To say that the library building is becoming less important to what librarians do is not, of course, to suggest that it is becoming unimportant. It's a matter of degree and balance. In the print world, the library building was the center of the librarian's universe; now, it may be a home base, but it is no longer where we necessarily do our most vital work.
It may be my imagination (these things are so difficult to quantify), but it seems to me that I hear much less often than I used to the comment from faculty or administrators or people on the street that we don't need libraries anymore because everything is electronic and available through the internet. (Again, this is not to say that one never hears this stuff anymore -- just that I seem to be running into it less often). The building has always served many purposes, but since housing the collection was far and away the most important one, many people saw it as the only one. Now that the local collection is becoming less important (although not unimportant), we can pay more attention to all of these other purposes.
Case in point -- on my campus we are engaged in a process to do major renovations to the "other" library -- the one that principally serves the non-health sciences schools of the university (and, hence, serves a much larger portion of the undergraduate population than we do). Discussions started over a year ago, and in the slow and lumbering way in which universities move forward there've been many discussions, lots of misunderstandings and contentiousness and then long stretches where nothing at all has been happening and one wonders if the project is ever going to resurface.
But yesterday, there I was with half a dozen others who've been appointed to the architect selection committee, listening to presentations from five groups who were hoping to get the job. Three of the five presentations included people who spoke eloquently and passionately about the importance of the library to the campus, its evolving role as a learning center, as a hub of campus life, as a critical destination and meeting place for students and faculty. And it is clear from the amount of library construction & renovation going on around the country that many people in higher ed understand this.
The challenge for librarians (and, as I'll argue later today during the Talis podcast conversation, I think this is true for public as well as academic librarians) is to not let this focus on the evolving uses of the library lead us into thinking of our role as nothing more than the tenders of the building. It's easy to get swept up in the excitement of a new library project and to think about cybercafes and information commons and a wired and comfortable environment full of happy students working collaboratively in tastefully designed spaces full of flexible seating arrangements. But if the essence of our role is bringing people and information resources together for the whole broad range of reasons that people need to, and want to, dip (or plunge) into the accumulated knowledge that is increasingly available to them, then tending to the building can only be one part of what we do.
When I listen to librarians talk about the need to pay attention to those who don't come into the library, the conversation is too often couched in terms of "What do we need to do to get those people to come in?" and that is entirely the wrong approach. People should have to come to the library only when that is the only way to get a desired need met. And the needs of many people in our communities can be well met without ever coming to the building. I know, for example, that my Dean of Medicine is a daily library user -- but I'm pretty sure the only time he's been in the building has been for a lunch meeting or a reception. I don't spend any time trying to figure out how to make the building more "inviting" for him -- I want to make sure that we've got systems and practices in place to make him as efficient as possible in his office or his lab or at home. And while much of this can be done virtually, much of it can only be accomplished by having librarians out of the building and being active, engaged members of the university community in all of the other buildings and spaces in which the life of the institution goes on.
Another case in point: A couple of days ago, our Associate Director for Public Services and Assistant Director for Reference Services received an email from a doc who is the program director for one of our internal medicine residency programs located downstate (about ninety minutes away). It said, in part,
[The Associate Dean] was kind enough to forward me a memo from 12/11/06 regarding the courses that you have developed for medical students and now also residents and fellows regarding improved proficiency in information management and search capabilities. Our residency program would be very interested in participating in such a course and/ or seminar.
Would it be possible for you to come ... for a lecture or a series of lectures on these topics? We would be glad to reimburse you for your time and travel.
Or course it will be possible! And no, we wouldn't think of asking for reimbursement for time & travel. This is what we do.
The presentations yesterday gave me some good ideas for things we can do with our building. We haven't done a major renovation is ten years, and while the furniture layout was pretty state-of-the-art when we put it in then, now its deficiencies and limitations are all too clear. When I think about how we might reconfigure our use of our space, and make it more inviting and collaborative and flexible, I do get excited by the possibilities. And when the place is full of happy and productive students I know that we'll be meeting part of our mission. But only part. That team that we'll send down I-65 a hundred miles to work with those residents is an essential part of our mission as well. For those young doctors, and the patients that they will care for, our building is completely and utterly beside the point. They don't need our library, they need our librarians.