant. Even in more developed nations such as the United States, 3% of the population's internet access is only available in dial-up form 1). Even in cities that are wired for fiber optic internet, inter-city areas find themselves lacking in technology because of poor government funding, leading to public schools with limited or nonexistent computers and students who are cut off from the digital world.
Providing these communities, both rural and urban, with adequate physical access to information is vital. While it is not necessary for every library to maintain every possible piece of information (a feat which, while dreamy, is obviously impossible) it is critical that those libraries maintain open communication and healthy relationships with other libraries. Programs such as Interlibrary Loan are life lines in these areas, ensuring that every member of the community is able to gain access to the information they need.
Even as this digital age continues to expand, the importance of maintaining physical structures of information cannot be forgotten. The existence of libraries, along with museums and archives, will continue to be an important part of information access.
A current topic in US politics that could drastically affect the premise of digital access is that of the open internet, or net neutrality. 2) By creating legislation which determines that all information on the internet is not, in fact, equal, access to digital content would undoubtedly become a tremendous issue in the library and information sciences.
Another topic important to the discussion of digital access is collaboration among multiple institutions. As the Public Libraries Section Standing Committee in its 2008 Public Libraries, Archives and Museums: Trends in Collaboration and Cooperation 3) report concludes:
We all share a common interest in the preservation of knowledge and cultural heritage; now, much of this information, regardless of format, is available online on the Internet. Finding information is no longer about visiting a particular institution, but about the experience of the information – the learning process – itself. Libraries, archives and museums must respond to these challenges by similarly defying physical boundaries: finding new ways to deliver information to the public, collaborating to preserve and digitise heritage information, and pursuing new joint-use facilities.
The emphasis on providing access is usually seen as the most vital, as it is through the internet that people from all communities are able to find information that they would not physically be able to obtain. While digitizing has the benefit of long-term preservation of older documents, or those which are too delicate or valuable to be handled (such as the Declaration of Independence), the greater social benefit of digitization is increasing the availability of virtually any document. This increases a libraries community outreach, while also expanding information to groups that might never have had access to certain kinds of information (legal cases, scientific journals, rare book collections, and much more).