Tuesday, May 17, 2011

8 Articles about the future of libraries that made me think

As we struggle with our day to day struggles at work, it is easy to get caught up in our own individual library projects (social media! Mobile!) and lose sight of the big picture and forget that in a very real sense the long term future of libraries and librarians is in doubt (though this might not be a new state of affairs!)

At my level it might seem grandiose to think that anything I could do or say could affect anything as large and grand as the future of libraries, still I have occasionally come across articles, talks that have stirred me from my slumbers and made me think.

Are libraries doomed? Do we need to radically change? Are we (as I secretly suspect) potentially the last generation of librarians ever?

I have no clue. Still, I would like to share with you some of the articles written about the future of libraries that I have come across in the last 2 years that have struck a cord with me the most and made me think.

1. Source of disruption of library services - Steve McCann
2. "Libraries Are Screwed" - Eli Neiburger
3. The Library War -
4. The future of libraries - Seth Godin
5. Libraries are Dying (And That’s A Good Thing) - Anonymous
6. Academic Library Autopsy Report, 2050 - Brian T. Sullivan
7. "McMasterGate"  - Jeffrey Trzeciak
8. Reference is dead and libraries need more geeks - Eli Neiburger

1.Source of disruption of library services - Steve McCann

There is no doubt that libraries are being disrupted. But Sources of disruption of library services 
puts it all in context in one picture.  


Scary isn't it? In almost every area we are up against commercial competition.

2.  "Libraries Are Screwed" - Eli Neiburger 

Eli Neiburger (named Library Journal Mover & Shaker 2011) gave a very famous talk available on YouTube, now known as  the "Libraries are screwed" talk. It's well worth watching so I won't summarise it much beyond to say that he gives a very thoughtful presentation on the different fates of outdated/outmoded technologies such as the candle, vinyl etc and wonders about the possible future of the printed book ("codex"). Eli offers a solution, he has little faith that electronic books market will welcome libraries and he advocates that libraries serve as a platform/host for collecting the communities' new experiences/content.

3. The Library War -

Librarians are very divided on what the future of libraries (let's assume Public Libraries only for now) should be.

For one thing change means giving up the status quo.

As such there seems to be a big divide between librarians who want (or are accused of wanting?) to give up "Books as a library brand" and those who think it's suicidal to do so (for good reasons as library users generally see Libraries as books).

Even those who believe libraries needs to focus less on books as a brand are divided. Effing librarian writes in a very poetic and literary style about the different groups.

"Is it me, or has the library war already started? Because I keep reading about how the old library is dead and the new library needs building. That print has been mortally wounded and now those inbred and bastard children fight to be the next ruler. We have our own Game of Thrones (this week on HBO, which I have neither read nor seen, so whatever connection I make, is purely accidental) in the fantasy library world of Bibliotania (yeah, you come up with a better name):

  • We have the Knowledge Facilitators, once loyal to the throne but now impatient for political change so long as the office remains in their control.
  • We have the Transliterates, plotting with foreign armies or mercenaries, anyone who can bring swift wealth and power.
  • We have the Digital Natives, spoiled, selfish, corrupt, unable to see beyond their immediate desires, but who command a great army."  The Library War 
I would add a fourth tribe whom I suspect the writer himself comes from, the "loyalists" those who believe that libraries need printed books to survive (some opponents like to refer to such a vision as "library as a warehouse"). They tend to express fears like Have librarians fallen out of love with books? (author is not a librarian),  or are afraid books are overlooked as a brand

Effing librarian is no doubt a bit tongue in cheek about The Library War and he doesn't spell out what exactly the opposing schools (groups?) are, so let me speculate.

"Technology is the answer!" "Transliteracy!" "Knowledge Facilitation through communication with local communities is the solution! (That one's not so catchy.)" The Library War 

I assume Transliterates school would include librarians like Librarian by Day Bobbi Newman and many school librarians like Buffy Hamilton (both named Library Journal Mover & Shaker 2011) who are active in promoting transliteracy. They see a place for librarians as educators. But that school is not without critics.

Not sure who digital natives are but "Technology is the answer" gives you a clue. I would guess it refers to the Library 2.0 people (though this term might have fallen out of  repute). Micheal Stephens, David Lee King etc would be the ones normally pointed out to be leaders of this group (of whom I am a card carrying member??) , they lead a group of "social media/emerging tech" librarians who promote use of social media/mobile technologies to connect with users, support the idea of virtual library branches etc. Would the rallying cry of this group be

" If the online world is not for you, then neither may be a career in librarianship." -- Micheal Stephens

Sounds reasonable? Not everyone agrees as the devil is in the details. At it's worse opponents accuse this group of losing the human touch and being lost in techno-lust.

It's no accident that discussions about Library 2.0 sometimes leads to a struggle with some accusing Library 2.0 proponents to be against "books as a library" brand. This Cites & Insights issue  is worth a read despite its length and while it is supposedly a review about the  “Library 2.0” phenomena but does capture librarians disagreements about the future of libraries.

 "Knowledge Facilitation through communication with local communities is the solution" is hardest to decode but I believe it is actually referring to Professor Lankes' Atlas of new librarianship (among other things). It probably refers to those who believe the job of the library is not just as a warehouse of books but about interacting with community. It generally places a high premium on empowering librarians who are the reasons and value for libraries existing, typically thrown in with some vague vision of transforming spaces in the library for collaboration.

I would put Eli Neiburger who wants to help host community content here too.

The funny thing of course is all 3 schools are not mutually exclusive and on its own is reasonable what people disagree on is the amount of focus.

Bobbi Newman is well known for promoting Transliteracy, but you would be hard-pressed to find someone who would say she isn't adapt in the use of technology, social media.

Similarly, isn't social media's about being closer to the community?

Of course, shrinking budgets means you can't do all 3 at a time, but I would guess the main struggle hinges on the future of printed books. Do libraries want to hang on to this? It's not like the ebook world is very hospitable to libraries now. 

4. The future of libraries - Seth Godin

Seth Godin has written about libraries twice (first time here), what he writes isn't particularly insightful or different compared to what librarians have being thinking (I put him in the Knowledge Facilitators school) but because it's Seth Godin his posts are lightning rods that draw blogged responses from librarians (not being able to comment on the blog helps too!).

 Some quotes from him

"We need librarians more than we ever did. What we don't need are mere clerks who guard dead paper."

"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"

"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."

Responses from librarians has being varied. Bobbi Newman thinks  Seth "misses the point again", Buffy Hamilton wonders whether it is the librarians not Seth who is missing the point.

I haven't digested all the posts yet, but I suspect the line "Librarians that are arguing and lobbying for clever ebook lending solutions are completely missing the point." is what is driving dissent.

It's quite interesting, since it paints even normally progressive librarians that want to shift to supporting ebooks as being in the same camp as those who believe libraries are rushing too quickly to abandon print books and embrace ebooks as a brand.

Seth I think does put a finger on a fundamental issue. Are librarians advocating a move to ebooks away from print fundamentally no different then defenders of print books?

If your vision of the future of libraries, involves ebooks rather then print books, you might believe in moving to a library without buildings (so people can download books from home),but you still believe the value of libraries lies in giving away information for free.

In other words what is the value of libraries? Is it in the information libraries provide for free or in the librarians who can guide, facilitate knowledge sharing and creation?

Can't it be both? Seth thinks it is the later which has a future not the former because information will eventually be free or effectively free. Is he right?

5. Libraries are Dying (And That’s A Good Thing) - Anonymous
6. Academic Library Autopsy Report, 2050 - Brian T. Sullivan

But much of what was written above is about public libraries what about academic libraries?

Libraries are Dying (And That’s A Good Thing) as well as the almost identical Academic Library Autopsy Report, 2050  focus on the ultimate fate of them, and the news isn't good.

Both have a similar thesis, claiming that the rise of open access, easier interfaces to access information , with full text searching proving generally as good as indexed terms/controlled vocabulary (think Unified Indexes/Web Scale Discovery engines) means that librarians are generally don't as useful or needed anymore.

"As databases became more intuitive and simpler to use, library instruction in the use of archaic tools was no longer needed. Almost all remaining questions could be answered by faculty (see No. 3) or information-technology staff (see No. 4). It was largely the work of academic librarians that led to most of these advances in database technology." Academic Library Autopsy Report, 2050 

Collection Development? With the rise of Patron Driven Acquisition, Big deals etc, do we really need that many specialised librarians? Why not centralise them with the purchasing department of the university.

"In terms of academic journals, we have a polarized position, where there is much activity on the front of Open Access to the journal literature. More and more of these publications are available for free. At the same time, more and more of the not-free literature is being collected under the umbrella of very large, very expensive packages from commercial publishers. Librarians tend to praise this first trend and decry the second, but in reality, both trends are in the researcher’s favor and both trends point to the disappearance of libraries and librarians. In 25 years, universities like my own will simply assign someone in the business office to ensure that a few extremely large bills are paid each year, ensuring access to the entirety of the for-pay journal literature." Libraries are Dying (And That’s A Good Thing) 

How about value of "library as a space?"

"Librarians are often reduced to creating new reasons for their existence, reasons that have virtually nothing to do with the library qua library. When librarians speak of “library as place,” know that they have reached the tipping point, and are almost ready to concede that the library has little use anymore besides a place for the homeless to sleep and college students to check their Facebook accounts (or, quite likely, vice-versa)."  Libraries are Dying (And That’s A Good Thing)

Besides academic libraries that have tried to move towards a "bookless library" by moving books offsite to create more space for learning and collaboration have met with resistance.

On the public library side, while other social benefits of public libraries might be useful, but one would be better off spending tax dollars on social services, community centres, education etc. Would a library that focused on all that but lost most of its traditional functions be still a library?

But that's very long term (I mean does anyone really think 100% Open access can be accomplished ) and an anonymous letter (at least the first is) which seems to be mostly satire can hardly be taken seriously.

1.Library as a collaborative learning space (pulling in users)
2.Embedded librarians movement (going out to users in physical space)
3.Library 2.0/ digital or virtual outreach/reference (going out to users in digital space)

7. "McMasterGate"  - Jeffrey Trzeciak 

But in the real-world, short term we sees changes are brewing. First there is what has being dubbed McMasterGate which caused a stirr in the academic library world.

In case you missed it, Jeffrey Trzeciak, Chief Librarian at McMaster University gave a talk at Penn State where he stated that he was unlikely to hire more traditional librarians but was likely to hire Phds and IT people. Will this become the trend? It's right towards the end, but you can see that he has achieved much for McMaster University Library in pulling in resources, and making the library the heart of the university, so it's hard to dismiss his views.

8. Reference is dead and libraries need more geeks - Eli Neiburger  

Compare Jeffrey Trzeciak with  Eli Neiburger talk's where he declared that Reference is dead .

"We need big servers and the geeks to take care of them," Neiburger said. 'What are we going to cut to be able to hire a geek? We are going to cut reference staff. Reference is dead,' he said.

Despite the fact that a trained librarian can bring value to a reference interaction, the patron today, acclimated to Google searches, does not feel that way, and librarians cannot change their mind, Neiburger said.

'Travel agents were outmoded because people felt they had better access to the information than they could get from the travel agents. We're in a similar sort of spot,' he said. "

This reminds me a bit of "Libraries need to give up the notion that question answering is a core service of the library" - Facebook social Q&A service is the harbinger of the death of reference . 

Eli and Jeffrey have both IT backgrounds and both have being named Library Journal Mover and Shakers in 2011 and 2004 respectively. One works at a public library another at an academic library. Both see value in IT staff (and phds for Jeffrey) rather than traditional librarians and both have accomplished amazing things in their career. As someone that identifies more with the traditional reference side of things, this feels me with dread. Are they right?

So these are the articles that make made me sit up and think about the future of libraries. What are yours?  While not all of us are or will be Library Directors or University Librarians, every project we push for, support or not in the long run shapes what users think of our libraries, or sets into place what is possible in the future due to inertia so collectively the future of the libraries is in our hands.
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