I was scanning Roy Tennant's recent column about the ACRL Technology and Change Summit and paused at this sentence: "Academic libraries have three huge challenges that we must address to be successful."
The three challenges that he speaks of are to "reconceptualize the role of the library," acquire "agile, imaginative staff," and get our hands on "new tools." Seems pretty straightforward. But I worry just a bit when he goes on to say that, "In the end, we all came away from this meeting with a profound sense that things must change." I sure hope that wasn't new news to any of the participants.
I keep going back to that earlier sentence and wondering, "What does it mean to be successful?" I would suggest that a fourth, and even greater challenge, is to answer that question. I suspect that most librarians would have a hard time with it.
Librarians worry about the library becoming less relevant. My M-W Collegiate Dictionary defines "library" as either a place or a collection. In these senses it seems to me that "the library" is, indisputably, becoming less relevant. The very essence of the digital world is that place in general has become less relevant. And in an age when the activity of a collection development librarian is focused on licensing content rather than on actually "acquiring" anything, the concept of "a collection" has been stretched past the breaking point. The library, be it public, academic, or whatever simply is not as important as it used to be and will become even less important as time goes on.
I hasten to add that "less relevant" is not at all the same as irrelevant, and "less important" does not at all imply unimportant. But we are fooling ourselves mightily if we think that social software, gaming, and friendlier signage are going to keep our places and collections as important to our communities as they once were.
But despite what my dictionary says, I think there is another sense to "library" -- it is also an organization, a group of librarians. And librarians are more important than ever. The first of Roy's challenges needs to be recast as a need to reconceptualize the role of the librarian.
I go back to my dictionary and see that "librarian" is defined as "a specialist in the care or management of a library." If that is, in fact, all that a librarian is, then we are less important and less relevant as well. But I think my dictionary is short-sighted.
At their essence, what librarians do, and have done for many thousands of years, is much more than care for libraries. We connect people to knowledge. We bring people together with the intellectual content of the past and present so that new knowledge can be created. We provide the ways and means for people to find entertainment and solace and enlightenment and joy and delight in the intellectual, scientific and creative work of other people. This is what we have always been about. For all those centuries, the way that we could best do that was by creating places and collections -- but along the way we lost sight of the fact that those were only tools. We allowed our tools to define us.
Here at Lister Hill, we are about to embark on a major strategic planning exercise. I think we've met Ray's second challenge -- the place is full of agile, imaginative staff -- and it's time for us to really dig in (again) and think about what we are the very best at, and what our community needs that only we can provide (to borrow some concepts from Jim Collins). Frankly, my dears, I don't give a damn if the "library" is successful. But I will make sure that this organization of talented, dedicated people is.
Librarians who believe that their job is to care for and manage their places and their collections will need to accept that their role in society, and their importance to their communities, will continue to shrink. But for those who see that their role is deeper than that, the great age of librarianship is just beginning. Our places and our collections will never become unimportant -- we are, after all, physical beings. But in order to become the fabulously successful librarians that we have the capability to be, we will need, in significant ways, to leave our libraries behind.