I just came across one of the wisest lectures-qua-papers I’ve seen in a while. Not surprisingly, it’s by T. Scott Plutchak, from the University of Alabama-Birmingham. Aside from a sensational speaking and singing voice, Plutchak is also one of the more daring and coherent thinkers in the academic librarian space.
The paper from the Journal of the Medical Library Association is entitled, “Breaking the barriers of time and space: the dawning of the great age of librarians.” It is essentially the transcript of the Janet Doe lecture Plutchak gave last May at the MLA meeting in Minneapolis. The main concept echoes one we’ve touched on before, most directly in a post the appeared here independently but at nearly the same time as Plutchak gave his original talk. Memes are powerful things.
Plutchak begins by quoting Andrew Pettegree, who wrote about the difficulties libraries faced adapting to the abundance of texts created by the printing press:
The mere accumulation of texts was no longer enough to impress a casual visitor and the library receded as a focus for conspicuous princely wealth. Many of the great fifteenth- and sixteenth-century collections did not survive. . . . The library as a cultural institution struggled to adapt to the new age of print.
However, Plutchak disabuses us of the notion that this provides solace, an example of adaptability librarians could reuse. In fact, he states:
. . . the shift to a digital world is far more profound than the shift from manuscript books to printed books. I agree with those who argue that libraries are becoming less relevant to the members of the communities that we serve.
Fundamentally, Plutchak observes a confusion of agency in the library/librarian relationship. In his stint as an editor of an library journal, this confusion showed itself when an interesting project was described as somethinng “the library” was undertaking. “The library” didn’t do anything — librarians did, and the collective noun for “librarians” is still “librarians,” not “library.” It reminds me of the shift from being an intermediary (a gatekeeper, essentially a library function, protecting the collection) and an apomediary (a guide, essentially a librarian function, helping the user). Both functions have always existed, but apomediation is probably the best current mode and definitely the clear future mode.
Plutchak reviews a few Doe lectures, and notes that many of the clues for positive transformation can be found in lectures dating back to the 1960s and 1970s. These examples also show how difficult the stereotype labeled “librarian” may be to change, as Alfred Brandon in 1969 complained:
I object to being classified as the stereotyped librarian of twenty-five years ago. I object to following outmoded policies and procedures. I object to the status quo attitude and lack of experimentation and desire on the part of some for improved methodology for librarianship.
Here we are, more than 40 years later, and I don’t think the stereotype has evolved much from what it was in Brandon’s idea of 1944’s version. One trap Plutchak identifies is the emergence of the Digital Services Librarian, a role which attempts to take all the “weird stuff” and give it to one “smart and energetic librarian” while the other librarians can continue to do what they’ve been doing:
. . . if we are not all thinking of ourselves as digital services librarians, we are in trouble. Yes, in many libraries we are going to continue to deal with print, although for the health sciences that is rapidly becoming a very small proportion of our work. We need to flip our energies and systems around . . .
I could quote from Plutchak’s paper all day long. It touches on many topics of interest to this audience — open access, commercial publishers, the evolution of digital materials, partnership, self-definition, and much more. It’s a long paper, but worth the read.
What’s clear is that we’re all in a realm of change and adaptation. Which of us — librarians, publishers, authors, researchers, policymakers — will succeed? Plutchak wisely ends his talk with a challenge:
That’s up to you.