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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, 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?

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Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


29 Thoughts on "As Book Warehouses Vanish, Is It Time for Librarians to Stop Running Libraries?"

Once again, it seems we have a post which addresses a fundamental aspect of the librarian’s role by describing the place where librarians work as a “warehouse for books”. Despite what critiques may say, the storage of books and access to materials and resources are a necessary evil. While size of facilities can increase or decrease along with formatting can change, storage and retrieval of that information will continue to have value. It is up to professionals to illustrate how they can evolve with the times and inject new or additional value into facilities which illustrates how libraries and librarians can adapt with changes in the information age.

Seth Godin and other High-Tech shills are both right and wrong about the role of libraries. They are right about improving the library’s role as an opportunity for mutual pursuit or interactive engagement. The design of libraries needs to be modified to include more rooms where duos, trios or small groups can interact and become self-teaching pods. Each room ought to include an e-board, a projector, and wireless internet. Librarians can be available via touch screen in each space and even physically wondering between rooms acting as coach facilitators or catalysts to help members achieve their learning goals.

But what the Internet guru is wrong about concerns the result of being in a library. There are too few quiet refuges, places of reverence, where “slow” contemplation and reflection can take place unfettered by noise, commotion or the antics of people off their meds.

Being able to search the stacks, examine the titles adjacent to the book you’re seeking, grabbing a few and taking them to a table to leisurely peruse is an experience that can happen in no other place than a library. Being in a library helps to develop a love of what’s in books, reinforces the idea of the written word as treasure, and provides instant access to an authority who can stretch your imagination even further. And for many people the library space is a sanctuary, a sacred area, a place that fuses the historical world as we knew it growing up with the modern world of instant gratification.

It’s interesting to note the religious vocabulary of your comment — sanctuary, sacred, reverence, authority, refuge. All of the trends in information have been toward a democratization of it, a change in authority, an increase in sharing, and a lack of reverence (in a healthy sense).

I’d prefer the term Spiritual rather than Religious as a more accurate characterization. Libraries are probably more democratic in practice than city halls. Virtually anyone can gain access to what is contained in a library without a fee, and stay in the library. What worries me are the recent firings (in the Los Angeles school district, for example) of librarians and cut backs to library services all in the name of the digital future. These cuts have nothing to do with the digital future; they are attempts to exempt government for paying for adequate learning services by confusing the public about what is required for learning.

Even without the religious vocabulary that Kent Anderson points out, the increasing predominance of digital texts (even in the humanities) means that this “grabbing a few adjacent books” is not a really viable approach to research. And most students don’t have time or interest in reading monographic-length research. The “quiet refuge” library will survive in selected places, but the average academic library is moving in a much different direction.

Adjacency on a bookshelf is a form of discovery, and not necessarily a great one. In fact, given the deficiencies of the Dewey decimal system, one could argue that bookshelf adjacency is a sloppy form of adjacency in most cases. Are you arguing that other forms of adjacency (search results adjacency, recommendation engine adjacency) and discovery (social media filtering and crowdsourcing) are really inferior to bookshelving practices? You’re going to have a long journey before you convince me of that.

As for reading monographic-length research, don’t sell young people short. They are probably reading more words, in more varied formats, than any of us did at their age. And they definitely write more, and to more varied audiences, than we did. Whether they continue into research or find other occupations, they’re generally more competent communicators.

Para. 1: No, I wasn’t suggesting that at all.
Para. 2: You may be right about overall quantity of words read and written; my point was that they’re getting them from a variety of shorter texts, mostly digital, not as much from printed scholarly monographs.

Great. Just wanted to clarify. It will be interesting to see where this all goes, but it’s definitely moving.

I don’t know Kent, I can almost always walk into a bookstore and come out with half a dozen titles that I want to read and didn’t know existed until my physical browsing of the shelves.

I have tried to use Amazon and in a similar manner, to browse new releases in various genres but am almost never able to find anything new that piques my interest.

The recommendation engines for either site also generally fail, or at best, offer up books I already own.

There is something about physical bookstore browsing that’s missing from the online experience.

How that relates to the same practices for information seeking in a library is, of course, open to interpretation.

I agree, they are different experiences, but I’m learning to enjoy browsing online, and am finding all sorts of things I like. Going into the bookstore is familiar, and there’s a utility that streams from familiarity. But I’ve also found myself using my iPhone in bookstores to read reviews of the books I’m looking at, order a Kindle sample, or find related books that are better-reviewed.

The trends are not in favor of a return to book warehouses. I’m not dismissing their value, but I think it’s headed toward oblivion, which often has a step-function right before the end. A big Borders near us was seemingly vibrant and bustling three weeks ago, and is now empty. That was a slow trend with a snap ending.

I’m not arguing against your conclusions, I’m just hoping something can be done to improve the online browsing experience, which so far is lacking.

There’s great value in finding information via search engines and such, but there’s also a loss of serendipity.

This also comes into play for scientific journals. When you used to flip through each print issue that came into the lab, you might stumble across a valuable paper that you never would have found through a directed search.

We now have much better tools to find the specific sorts of information we’re seeking, but we are at the same time losing out on these useful surprises.

Recommendation engines often rely on the behavior of other users, which is good if you want to replicate what they’re already thinking, but perhaps not so great for pathfinding.

I think that’s true for bookstores and perhaps libraries also, but I’m finding that for music there is nothing like the Net for discovering music you never would have located in a music store. I’m discovering bands now that started in the 1970s and play the kind of music I like but I never knew about before I started using YouTube and various Internet radio stations as a discovery tool.

I don’t know, I think music online is something of a mixed bag. I really like being able to sample or just buy a song or two when I’ve read an interesting review, so that’s certainly expanded my horizons.

But at the same time, I miss having a really well-curated local record store, one that would bring new and interesting releases to my attention. Sure, there are hordes of music blogs out there but the quantity is a bit overwhelming, and I’ve yet to find one that lines up well with my admittedly odd tastes.

As noted above, I’m not a big fan of recommendation engines. That goes double for music because every one I’ve encountered doesn’t go obscure enough for my tastes, and since I have fairly eclectic listening habits, getting a list of “more of the same” isn’t all that interesting to me.

Coincidentally, on the same day that Godin’s post appeared, I gave the Janet Doe Lecture at the Medical Library Association’s annual meeting in Minneapolis. The gist of my message is that the great age of libraries is over — in the digital world, libraries simply are less relevant (not irrelevant — less relevant — a distinction lost by many). Librarians, on the other hand, may be more important than ever, for the various reasons that you allude to. What is critical for us as librarians, however, is to quit defining ourselves by the place in which most of our important work has been done in the past. Going forward, most of the important work of librarians will take place outside of libraries. I’m happy to say that overall the message seemed to be very well received by the couple of thousand librarians in the audience. But, then, medical librarians have always been a rather different breed from the general run of academic or public librarians.

Perhaps it is a matter of nomenclature. The root of the word “librarian” is book. Perhaps the first task is finding a job title more suited to a 21st century role; it would help management understand the new role of the former-known-as-a-librarian and perhaps keep an “information specialist” on the payroll. Miners may work in mines, but doctors work in hospitals, not doctories.

The idea that libraries, or librarians at least, can move into “information retrieval services” makes sense and many are already doing so. Most schools changed the name from library science to information science long ago, but the curriculum needs to change. I call it the science of “findability,” and it is a huge need today. Being in the findability science game, it has irked me that they were still basically teaching book handling science, things like Dublin core metadata. Findability is about how to find stuff and how to make it findable, in the clouds as it were. Dewey would love it.

How the bricks-and-mortar library venue changes is another question. I do not think we are talking about findability service call centers in India, but who knows? But regarding the books, keep in mind that there is still plenty of railroad traffic, both freight and commuter. For that matter the US is still full of canal barge traffic. It is also my understanding that there are as many horses in the US today as there were in 1900 (I have seven myself). The core role of books has yet to be determined.

To your last points, I think the shift is from centrality to periphery — that is, there are still as many horses in the US as there were in 1900, but there are many more people (so the horse:rider ratio is way down), and horses are much less central to transportation, labor, and productivity; same for railroads and canal barges. For that matter, there are a lot of candles still. Even the ubiquitous lightbulb didn’t make them go away, but I doubt you have a candle on your desk and a open a book of matches to light it every morning.

I don’t disagree, in fact I am making the same point as Scott Plutchak, that book filled libraries will be less relevant, no irrelevant. You sometimes talk as though books are about to disappear but that is far from true. What their role will be is a very interesting question.

Great article, important topic.

Another great source for ideas about where libraries should be – and actually are – going is the book “This Book is Overdue!”

I know a 20-something who is in a Library Masters program at Southern Connecticut. They still have a library program–and now many of the courses are online so you don’t have to be local to study there. She is interested in school libraries–but comes to it from a communications/web/marketing and film production background. Brings interest in tech and sharing info and working with students. Feels folks need a guide to and through myriad resources.

I think that Godin’s view of librarians is rather stereotypical and not quite on the mark. I’m currently in library school, and what I’m seeing with younger librarians are a group of people willing to work with technology to provide patrons with reliable information.

Let’s not forget that libraries also provide a space for anyone without the advantage of their own internet connection to be able to find information online.

A library isn’t just a warehouse for books; it’s an organized collection. You don’t find that level of organization online through Google; but you do find it in databases. Librarians can also serve sort of like fact checkers; we make sure that the information patrons are using and finding is reliable.

I think books are still important too because right now e-books have waaaaaay too much DRM. You can’t pass them around the way you would a traditional book, and there are still a lot of people using physical books.

The question about what librarians now do is also being asked about publishers, of course. Both librarians and publishers are at risk of being disintermediated in this digital era unless they do a better job of explaining to the public exactly what value they add to the process of knowledge acquisition. The notion that ebooks are so much cheaper to produce, which is widespread and accounts for the downward pressure on ebook prices, is a problem for publishers just as the notion that libraries are warehouses for books is a problem for librarians. Publishers and librarians both know how misleading and superficial these notions are, but they have yet to succeed in educating enough of the mass public to avoid the financial pressures that arise from them.

The quote “only 0.7% of universities now offer a program in library sciences” should say “4-year colleges.” BIG difference: a bachelor’s degree in library science will get you nowhere and is rightly going extinct. Information professionals/librarians need a bachelor’s degree in a subject field AND a graduate degree.
BTW, we’re people, not buildings. Don’t confuse the two.

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