Thanks to @fsayre, I was recently reading Breaking the barriers of time and space: the dawning of the great age of librarians by T. Scott Plutchak. It’s an interesting look back on the past, how the printed book changed libraries, and how we can be entering “the great age of librarians” with the shift to digital. I thought I would reflect on this a little more. I’m not sure I will come to any better conclusion, but perhaps how this might apply to myself and others. It’s a smattering of thoughts, so I may have to rewrite this later, but I hope this will get some people thinking and discussing.
Shifting the Focus from The Library to The Librarian
One of Plutchak’s points is that we should focus less on the library and how the library contributes to a community, and think instead of how librarians and other library people contribute to the community.
“Despite the continuing importance of the building and despite the fact that print will continue to be a robust technology, their relative importance as tools among the many tools that librarians use to meet their mission has substantially diminished.”
While some see the library as a “sacred” place of some sort, we have already seen a big shift in the amount of print kept in a library and how the space is being used. While we might frequently talk about a specific library doing great things, part of his point is that it’s actually the people doing great things. “The library” does nothing but provide a space to put people together. Like Plutchak, I’m not saying the building isn’t important, because having a community space is very important, but it’s about how we think about things.
Let’s take academic institutions as an example. In many (if not most), we have seen learning commons crop up (sometimes it’s in the library itself and sometimes not). Print materials has little to do with it, and the importance of the learning commons is not only what services are provided to students, but that one (or more) librarian is collaborating with other people in different departments to make it happen. The next set of collaborative space in academics I think we’ll see is the “research commons”. Plutchak even goes so far as to say:
“Our most important work will now take place outside [the library].”
This is an important point, because since the beginning, I have work in library services, but did very little related to something that had to be in the library building. Almost all of the work I’ve done relate to online resources and services. I have never even had students in my office (except of the occasional student worker). I am currently not working in a library, and work completely remotely from the students we serve. We aren’t even housed inside a library. Being in this situation, I can’t help but agree, because while it’s important to have a community and collaborative space, it doesn’t even have to be a library.
The Librarian’s Purpose
So if the library is not important, what is? The librarian’s purpose is the crucial piece. Plutchak explains that:
“We connect people to knowledge. We bring people together with the intellectual content of the past and present so that new knowledge can be created. We provide the ways and means for people to find entertainment and solace and enlightenment and joy and delight in the intellectual, scientific and creative work of other people. This is what we have always been about.”
“The core function of librarians, according to Lankes, is to facilitate conversations for the purpose of advancing knowledge.”
Obviously, librarians aren’t the only ones who can play this sort of role, but we need to move beyond the library and collaborate with others. Outreach and external collaborations aren’t new ideas, but we definitely don’t do it enough. Pultchak emphasizes collaboration outside of the library, but I would even say that inside the library we aren’t doing enough. In some cases we have already seen a lot of great successes (just look at Sitka, or Hydra), but imagine what would happen if every librarian made sure to always be working on at least one collaborative project? Can you imagine the change that would be wrought?
Of course to show other people our value, we need to engage others
“not just the students, faculty, clinicians, and patients in our institutions, but with the vendors, suppliers, and publishers that we do business with.”
What is happening with scholarly publication is definitely a good example, though I admit that I am not particularly familiar with the whole situation, only that I know there are a lot of librarians who are making a difference. I’m not sure how much different these librarians are making, but the discussion is happening and continuing.
Changing Our Work
Another one of Pultchak’s points is that no organization should simply dump all the technology related or digital resources onto one or two people to let everyone else get on with their work, and I can’t agree more. In an academic environment, librarians are liaising with faculty, research is usually involved in that work, some knowledge of data, data wrangling software and tools is necessary. Teaching is always involved, and some knowledge of teaching tools might be in order.
You can begin small. You will need support from higher ups, but get others involved in editing the website (I’m going to assume the website is in a CMS at least). You’re not going to get everyone aboard, but have staff be accountable and responsible for their own areas.
We Can Help Shape the Future: It’s Not That Hard
“It will require librarians who are excited about new possibilities, who are eager to develop partnerships, who are effective in communicating their expertise, and who are comfortably nimble in very uncertain terrain.”
I would say that fits a lot of people I know. I don’t think I will do anything that will drastically change the world, but one of my teachers always says that you should do a little every day, because if you give up from thinking it’s too big a step, then you end up doing nothing (that’s a translation, but you get the idea). I don’t aspire to be a “big name”, I don’t think I’m even doing everything little bit that I can, but I began by providing support and advocacy, I’ve continued by teaching others, and I’m now beginning to create contributions, small as they be.
If you don’t know where to start, you might begin by simply jumping on a bandwagon. I ended up at MozFest 2012 not looking to do anything particular, but ended up meeting and chatting with other educators and even became inspired to create a thimble project. It’s not much, but if that project gets published as a starter project and people find it useful, I’ll know that I’ve contributed to helping people become webmakers. That seems like a small thing, but crazily enough, it’s something that might change lives.