Thursday, June 10, 2010

Response to the future of libraries and librarians debate

Yesterday all my posts about the future of information literacy seemed to come to a head and cause some heated debate in the comments of yesterday's post. Two opposing sides seemed to form: the optimistic and the pessimistic view of the future. Let's be clear, I'm on the optimistic side and I have to say the pessimistic side really baffles and confounds me! I think this debate is fantastic because it really makes us think about where we stand on these issues. Even though I disagree with everything the pessimistic view says, this debate makes me ask 'why'. Today I thought I'd post a response to yesterday and look forward to your thoughts.

OK pessimist, I suppose you think in this future of yours that we’ll have robots to create and manage these entirely online libraries, automated response systems to manage virtual reference (or no need for reference at all) and all our clients will be studying as individuals from home, Mars or wherever else they exist with no need for social interaction? I just can’t see any signs that the future you imagine is even remotely possible. Have you not seen how vibrant and social the library is? Most people don’t want to study at home alone all the time – why do you think the library is so busy?!? Not because people come here ‘just for the books’ or even ‘just for the computers’ it’s because they like the social space the library provides. It gives them somewhere to meet up, see and be seen, a sense of community, a place they feel they belong and belongs to them! And as more and more of our lives is spent online the desire to spend time online together increases. As long as this trend continues I can't see people suddenly not coming to the library which is what you're saying will happen. As long as students continue to flock to the library - libraries will continue to be vibrant social spaces.

As for your notion that the future for librarians lies in collection development - maybe I should change professions now! I really can't see where that idea comes from. We already have approval plans for much of our collection development as a way to automate the system so we 'librarians' can spend our time on other things. What are those other things and what will they be in the future? I think we spend out time trying to engage with clients in more collaborative ways. Embed ourselves in their study and research practices (online and physical). The thing is they 'don't know what they don't know' so we need to find ways to connect with clients and join them as active content creators, advocates of a social approach to information seeking and use, mentors in evaluating, synthesising, analysing and ethically reusing information. I'm sure more and more of our library services will be online, librarians will be able to work from home but I don't think we'll be less visible - I think we need to be more visible - regardless of physical or digital space. Another whole can of worms would be to bring up the ever growing digital divide - how can you assume all clients will stop needing our help?

To sum up, I think in 100 years from now libraries will be very different but only because of changes to sociocultural practices surrounding technology which I think will bring us all closer together not further apart. As I've said before: the future is what we make it, there is no truth, reality is socially constructed and I'm proud to be a librarian.


  1. *applauds wildly* Well said Sophie! Woohoo!!

  2. *agrees with liberrydwarf*

    My comments are too long to be posted here - perhaps this has given me tomorrow's #blogeverydayofjune topic!

  3. Me too - can't say more at present, but thanks for your great posts over the last few days Sophie.

  4. In turn, I've moved my response to a shiny new blog!

  5. I'm an optimist too.
    Or maybe it's because I'm hopeless at debating.

  6. Well said Sophie. I'm an optimist too. Thanks for these posts. I will also blog about them, but not from an IL perspective. I want to talk about the importance of having staff like you with original ideas who are not afraid to share them.

  7. I'm loving this discussion. I can honestly say I am more engaged in librarianship today than I have been for a long time!

    I don't know that this is pessimisim v optimism. Could it perhaps be realists v visionaries? I'm sure we need both in the library world.

    Cause I'm with Sean for his points so far. I also believe that the physical library is going to change beyond belief, and what we're doing now is engaging in what is effectively a last ditch marketing campaign to draw people in. At some point in the future will our physical academic libraries be any different to a 24/7 computer lab or student union? Will out public libraries be any different to a neighbourhood house or community centre?

    I like Sean's questions about What is our new role? I think that is really more interesting and open a question than how can we make an old model relevant through new media. We could indeed be building the information behind the scenes, but the sci fi reader in me insists that soon they will invent computers to do meaningful indexing for us. Freeing up humans to learn and absorb and take over the stars rather than catalogue ....

  8. Wow, you go offline for a day and full-fledged debate occurs! This is all great stuff – interesting and thought-provoking. I think the fact we’re all arguing with such gusto is one sign reports of the library’s imminent death have been greatly exaggerated.

    Of course libraries have, are, and will continue to evolve and change in response to social, cultural and technological shifts but I can’t see how that will mean the end of physical libraries or of librarians. We seem to have been predicting the end of print books/libraries/the-world-as-we-know-it forever. Google, Amazon, eReaders – these have all been hailed as competitors, and probable executioners, of libraries. Yet we’re all still here, still (more or less) happily co-existing, still (to use a terrible piece of jargon) leveraging off each other. Virtual Librarian spoke much more eloquently than I can in her comments on your last post, about the need to move outside the walled garden and expose our services in (to use another terrible piece of jargon – I’m feeling lazy alright??) “the user’s space”.

    I think very similar arguments hold true in terms of the physical library and that ‘user’s space’. The use of the space is definitely changing in both academic and public libraries. We’re no longer just silent study halls, and places of venerable learning, but why is that a bad thing? And why does it mean we are no longer relevant as places of information, knowledge, ideas and learning? Everyday when I come to work I see ideas being shared, learning occurring, new knowledge being created in the library. Yeah, OK, I also see a lot of people checking out their photos on Facebook, but so what? The fact they choose to do it in the Library, I don’t think is just about the free wifi. You can get that at any Starbucks. It’s about the combination of social spaces, learning spaces, physical and online resources, human and disintermediated assistance (Ok, now I’m just playing ‘library jargon bingo’ with myself) which provide an opportunity to multi-task and shift between different learning and social modes and activities easily – that’s assuming of course that you can make a clear distinction between learning and social activities. I think libraries are unique in providing that combination of spaces and services, both physically and online.

    Since this is now becoming a very long-arse stream-of-consciousness monologue I will stop there and go order my “Team Optimism” T-shirt (which I’ll find via Google of course). Can I be both a cynic and an optimist?

  9. I think both sides are making good points.

    For me, I see that the library will be more of a community centre; even at the university I work at group study rooms are still in high demand (along with other study spaces), and if you look, studies still show that face-to-face or blended learning do better than all distance/online learning so I don't expect campuses to totally disappear.

    I also agree with the comments the other day by the Virtual Librarian that mentioned that we should be getting our resources out "there" to the students (sorry, I'm an academic librarian, so thinking in terms of university works for me). My library already offers workshops on how to use Google Scholar and I know in the InfoLit course we teach we also talk (and use) the various Google tools and show students how to change the scholar preferences so they can connect to our databases.

    I do agree though that more and more librarians' work is behind the scenes. There are already lots of librarians working behind the scenes as is. As a reference and instruction librarian, I certainly spend less than half my time doing reference at the desk - even when I didn't do instruction my ref time was still around 30%. I think this is actually one source of our problem (of not being valued) - librarians work hard to make things go easy for their patrons and they do it quietly, so patrons don't know the efforts made on their behalf.

    Bah. I feel my thoughts are currently scattered and I'm not making sense. In any case, I do wish we'd stop talking about the end of libraries and just start doing something about it.