Is it time for librarians to stop calling themselves librarians?
Seth Godin captured the problem recently in a widely read and controversial blog post. In it, Godin observes a nexus issue for the profession — librarians have become too associated with book warehouses (and libraries have become known as the houses for librarians). As long as those associations exist, the profession isn’t going to be able to share what it has to offer. Holding onto old definitions is obviously a losing proposition:
When kids go to the mall instead of the library, it’s not that the mall won, it’s that the library lost. . . . The library is no longer a warehouse for dead books. Just in time for the information economy, the library ought to be the local nerve center for information. . . . We all love the vision of the underprivileged kid bootstrapping himself out of poverty with books, but now (most of the time), the insight and leverage is going to come from being fast and smart with online resources, not from hiding in the stacks. The next library is a place, still. A place where people come together to do co-working and coordinate and invent projects worth working on together. Aided by a librarian who understands the Mesh, a librarian who can bring domain knowledge and people knowledge and access to information to bear.
Godin is correct to point out that libraries as book warehouses have lost their role in many sectors, and they are on a slippery slope to oblivion (except as book museums). This leaves them little room to operate outside their stereotyped role. Recently, potential budget cuts revealed another either/or problem with the definition of librarians, as the only option the state of California can see is for them to prove they’re capable of classroom teaching.
Godin is also correct that librarians are in an excellent position to be very important in the current information age.
A recent series of articles in the Globe & Mail shed light on these important distinctions. Without distinguishing their role from the existence of libraries, cuts to libraries will continue to lead to cuts in librarian jobs. The association between librarians and libraries backfires — smart, educated, trained people perfectly positioned to deal with the flood of information facing students are thrown out with the library bathwater, because their role is viewed as linked to the existence of a library.
One of the articles in the series entitled, “Librarians Fight for a Role in the Digital World,” urges librarians to define themselves as guides and counselors, not as book sorters and warehouse supervisors. In another article, “Doomed? Victoria’s Public Libraries Are Booming,” it’s clear that when a library becomes a connected, active community center, it can thrive. One interesting point is that these libraries are loud, not quiet, and conversation and interaction is encouraged. Finally, another article, entitled, “Don’t Discard the Librarians,” makes this point:
Here is the case for human librarians: You, the information consumer, don’t want to go insane. Human knowledge is now thought to double every five years. The need for a guide through that morass, for a knowledge concierge, as even Mr. Godin admits, is critical. Anything but old-fashioned, librarians addressed the problem before anyone else. Peter Clinton, a reference librarian and director of the University of Toronto’s information technology services, started his job in 1986, when there were five people in his department and the laptop didn’t exist. Today, with 45 staffers, his is “the only growth area in the library.”
But the image of librarians as an artifact from the age of scarcity, holding jobs that are less relevant by the day, and working in institutions students themselves haven’t used — it all explains much about why only 0.7% of universities now offer a program in library sciences. And Richard Watson, a futurist who writes at NowandNext.com, is predicting 2019 as the year the library dies, insofar as it becomes inconsequential.
As Godin notes, it’s not that other things won. It’s that libraries have lost.
And how badly have they lost? As Phil Davis pointed out in a recent post, patrons can’t distinguish between a PhD-toting librarian and a part-time paraprofessional. This problem was echoed at a recent librarian meeting at McMaster University:
Discussion whirled around the radical proposals of McMaster’s university librarian, Jeff Trzeciak. Mr. Trzeciak is the mad dog of research librarians: His deeply digital vision is one in which shrunken libraries are staffed not by librarians, but by information technologists and (much cheaper) post-doctoral students. Those aren’t just ideas, either. The University of Denver library recently put 80 per cent of its books in storage.
Of course, this led to a letter to the President and Provost of McMaster’s defending the role of the academic librarian and attempting to downplay change as unreliable, expensive, and trivial.
One writer — the Unquiet Librarian — thinks such responses aren’t acceptable:
If we outright dismiss the opinions of others, particularly those who are not librarians, I think we lose the opportunity to see the bigger picture and possibilities. Are we as a profession willing to listen to other voices and discourses “outside” of our own circles and respond to their vision of how libraries should function in today’s world? Are we willing to regularly challenge and interrogate our own beliefs and values? While it is not always easy to negotiate the tension between differing ideas, I think listening to multiple viewpoints with a sense of humility creates a necessary kind of cognitive dissonance and friction of ideas needed for us to be organic, thoughtful, critical, and purposeful in our practice and thinking.
Librarians have a lot to offer, but as long as they are tied to libraries, the calculation will continue to be:
- book warehouse shrinks > need fewer librarians
Libraries may be the stones around librarians’ necks.
While there is little new here — discussions like this have been going on for years and years — what’s increasingly odd is that so little is changing in the librarian-library relationship, even in the face of major external changes and incredible industry flux.
Is it time for librarians to sever the tie that binds?