Speakers Question the Obsolescence of Libraries in Oxford-Style Debate

Debaters considered the longevity of libraries in an age of rapid digitalization at “Libraries Are Obsolete: An Oxford-Style Debate,” an event hosted by the Harvard Library Strategic Conversations on Wednesday.

The Harvard Libraries Strategic Conversations, a group of volunteers from the library community committed to developing a broader dialogue about strategic questions on the future of libraries, hosted the discussion in Piper Auditorium at the Graduate School of Design. Law professor Jonathan Zittrain moderated the event.

In accordance to Oxford tradition, debaters took turns taking the floor and delivering their arguments with the projection of a wooden-paneled Oxford interior in the background of the auditorium. Audience members addressed questions to speakers by prefacing their question with the phrase “point of information.”

Among those arguing for the obsolescence of libraries were Dr. James Tracy, headmaster of Cushing Academy in Ashburnham, Massachusetts, and Syracuse University Professor R. David Lankes.

“Digital libraries will soon be completely co-terminal with the entire realm of human knowledge,” Tracy said.

Susan H. Hildreth, director of the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and Vice Dean for Library and Information Resources and law professor John G. Palfrey ’94 defended libraries’ right to existence.

“We need to rewrite the definition of library—and to do so with great imagination,” Palfrey said.

Rishav Mukherji ’15 and Sanhita Dey, members of the Harvard Speech and Parliamentary Debate Society, took the podium at the conclusion of the event. Each student represented a different opinion about the future of libraries.

No vote count was taken to determine the outcome of the debate. However, audience members were asked to exit the auditorium through one of two doors: one that was labelled “Libraries are Obselete” and another that was labelled “Libraries are Not Obsolete.”

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