Fun With Words

Librarian 5.0

I'd like to see just a little more imagination and a bit more historical perspective on the part of the Library 2.0 enthusiasts.  Certainly, making good use of the latest tools & gadgets & gizmos to do a better job of reaching out to our communities and providing better services is something we should all be doing -- but this isn't really anything new.

The move from closed stack libraries to open stacks was a tremendously radical move towards empowering library users.   So was the replacement of the book catalog by that marvel of human ingenuity, the card catalog.    I suspect that telephone reference was considered nervy and cutting-edge when it first appeared (and was probably fiercely resisted by reference librarians who feared that it would interfere with their ability to provide the level of service that they were accustomed to).

What strikes me about much of the Library 2.0 discussion is how library-centric rather than user-centric it is.  Ten years ago, when I first took this job, in one of my very first presentations to my new colleagues, I said,

Our job is not to build a better library.  Our job is figure out how to make the very best use of our particular skills, tools, talents and abilities to help the people in our community do a better job of getting and managing the information that they need.  Sometimes that means that we'll be doing things that everybody expects from libraries, but sometimes it means we'll be doing things that nobody ever associated with a library.  And sometimes it means we'll stop doing "library" things, because they're not really the things that our people need the most.

What strikes me about much of the writing on Library 2.0 is that the writers haven't yet quite clued in to the fact that the library itself is just a tool.  For centuries, ever since those ancient Sumerians started trying to figure out how to store the clay tablets from one harvest to the next so that they could report back to the king how many barrels of beer they'd brewed compared to last season, having a place to store the records -- a library -- and effectively managing it (with the latest technology available) has been central to how librarians served their communities.  The radical shift we are now facing is that, for the first time in human history, librarians need no longer be constrained and defined by the walls of the library.

We don't know yet if blogs & wikis are just this season's gopher & veronica, or will, like the broadsides of 16th century London, morph into something as powerful as the MSM of the late 20th century.  By all means, use all of the available tools, just don't get hung up on thinking that the tools provide the magic.  Librarians do.

I'm not concerned about the "future of libraries".  All this talk about continuing to be relevant bores me.  What I am deeply concerned about is the health of our communities, our educational institutions, and our culture.   To tend to that, we need radically aware librarians, deeply rooted in an understanding of the traditions of our long history, but with a clear focus on what we can provide to the communities we're a part of.   "Library 2.0" implies that Web 2.0 tools will create a radical paradigm shift in what libraries are.   But they're just tools.   I'm much more interested in Librarian 5.0 -- the librarian beyond walls.



I become deeply suspicious when it becomes necessary for a group of enthusiasts to christen their Trend with a name. "Library 2.0"? Please.

Predictably, the enthusiasts begin to take on a tone I associate with Fundamentalists: "I know the only Way to the Truth". Follow me to the path of pure enlightenment...

I work with a very broad range of libraries. But as a library USER, the very last thing on my mind when I partake of the many, many wonderful products and services the excellent Hoover Public Library ( has to offer is what friggin' ILS system they are using or what kind of computers they have. This is the library I have been using since it opened more than 25 years ago. When they went from a card catalog to an ILS, did I see this as a transition to "Library 1.0"? I don't even know what ILS they are currently using. I just like the fact that it works. And I've liked every change and tweak and enhancement they've made to it.

But the reason this library works is that a smart, creative human being or two gives continuous, serious consideration to what users might like. This library is about providing creative services, arranging spaces and the physical collections so that people get the information they need, have the space they want, and the physical materials necessary. The library staffers (both professional and "support" staff) are ever-present, THROUGHOUT the library - not stuck behind an imposing "Main Desk". They are unfailing in their service attitude, right down to the shelvers.

This is a public library in a town of less than 100,000 people. It's about lively events and programs and people. The parking lot is almost always filled. Does this library matter? You bet it does. And it ain't because we all love the technology, folks.


This is excellent commentary Scott. There are so many issues here. But I think you should take heart, or perhaps just the opposite. This is not a phenomena limited to the library community. When I used to sell site licenses for the NEJM, many librarians would ask pointed questions about internet policies of various publishers (including the NEJM). Often they would comment that publishers; ‘didn’t get it.’ In fact, just the opposite was true. Publishers, at a very early stage, realised the destructive force of the internet. The internet challenged many old assumptions about what it meant to be a publisher. Most publishers (particularly the for profits, but certainly not limited to them) sought to manipulate the technology to serve their needs rather than the needs of the customer (and they still do).

A strategy such as that can be successful for a while, but ultimately the technology always wins – just ask the saboteurs of the 19th century. Their shoes could not stop the mechanization of the wool trade, nor will the false restrictions of the publishing industry stop electronic access. The technology will go where it will. The successful will adapt and abandon old practices. I agree with you Scott, there will always be libraries, there will always be librarians, there will always be poems. However, there may not always be reference librarians as that role exists today, a Hoover Public Library in its existing form, a journal called ‘Poetry’ or a New England Journal of Medicine. Everything has its time, everything passes.

Who knows what our roles will be or how our institutions will be organized twenty years from now. Maybe the UAB Medical Library will exist only on a server in your beautiful black kitchen (assuming we have kitchens twenty years from now). Don’t tell the people at the NEJM, but I plan to be running their publication out of my garage in the Snowy Mountains twenty years from now. I figure I will be able to do it with an IPOD and a black dog named ‘Angina Pectoris.’

As for the technology geeks and their promises you have heard me rail against them many times. I am tired of twenty years of grand promises about the power of the technology. It never lives up to the hype. But yet, I agree, the technology has achieved much. I am a sceptic. The wizardry of the technology is indeed a marvel to behold. But has it really made my life better? I am not so sure. I can do more, I am always connected. I can do things alone in a click that would have taken 20 people a week twenty years ago. I can live in Australia and have an ongoing dialogue with my closest friends in Alabama in ‘real time’ (to use the jargon).

But am I better off? I am continually told that the technology makes my life better. But if that is true; why don’t I feel it? Why am I and all my friends overworked? Why does it seem so hard to progress these days? Most people I talk to complain constantly about how busy they all are; how they never have time for friends and family. We are connected 24/7, which I concede has its benefits, at moments. But I don’t want to be connected all the time. That is one of the great things about living here in Australia. For at least 8 hours of my day, America is shut down. In those 8 hours I have peace. The problem with the age is that the technology rules us and not the other way around. Maybe this stems from the first observation in this email. The technology, often, is manipulated to serve other’s needs and not the needs of the user.

I’ll end with this thought, though the saboteurs failed to stop the technology, they ultimately did achieve some success. They were the genesis of the great social movement of the early 20th century. It was their efforts that lead to the social revolution that gave us labor legislation, public holidays, and vacation time. Maybe we ought to start throwing our shoes at our computers.

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