A Radical Critique of "Diversity"
Finding the Evidence That We Want

Valuing Librarians

I was on the phone with a colleague.  She's been doing some consulting at a local hospital, and was getting ready to make a pitch to some of the senior administrators to try to persuade them that they needed to hire a full-time librarian.  But she's trying to figure out how to make sense of the rapid changes that are happening all around. 

"Should I tell them about this open source publishing?  What is the impact of that going to be?"

"Open access," I gently correct her.  "Open source relates to software development.  'Open access' is an umbrella term for a wide variety of experiments having to do with making scholarly content available without a subscription.  You're not going to be able to explain it to these administrators in five minutes.  Just tell them that the situation continues to be extremely complex and that most high-quality information continues to be very expensive."

"And what about publishers shifting to relying on advertising?  Is that the way things are going?"  She's referring to Elsevier's experiment with OncologyStat.

"Another experiment.  Certain segments of publishing have always relied heavily on advertising revenue, " I remind her.  "I suspect that this will be effective in some disciplines and genres.   But whether it  represents a major trend remains to be seen."

But she keeps asking,  "Where is this all going?" 

Damned if I know.

"Here's what I would tell them, if I were in your place,"  I say.  "Tell them that the publishing landscape is more complex than it has ever been before.  Tell them that increasingly there is good quality information that their health professionals need that is available for free, but it is mixed up on the internet with tons of junk.  Tell them that most of what they need is still expensive and it is not at all clear how quickly that's going to change.  Point out that there has been an explosion of different types of resources -- point of care tools, online textbooks, evidence-based databases -- that we're not just talking about online journals.  Tell them that if they're going to make cost-effective use of the time and energy and talents of their health professionals, that now, more than ever, they need a professional librarian to help make sense of this increasingly complex information space.  They don't need somebody to manage the library -- they need someone to help make sure that their health professionals have the best information available, in the right place, at the right time, in the most cost-efficient way.  Tell them that in this highly competitive health industry that they're operating in, they can't afford not to have that kind of a person on their team."

The demise of Times-Select is leading librarians to ask similar questions to that of my colleague.  Over on liblicense, Bernie Sloan says, "...if this sort of trend continues will it gradually begin to marginalize the library, bit by bit? In other words, if more information becomes available freely will that lead people to think they need the library less?"

Of course it will.  But that's been happening bit by bit for years now.  People do need "the library" less. 

But they need librarians more than ever. 

One of my gripes with the Library 2.0 crowd is that they're not radical enough.  For all of the chatter about embracing change and embracing the users and becoming more participative and making use of social software and social networks -- all of which I entirely agree with, by the way -- the focus is still firmly on the success of "the library."  How do we make the library relevant, how do we make it a cool destination, how do we make sure that people are using those resources, etc., etc., etc....   If we were really focused on what the people in our communities need, we'd quit talking about "the library" altogether.

At my institution, we're going to spend some $5 million in the upcoming fiscal year on library resources (all formats), so I don't mean to suggest that collection development isn't still a core part of our mission.  We're getting ready to spend some $8 million renovating the general campus library, so I don't mean to suggest that the building, and the services, are unimportant.  But they are clearly less important than they used to be.

One of the most intriguing things that we're doing here is helping to revise the medical school curriculum.  One of our associate directors is leading the development of the information management theme, where topics ranging from how best to use pubmed, to properly analyzing evidence-based medicine resources, to evaluating what you find with a Google or Ask.com search, to finding the best consumer-oriented information for your patients, will be tightly integrated throughout all four years of medical school.  It's the most extensive involvement of librarians with overall med school curriculum development that I'm aware of.   And, I should mention, that activity doesn't take place in our building -- our librarians are over in the medical school, participating in curriculum meetings, teaching in the lecture halls, holding office hours in the student lounges.  That's where we belong.

Physicians are drowning in information.  A recent post at Shelved in the W's highlights the dire situation that they're in.  While librarians worry about the health of their libraries, I'm worrying about the health of the patients that are being served by physicians who have only the faintest notion of how to construct even the simplest search. 

I don't give a damn what our medical students think about "the library," but I sure as hell think it's our responsibility to get them out of med school with a decent set of information management skills.

As I was talking to my colleague on the phone about the advice she should give to those hospital administrators, and was describing the kind of dynamic savvy librarian that would really make a difference over there, I was also offering up a silent prayer that they could find somebody like that.  Oh, they're out there -- but we don't have nearly enough of them to tackle the job at hand.

We need better librarians, not better libraries.


Comments

Dorothea Salo

Can I hear an "AMEN," brother and sister librarians!

To be fair, librarianship needs to do a bit better than it historically has in recognizing that librarians who work outside The Library Building are still librarians, still doing librarians' work. I don't know how to make that recognition happen, except to be welcoming myself to librarians working outside The Building.

I wrote a short squib on TechEssence a while back on the confusion you note, if it helps at all: http://techessence.info/node/86

K.G. Schneider

When I'm working within the 4-year higher ed community, I see things just the way you do. But then I step back and think about the public library environment, which to a large extent provides services to people who *need* "The Library." The librarians working in these environments are being good librarians by delivering the services their constituents need.

The middling place I now occupy (a network for 2-year-college libraries) is fascinating, because this is an area that's so *ignored.* (The latest ECAR study on students and technology only surveyed four community colleges.) It's not that you can take every rule about the 4-year environment and turn it on its head: it's almost like a 90-degree twist. These students are perhaps the most nomadic of all in higher ed, and yet are somewhat less likely to have their own computers or laptops. They check out an enormous number of books (I did a historical report on circ against FTEs today and was startled to see circ almost where it was ten years ago) but they gobble up electronic resources, which they really appreciate. 75 percent of their system accesses come from outside campus networks, and yet they are far from self-reliant, using online reference, etc. to help them shape a research assignment, and because they are often working and attending part-time are very appreciative of the library as "place," because a place is often exactly what they need.

Anyway... guess I'm saying that most "2.0" librarians are advocating awareness of services that complement their users' realities (and as Loose Cannon Librarian recently observed, sometimes exceed them). It's all contextual. Sometimes the best thing you can do is build a library.

I for one have proceeded to skip 3.0 and go directly to 4.0...

T Scott

I do believe in the importance of "library as place" -- which I tried to indicate in my post. But I think there's a sort of Taoist paradox at work here -- if we focus on the relationship between librarians and the community, I think we will inevitably build good libraries, because that's one important means to the end. But we'll also do many other things -- librarians in nursing homes working with people who cannot possibly get to the physical library, librarians with a booth at the local farmer's market showing people where they can find resources to nutritional information, public librarians partnering with hospital librarians to participate in the health fair at the local mall. But if we focus on the library, we inevitably end up thinking of the library as an end in itself, and then we won't be thinking about all of those other things. If we believe that the best thing we can do is build a library, then I think we're selling ourselves short. More importantly, we're not fully meeting our responsibilities to our communities.

Kathleen (LibraryNation)

I agree... It's easy to slip and forget what the real goal of librarians is - to connect people in our communities with information. If that means providing a building, then we can do that. If that means going outside of the four walls (or outside of the "real world") and taking that information to where people need it/will use it...we can do that too.

I think we might get a little scared when thinking about that because without having a Carnegian building to rally behind, maybe it will be more difficult to justify our work/get funding... but there's nothing about a building that inherently says "successful" or "efficient use of resources"... there's thousands of nonprofits in every city who take their services where they're needed rather than spending a lot of money to make people come to them.

I'm always impressed by your ability to step back and look at the bigger picture.

K.G. Schneider

I think we're on the same page (more or less). I believe we need more untethered librarians... librarian "embeds." In some ways I think my work running a global portal was more important to librarianship than anything I did before or will do afterwards, because it reached so many people at point of need.

I'm just raising the cautionary issue that from inside the academy, it may be hard to understand the very fundamental needs of the population at large, particularly in poor communities.

T Scott

KGS -- point well taken.

And that's also part of the reason that I mention people in nursing homes. No matter how good we make our public libraries, there are still going to be people in those communities who can't get there and who would benefit from strong in-person contact with good librarians.

The comments to this entry are closed.