Future Libraries, Part I

When this community formed and this blog activated, I volunteered to contribute a monthly post.  Luckily for me, there was no strong incentive (beyond guilt) to follow through, because I haven’t posted since August and am finding it difficult to write this one.  Certainly I have some valid reasons, but the underlying block has been a paralyzing feeling of uncertainty about the future of libraries and librarianship.  Is that enough of a downer for everyone, if the post-holiday January blues are not enough?  Well, I’m tired of mulling it over on my own.

Let’s gloss over for a moment that higher education has been in self-proclaimed flux for the past decade if not longer, and that technology-inflected rose-colored predictions about the end of libraries have been around since at least the 1930s.  Let’s also set aside what most library employees know: That the toil accompanying the practical considerations of physical collections can lead us to genuinely welcome non-physical components even when they do not actually mean a reduction in workload.

Instead, let’s focus on the purpose of a library.  What is a library meant to do?  Is a library supposed to be a repository for all human knowledge?  Personally, I have never thought so, but some of the loudest anti-library sneering I’ve heard seems to come from folks under that impression.  I’ve also seen some correlation between this attitude and the idea that librarians don’t know about the internet.  But back to the question:  What is the purpose of a library?  The answer I like best is that the purpose of a library is to collect, organize, and curate broadly-accessible, relevant materials for the benefit of a certain user population.  (At a community college, this would include introductory materials to as many of the various academic disciplines as possible; materials to support success in careers, academics, and home life; faculty-oriented materials to support teaching and practice; and yes, even some textbooks.)

To me, with this purpose in mind, a library seems like an obviously beneficial and fundamentally useful thing for a group of people working toward a common mission, such as at a college.  And yet the vibe locally that I’m picking up right now is that libraries are nice but not essential, and fundamentally vestigial.  As spaces, it’s true libraries can be lovely, but devoid of their original purpose of housing materials that were once only available in a physical format, they can also seem merely symbolic and expensive, decorated with printed ornaments.

As I go about dismantling our physical collection in favor of an electronic one, the more creating a robust, shared library collection of electronic materials seems strange and unnatural.  Strange because where once the materials had a physical presence — living proof, in a way, of something’s existence — we now have to guarantee it’s there on the computer and cross our fingers that all the technology is working today.  Strange also because of the artificial boundaries:  Do we have ten thousand academic e-books in the collection today, or twenty thousand, or one hundred thousand?  How does that number impact student outcomes and the mission of the institution?  Is a higher quantity always better, or at a certain point do we begin to stray into information overload?  At what point do we betray our goal to be relevant in favor of the sheer number of things that are now available to us electronically, where once we were limited by space?  And unnatural because often these electronic objects were not designed to be used as part of a shared, durable library collection in the way that libraries have traditionally operated.  Arguably neither were printed materials, but past a certain point these at least had an inherent immutability.  Immutability is not part of the appeal of electronic materials, and with the pace of technological change it seems possible it never will be.  The result is that libraries end up with an oddball assortment of electronic versions, in various stages of obsolescence, which many of us are not currently equipped or staffed to deal with.

Then there’s librarianship. How distracted and insulated must we become before acknowledging that there is a sea change going on in libraries that affects the very core of professional librarianship?  What kind of skills, besides management, must an individual possess in order for an institution to justify the expense of someone with a Master’s degree in Library Science? [Side note: Perusing the really exciting-looking librarian postings on listservs, it appears part of the answer is at least a Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science, and/or knowledge of specialized programming languages.]  Relying on tradition and established practice will prolong the game, particularly in academic libraries, but ultimately it will not preserve the requirement of a graduate degree from a library school.

The point I’m trying to make is that the way forward for libraries is unclear, at least to me.  The libraries that I see being being celebrated as forward-thinking and futuristic seem like basically bland, anonymous, technology-enabled conference rooms, and they don’t thrill or inspire me.  So even though on the one hand I think libraries and librarians are more necessary than ever, on the other I feel oppressed and stymied.  But I’d like to end on a hopeful note, so maybe I should acknowledge that if I’m going to work in this field I had better darn well get excited, or exit.  New Year’s Resolution: Part II here will include some optimism and enthusiasm. Until then, apologies for being such a grouch.

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4 thoughts on “Future Libraries, Part I

  1. You don’t seem grouchy to me. You’re asking good questions. My only disagreement with you is that you characterize librarians in general as being blissfully, perhaps intentionally, ignorant about the coming sea change. On the contrary, I think that along with the constant buzz about practical everyday concerns and one emergency or another, our profession has been engaged in a whole lot of naval gazing since I joined the ranks in 2006. Some of it has been boneheaded, some of it brilliant, but all of it is speculative. That makes it hard to act. We can study the present, but our decisions for the future have to be based on trends and predictions. I am optimistic that librarianship, and libraries, will survive, despite all the hot air about being replaced by the Internet. I just hope that libraries don’t survive like this: http://bit.ly/JIgokS. Now *that* gets me grouchy!

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  2. I may be foolishly optimistic but I still see libraries always playing some role as custodians of physical materials. I think we’ll always have this role to some extent.
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/frankie-rendon/librarians-take-on-new-ro_b_4561451.html
    I do like your description:
    “The answer I like best is that the purpose of a library is to collect, organize, and curate broadly-accessible, relevant materials for the benefit of a certain user population.”
    It’s taboo in some circles to consider an academic library as academic support. However, I tend to think that’s what it is. Perhaps I need to blog about that notion! 🙂

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    • Thanks Julie! I didn’t address the instructional/information literacy aspect of library work only because I’ve been moving away from that role and thinking more about collections. It’s something that should definitely be included in Part II. At the same time, won’t it be funny if librarians are the last physical things left in libraries? At what point do WE become not just the institutional memory, but the collection? Or, the metadata for an ephemeral collection?

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