The future of library & the role of librarians


To answer this question, we need to understand what is a library for. Seth Godin says,

Before Gutenberg, a book cost about as much as a small house. As a result, only kings and bishops could afford to own a book of their own. The library is a warehouse for books worth sharing. Only after that did we invent the librarian. The librarian isn’t a clerk who happens to work at a library. A librarian is a data hound, a guide, a sherpa and a teacher. The librarian is the interface between reams of data and the untrained but motivated user.

After Gutenberg, books  got a lot cheaper. More individuals built their own collections. At the same time, though, the number of titles exploded, and the demand for libraries did as well. The library is a house for the librarian. The idea was that in a pre-electronic media age, the working man needed to be both entertained and slightly educated. Work all day and become a more civilized member of society by reading at night. Your kids need a place with shared encyclopedias and plenty of fun books, hopefully inculcating a lifelong love of reading, because reading makes all of us more thoughtful, better informed and more productive members of a civil society.

Which was all great, until now. Wikipedia and the huge databanks of information have basically eliminated the library as the best resource for anyone doing amateur research (grade school, middle school, even undergrad). Is there any doubt that online resources will get better and cheaper as the years go by? They need a librarian more than ever (to figure out creative ways to find and use data). They need a library not at all.

Post-Gutenberg, books are finally abundant, hardly scarce, hardly expensive, hardly worth warehousing. Post-Gutenberg, the scarce resource is knowledge and insight, not access to data.

The library is no longer a warehouse for dead books.

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.

The next library is a house for the librarian with the guts to invite kids in to teach them how to get better grades while doing less grunt work. And to teach them how to use a soldering iron or take apart something with no user serviceable parts inside. And even to challenge them to teach classes on their passions, merely because it’s fun. This librarian takes responsibility/blame for any kid who manages to graduate from school without being a first-rate data shark.

The next library is filled with so many web terminals there’s always at least one empty. And the people who run this library don’t view the combination of access to data and connections to peers as a sidelight–it’s the entire point.

There are one thousand things that could be done in a place like this, all built around one mission: take the world of data, combine it with the people in this community and create value.

We need librarians more than we ever did. What we don’t need are mere clerks who guard dead paper. Librarians are too important to be a dwindling voice in our culture. For the right librarian, this is the chance of a lifetime.

Here’s Clay Shirky’s views on this topic:

What does this mean for librarians?  For one, that we should stop hatin’ on Wikipedia. Skirky contrasted the entry for biopsy on Wikipedia to that for biopsy on Medpedia, which utilizes physician editors rather than the unwashed masses.  Turns out that the Wikipedia entry is much more robust and developed, a thorough introduction to the topic of biopsy available to all. On the other hand, Medpedia offers a puny paragraph and calls it a day. In this case–and by extension for many descriptions of general knowledge–the “wisdom of crowds” prevails over the “cult of expertise.”  In narrow specialty areas–let’s say a new form of biopsy developed by an enterprising clinician–expertise trumps the crowd.  But we can’t credibly say that Wikipedia has no place in the architecture of knowledge. I am eagerly awaiting the tipping point in which it is OK to cite Wikipedia entries in the reference lists of student papers.

Librarians who promote the virtues of open access, myself among them, have yet to fully grasp the import of academic conventions in conserving the status quo.  To us the case for open access is so obvious that we can’t see why everyone else doesn’t see it immediately.  But the truth is that open access is only a modest transformation anyway–even if all academics embraced it, we are still in the realm of peer reviewed journals in which the journal name carries an imprimatur that is independent of an article’s worth.  So rather than continuing to tinker at the margins of this old pre-Web system, librarians could be instrumental in designing new publication systems that totally bust the current paradigm.

Why not harness cognitive surplus to develop insights about health care  treatment that were never available on a large scale until now? Who is going to preserve this data for posterity? Isn’t this a more interesting challenge than management of a little used print collection?

Yes, change is extremely hard.  Yes, we are not the faculty–even if librarians start pitching the glories of cognitive surplus, the chair of the tenure committee is likely not to care.  But hopefully that doesn’t mean we are mere clerks, content with a view of the library as a glorified buyers club.  If the tenure chair can’t let go of the past, they can purchase their own journals.  We could reallocate the collection budget to solve more interesting problems.