Awhile back, I was sitting with a group of library directors discussing strategies for dealing with the difficult budget situations that we all find ourselves in this year. I was struck with how focused the rest of the folks in the room were on protecting the collections budget at all costs. It is emotional for them in a way that it isn't for me.
I certainly don't mean to suggest that I'm not worried about the impact of the cuts that we're going to make this year -- it's going to be substantial and it is going to have a serious impact on the community that I serve. But I am much more focused on the variety of services that we provide and making sure that we meet our commitment to getting people to the information that they need while helping them make appropriate and efficient use of it. This'll mean making greater use of ILL and being cleverer about taking advantage of the rapidly increasing amount of information that is freely available. I see no reason to shed tears over that.
But then, for me, the focus has always been on what librarians do, not what the library is.
In a way, the Ithaka report that is getting some attention in the blogosphere the last week or so makes the same point. The report points to a dramatic drop in the perception of faculty of the library's role as portal or gatekeeper between 2003 and 2006. In his comments on the report, Steven Bell asks, "But why are we only considering the role of the academic library as gateway, archive and buyer?" The answer seems pretty obvious to me -- it's because too many academic librarians are so focused on "the library" that they can't clear their thinking to see how our skills as information managers are becoming increasingly vital in helping people sort through this maddeningly complex information world in which we now live. As I've been saying for years the library is becoming less relevant, and no amount of hand-wringing over what we can do to get people to use the library more is going to change that. But librarians are more relevant than ever, if only we can disengage ourselves from privileging our buildings and collections the way that we do and utilizing our individual skills in more effective and relevant ways.
My institution was recently awarded a CTSA grant. This is an essential program for any institution that expects to be in the top tier of biomedical research in the future. As our Dean of Medicine expressed it, it clearly divides the biomedical research world into haves and have-nots. There is no more critical grant program for us right now. When the award was announced, a couple of our librarians went to talk to the PI to see what we can do to help. They didn't spend a lot time talking about the size of our collections. They talked about what we can do to help with the training of junior faculty, with efficiently connecting researchers to the latest sources of information, about helping to develop a robust, integrated informatics infrastructure. The PI did a presentation to the Deans council last week providing a full overview of the program and three times highlighted the fact that the libraries are involved, mentioning the librarians by name.
Yesterday I had a meeting with the Associate Provost for Undergraduate Programs and one of the senior faculty in our sociology department who works extensively with studying homeless populations. I'm interested in expanding some of our community engagement activities and seeing how we can get undergraduates more involved. By the time we finished the meeting we had the outlines of a couple of projects, one of which would involve getting some of the students from his medical sociology class looking at our GoLocal installation to help assess whether we are identifying the right resources and describing them in the ways that are most effective in connecting the homeless with the services that they need.
I could go on. The key here is that these are activities that are very high priority for my institution and what I am continually looking for are opportunities for us to apply our skills to help move those priorities forward. I've been saying it for so long now, it sounds trite to me, but our job is NOT to build a better library.
A number of years ago, at the Charleston Conference, I was having a conversation with a few very smart, very seasoned librarians. They were fussing about the future and worrying about what it would mean for them in a world where open access really does become predominant and traditional collection development is increasingly irrelevant. Their outlook was pretty bleak because, as one of them said, "Building collections is what librarians are all about!"
"No," I said. "Librarians are about getting people to the information they need in the most effective and efficient way possible. Building collections was just the means that we used to do that given the constraints of the print world."
The way I see it, the mission of librarians hasn't changed at all. But we're not going to fulfill it if we keep worrying about the future of libraries. There's way too much interesting and fun work to do to waste time on that.