Thursday, January 13, 2011

Big Picture Hand-Wringing

 The most recent snow, from Wednesday night

Maybe it's just been a cold and bleak January, but I feel like I've been encountering a lot of negativity about the profession recently. 

For example, Vice President for Information Services and University Librarian at Columbia University James G. Neal was the keynote speaker at the VALE conference and had a lot of criticism for libraries, from how we provide service to how we manage collections. (I don't have a transcript of his speech, but his Power Point, which conveys the gist of it, can be found on the VALE web site.)

And then there was the so-called Academic Library Autopsy Report, 2050 that appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education about a week ago.

In both cases, a lot of the points are well-taken. But being a younger librarian, and having had a pretty high-tech library school experience, I've found in my career so far that the often-maligned traditional aspects of the profession are not only relevant but useful on a daily basis. I'm also finding that a nuanced understanding of where the information world has been, as we anticipate where it's going, is essential. Which is partly how this turned into a rant:

-First, we librarians have niche expertise. When it comes to the information world, we know why things are the way they are, we know why systems were built the way they were, and we can usually figure out how to get a thing in the best format and in the most convenient manner. We're the ones who comprehend the big picture. But it's not as though we've just been standing around watching -- we've been in there with our sleeves rolled up, participating in much of the change everyone is experiencing. That's why I resent arguments that imply we're out of touch. Just because we may be slow to change, or reluctant to adopt the latest unproven gizmo in favor of something that has lasted 100+ years, does not automatically mean we're oblivious. We're supposed to be beating ourselves up because we're applying critical thinking skills to the continuous change that has occurred over the past 20 or so years? Please.

-Secondly, librarians are invariably useful people on a campus, and our usefulness extends beyond knowing where some book is. We have a user-centered feel for technology, we are whizzes with information, and we understand how information is structured in various specialized fields. Is there something wrong with the word 'librarian' -- do we need to stop calling ourselves librarians to give ourselves some credit and admit we are valuable? I'm not sure we've been merely caretakers of books for a very long time, if that's what librarian means.

-Further, despite globalization and the World Wide Web, much of working life does not take place on such a grand scale. Going back to James Neal, Columbia University is a player on a national and even international stage, but a good portion of us are at small institutions with limited geographical reach and resources. Frankly, most of our energies are directed locally. And rightly so -- while it's important to know what's going on outside of our particular localities, our primary mission is to best serve constituents at hand. How can we expect our institutions to commit resources to projects that may not even benefit them? 

-OK, I know I'm relatively young and supposed to be married to technology, but printed books are not dead. I would say this if I wasn't a librarian; unfortunately, because I am a librarian, saying it makes me seem old-fashioned and curmudgeonly. But printed books are still useful objects, despite whatever statistics Amazon publicizes about how many e-books it sold this month. Why is this so hard for some people to understand? Is the allure of empty shelves so strong that they are willing to be dismissive of reality? I'm not denying a preference for electronic access rather than print, but I'm annoyed when people see print as intrinsically not useful. Circulation of physical materials is not as uncommon as some seem to think. (See the previous point about everything being local.)

-One thing we do well as librarians is that we identify and recognize what is important. And I would argue that while archiving tweets is interesting in an anthropological way, and even in a historical-research way, I can't support the idea that we are letting down future generations by not preserving them properly. The web is ephemeral. A collection of web pages is like a collection of posters or post-it notes -- interesting, but of questionable necessity for posterity. I'm sure the world is rife with examples to contrary, but I feel comfortable believing that if something is considered important there will be people -- and not just librarians, and not just big corporations and/or governments -- worried about preserving it. If this blog didn't survive a nuclear apocalypse, I would not shed a tear. If all existing copies of the United States Constitution disappeared, I might. There is a vast difference between the two. Librarians at the very least should be confident in their abilities to tell the difference -- isn't that part of what information literacy is about? Admittedly, I'm speaking here as an academic librarian who does not work in a research library, and so I have little commitment to the idea of preserving everything humanly possible. But at the very least, librarians should see that any digital preservation effort is not their exclusive responsibility and requires other committed stakeholders.  

-In-person service still has a place. I'm happy to create as many technology-based avenues for connecting with the library as possible, but I'm not happy about the idea of throwing basic, face-to-face service out the window as if it's no longer useful because everyone has a laptop.

This concludes my rant. Thanks for hanging in there if you made it to the end.

1 comment:

  1. I've been thinking about the "print is dead" and "no one comes to the library anymore" perspectives a lot lately. Working in a small rural public library, neither of these things appear to be true. We're busier than we've ever been in our history, and while our e-book service is overloaded, it seems to be from people who are checking out print books and then e-books on top of that. In our little corner of the world, print is alive and kicking and people want to talk to me in person every day, and the trend is upward, not down. The point about local being the important scale? Well-taken in a public library context.

    But what strikes me as being really, really important for librarians(I really prefer the term librarian to any other faddy term out there) to recognize, no matter what kind of library we are in: no, not everyone has a laptop. Not everyone is going to be able to access e-books. At least not yet. And until that digital gap is closed, we need to be prepared to offer library service -- that is, freedom of access to information -- to *everyone* in our target population, regardless of what level of technology they can afford. This sometimes gets lost in our desire to be up-to-date with the latest technology, and our desire to be seen as such.

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