Some years ago, I wrote an editorial for the Journal of the Medical Library Association in which I tried to make the point that libraries only exist to make other things possible. In my particular case, it's the work of my university, but the principle remains, no matter what the library. As long as the library is serving a need, it will be valued, but it has no value as an end in itself.
In part, the editorial was a response to some of the angst and anguish I see among my colleagues as they worry about the future of libraries and librarians. Despite my own belief that this is a fabulous time to be a librarian, and that the future for librarians is quite bright, I recognize that I seem to be in the minority and doom and gloom prevail.
For example, consider a few posts from the past week (and it would be easy to find other examples):
In a post on the ACRLog, Brett Bonfield worries:
I love the profession because of the talented librarians around me who share my delight in assisting patrons. But, as a new academic librarian, I worry that our profession may retire before I do.
In Karen Schneider's farewell post to ALA Techsource, she sounds the alarm:
One thought is that some of us are worried that librarianship has a very narrow window of opportunity for survival--maybe a decade, maybe more, maybe a little less.
And again on ACRLog, StevenB comments on the announcement of a new taskforce that's been established to, once again, consider the place of academic libraries in higher education. Hoping that the task force will provide us some clues, he says,
We need libraries that are highly integrated into and tightly connected to what happens in the classroom, both physical and virtual.
The sceptical contrarian in me reads this last quote and wonders, "Why?"
So much of the rhetoric in this vein is focused (unintentionally, I think) on us, on librarians, and on what we want and what we think we need.
Suppose Karen is correct, and suppose that we don't do the things that she, and those who see things the way that she does, think we ought to do. Suppose that a decade from now, librarianship no longer exists as a profession. No more library schools, no more librarians (except a few civil servants or tenured faculty who can't be fired). No more new jobs, libraries shuttered and turned into dormitories, study halls and rest homes.
Does it happen because people truly no longer need us and what we can provide? That, by using the internet wisely, by relying on the big technology companies (Amazooglesoft), and the smart publishers who've figured out how to organize and provide information directly to people while bypassing libraries, the people in our communities (be they universities, schools, companies, or society in general) are able to connect with the recorded knowledge that they need even more effectively than they could in the age of libraries?
If that's the case, wouldn't it be a good thing?
Sure, it'd be a bummer for those of us who like our library jobs, but it's not like we -- the actual individual persons -- are going to wink out of existence. We'll figure out something to do. And we may be nostalgic for what we've lost, but if society has figured out better ways to achieve what we used to help them achieve, aren't we all better off as a whole? So I don't get to be a librarian anymore. I don't have the option of being a blacksmith, or a riverboat captain, or the guy who delivers milk in glass bottles from a horse drawn wagon, either.
The point is, I don't think we're telling the right story, and I don't think we're worrying about the right stuff. I don't want to hear anymore about what we need to do to make ourselves relevant so that our libraries can survive. I want to hear people telling the stories about why we're essential, about how society can't thrive without us, about how students and teachers won't have the kinds of experiences that they deserve if we, well-trained, passionate, technologically-savvy librarians aren't working with them in the classrooms and the labs. I don't want to hear about how "we need libraries that are well integrated..." if the "we" refers to librarians. I don't care what we think we need. I want to hear us explaining why the students and the faculty need us to be tightly integrated into what happens in the classroom. I want to be told why a town without good public librarians is impoverished and why we're here to save the day. I don't want to hear about what we need to do to be relevant -- I want to hear the story about why our communities so desperately need us.
If we can't tell that story, then we should wink out of existence, and a decade is longer than we deserve.