The Boston Public Library and outgoing president Amy Ryan recently came under fire for misplacing two works of art in its collection. The resulting furor led to Ryan's departure, and cast a pall over Boston's beloved library system.

However, the BPL is hardly the only library embroiled in controversy. Last week, congressional librarian James H. Billington announced his retirement amid criticism his library hasn't kept up with the pace of technology. Billington is only the 13th person to hold the post.

What is the role of the library in the information age — is it a repository for the great art, a building with free web access, or — as was the initial intention — a place for learning and research? Can it adapt to changing times while staying true to its original mission? Jonathan Zittrain is the director of the Harvard Law School Library, and the author of "Why Libraries (Still) Matter." 

"Libraries are often the places of last resort to find that thing that nobody bothered to hang onto, but that they later regret losing," Zittrain said Tuesday on Boston Public Radio. "That's kind of the Norway seed bank — that after the apocalypse we can reboot everything courtesy of a handful of the libraries of last-resort, of which the Boston Public Library is also thought of [as] one."

"The problem is that gets those libraries into the museum or archive business of just having to keep a bunch of stuff lovingly-preserved and humidity-controlled."

A library's mission is a daunting one, especially in an age where so much information is available online. Materials that existed only on the library shelves are now on the web, some for free, and some for a price. Zittrain worried that that new-found ubiquity would lull us into archival complacency.

"If we think that the commercial realm is the only place for the information we use day in and day out — whether it's Google for a search, or Amazon or Google in our Kindles or our Google Books for the results — what keeps the integrity of that information? How do we know that what we read is actually what the person wrote?"

Zittrain cited a specific example of commercial stewardship-gone-awry.

"On the early version of the Kindle somebody started selling George Orwell's 1984," Zittrain said. "The seller thought it was in the public domain, which it was not. It was in Canada, but not in America. That person panicked, told Amazon, 'I hate to tell you, you've been selling copyrighted work without compensation,'" Zittrain recounted. "Amazon, in reaction, reached in to every Kindle that had downloaded 1984, and deleted 1984 off the Kindle."

In the long run, the library's lasting advantage may be its impartiality — it provides an array of materials from across the historical and ideological spectra, and doesn't depend on sales for its survival.

"They don't have a commercial imperative, only, that they answer to. They answer to a set of values that has to do with the integrity of the information that they offer. [There's] a certain kind of neutrality or a lack of bias in what they direct you to."

Zittrain urged a redoubling of efforts to keep libraries in business, even in the wake of upheaval at some of the country's well-regarded institutions.

"The idea that we would be somehow spinning down our libraries, or lowering our investment in them at just the time that it's important to have them," is distressing, Zittrain said.

To hear the entire interview with Jonathan Zittrain, click the audio above. You can follow him on Twitter, @zittrain.