First Sight of Birmingham
Unintended Consequences

Librarians Unbound

I posted a brief comment last night over on the ALA Techsource blog in response to a mini-manifesto by Karen Schneider about LC's Bibliographic Data meeting that was held yesterday.   She makes many good points, but what actually sparked my note was a couple of spots in which she commits what I think of as the major semantic fallacy bedeviling librarians today.  To wit:  "a librarian complained to me that he was having a hard time catching his library's attention on new digital initiatives" and "Libraries across the country are increasingly asked to justify their existence"....

I'm sure what she meant was that the librarian in the first quote was having a hard time catching the attention of the colleagues that he worked with, and that it is librarians that are being asked to justify the existence of their libraries.   We use this shorthand all the time, and in an earlier age, it probably didn't matter much.  But as we struggle with the changes of the digital world, this careless equivalence of librarians and libraries matters a great deal.

My favorite phrases in the piece are where she refers to "the librarian as information artisan—a professional creating and using tools to manage information" and harkens back to the "bold days when we saw our central roles as defenders and curators of our cultural heritage."  I like the notion of librarians as artisans (although "creating and using tools to manage information" is unnecessarily narrow and restrictive), and I believe with all my heart that the core of our existence is indeed as defenders and curators of the cultural heritage.

But not the defenders and curators of libraries.  And that's where the distinction becomes critically important.  For all of the long history of librarianship, building collections, building libraries, and developing services that were centered around those collections and those physical spaces were the best means that we had to fulfill that core function.  But as so often happens in human endeavors, we eventually confused the means for the end.  Librarians are correct when they worry that libraries are becoming less relevant -- and I think of our forebears in the scriptoria, laboriously copying texts, viewing the arrival of the printed book with great alarm.  Who would need well designed and run libraries anymore, when just about anybody would be able to own their own identical copy of a printed book?  Surely, Gutenberg's diabolical invention was the deathknell of librarianship.

We have got to get it into our heads -- and into the way that we speak -- that libraries are no longer the be-all and end-all of our existence.  They will remain important, they will continue to require good librarians to tend them -- but if that's all that librarians focus on, if we endlessly fuss about how to get people to use our libraries, we will not be looking creatively at the things that can now be done in the digital world to fulfill our key cultural roles.

Librarians need to free themselves from the tyranny of the library.  This is hard, I know.  All of us in the field, to one degree or another, love libraries and feel emotionally bound to them.  But they are only a means.  Libraries don't do anything -- librarians do.


Jacque Doyle

Scott - I absolutely love your last two paragraphs and totally agree that we must view ourselves and function as separate from the physical space, and even from the content containers that Bob Braude referred to. Thanks for sharing!

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