Finding the Evidence That We Want
Making Music Means Listening

Means, Not Ends

Some years ago, I wrote an editorial for the Journal of the Medical Library Association in which I tried to make the point that libraries only exist to make other things possible.  In my particular case, it's the work of my university, but the principle remains, no matter what the library.  As long as the library is serving a need, it will be valued, but it has no value as an end in itself.

In part, the editorial was a response to some of the angst and anguish I see among my colleagues as they worry about the future of libraries and librarians.  Despite my own belief that this is a fabulous time to be a librarian, and that the future for librarians is quite bright, I recognize that I seem to be in the minority and doom and gloom prevail.

For example, consider a few posts from the past week (and it would be easy to find other examples):

In a post on the ACRLog, Brett Bonfield worries:

I love the profession because of the talented librarians around me who share my delight in assisting patrons. But, as a new academic librarian, I worry that our profession may retire before I do.

In Karen Schneider's farewell post to ALA Techsource, she sounds the alarm:

One thought is that some of us are worried that librarianship has a very narrow window of opportunity for survival--maybe a decade, maybe more, maybe a little less.

And again on ACRLog, StevenB comments on the announcement of a new taskforce that's been established to, once again, consider the place of academic libraries in higher education.  Hoping that the task force will provide us some clues, he says,

We need libraries that are highly integrated into and tightly connected to what happens in the classroom, both physical and virtual.

The sceptical contrarian in me reads this last quote and wonders, "Why?"

So much of the rhetoric in this vein is focused (unintentionally, I think) on us, on librarians, and on what we want and what we think we need.

Suppose Karen is correct, and suppose that we don't do the things that she, and those who see things the way that she does, think we ought to do.  Suppose that a decade from now, librarianship no longer exists as a profession.  No more library schools, no more librarians (except a few civil servants or tenured faculty who can't be fired).  No more new jobs, libraries shuttered and turned into dormitories, study halls and rest homes.

So what?

Does it happen because people truly no longer need us and what we can provide?  That, by using the internet wisely, by relying on the big technology companies (Amazooglesoft), and the smart publishers who've figured out how to organize and provide information directly to people while bypassing libraries, the people in our communities (be they universities, schools, companies, or society in general) are able to connect with the recorded knowledge that they need even more effectively than they could in the age of libraries?

If that's the case, wouldn't it be a good thing?

Sure, it'd be a bummer for those of us who like our library jobs, but it's not like we -- the actual individual persons -- are going to wink out of existence.  We'll figure out something to do.  And we may be nostalgic for what we've lost, but if society has figured out better ways to achieve what we used to help them achieve, aren't we all better off as a whole?  So I don't get to be a librarian anymore.  I don't have the option of being a blacksmith, or a riverboat captain, or the guy who delivers milk in glass bottles from a horse drawn wagon, either.

The point is, I don't think we're telling the right story, and I don't think we're worrying about the right stuff.  I don't want to hear anymore about what we need to do to make ourselves relevant so that our libraries can survive.  I want to hear people telling the stories about why we're essential, about how society can't thrive without us, about how students and teachers won't have the kinds of experiences that they deserve if we, well-trained, passionate, technologically-savvy librarians aren't working with them in the classrooms and the labs.  I don't want to hear about how "we need libraries that are well integrated..." if the "we" refers to librarians.   I don't care what we think we need.  I want to hear us explaining why the students and the faculty need us to be tightly integrated into what happens in the classroom.  I want to be told why a town without good public librarians is impoverished and why we're here to save the day.  I don't want to hear about what we need to do to be relevant -- I want to hear the story about why our communities so desperately need us.

If we can't tell that story, then we should wink out of existence, and a decade is longer than we deserve.



Right on the money Scott.
As part of my role as CILIP (UK Professional Association) President, I recently spent a day visting two School libraries and some time at the (UK) Prison Libraries Group. And those experiences showed me two groups who really do need librarians in order to become effective members of society - and you certainly won't find internet access for inmates in UK prisons!


That's right on! Wow, I feel like you took those thoughts right out of my brain. If people can really do this effectively on our own, we are not needed. Furthermore, if information that is now behind a paywall (like a database) become freely available, that would be fantastic for society. However, libraries would not be needed as much. I've said elsewhere, "wouldn't that be a utopia?".


I wonder if this is a chicken and egg proposition. It would be great if our user community had these great success stories about why they need us - but I don't think that happens unless we first establish our relevance by integrating into their places and spaces. That's how we create the success stories - and then it's up to us to facilitate the user community's reporting back the success stories. I've written posts about this more than once or twice at ACRLog. Outside of Google there are not many examples in the world on business or service organizations where there was no need to encourage the use of the service and make it indispensable to the customer. Google is the prime example of a company that never needed to advertise and succeeded primarily because the users made it know how it changed their lives - and told that to their friends. I'm not sure libaries can duplicate that - and therefore that's why I promote efforts to insure that we remain relevant to our users.

T Scott

But what are the success stories (or what should they be)? Why does it matter that we remain "relevant" unless we're making a critical difference in people's lives? What is it that we do that is "indispensible"? Why do we matter? That's what I'm trying to get at.

K.G. Schneider

I've been writing the "success story" pieces for fifteen years (some might even remember an ancient Internet meme called "Internet Ref Success Stories," so it feels jarring to have a sentence or two in a long piece taken out of context as it was, but such is the nature of quoting.

You write "So much of the rhetoric in this vein is focused (unintentionally, I think) on us, on librarians, and on what we want and what we think we need."

That's probably as good a misreading of my piece (or my philosophy) as I'll ever get. But thank you for at least linking to the entire column so your readers can make up their minds.

One of the issues I have repeatedly raised (again, across fifteen years of writing--including two years of Techsource columns, which I link in that final column) is that I do believe we bring something important to the table. We often get confused about what that "something" is or how to serve it, let alone how to communicate it, but it exists.

By the way, I found it a bit difficult to respond to this post because the subject in it changes several times.

T Scott

KGS -- sorry if you felt misrepresented. The quote from your piece was intended as a prominent representation of the "angst and anguish... doom and gloom" that I referred to earlier. When I refer to it again a little later on, "Suppose Karen is right..." what I'm trying to get at is the "so what." If your worst case prevails, and librarianship does not survive past another decade, what are the consequences?


Scott, the issues you discuss here are not limited to librarians. The discussions you have had, the questions you ask your colleagues, are the same questions I ask my colleagues in publishing. The technology changes everything. We are all struggling to define our roles in this new world. You are right in pointing out that if we are to survive, if we are to be relevant, we must make sure we ask the right questions.

Too often, I hear my publishing colleagues say things like; "we need to educate our customers so that they understand the value of the services we offer." or "if only they knew the work involved in what we do, they would gladly pay the price." The point is, it isn't our job to "educate" our customers. In fact, it is just the opposite, the lessons to be learned are ours and not our customers. In my view, this approach is doomed to failure. I don't know where the new technology will lead. I don't think anyone can predict the outcome. There isn't too much that I am sure of, but this one fact - the people who will survive and grow in this new dynamic world aren't the ones who seek to educate but the ones who seek to learn from their customers. We can't be afraid to discontinue old cherished services and replace them with new different approaches. We can't be afraid of ending even core activities if our customers no longer require them.

Will the world require librarians (or publishers) ten years from now. I have no doubt that the answer to that question is yes. But, be prepared, I also have no doubt that the roles, the products and services offered, the skill sets required, will be very different in 2017. And as for the milkman, he never really disappeared, he is still around. However, instead of going from house to house he now delivers to huge grocery stores.

Peg Allen

The post really resonated with me. Over 20+ years of teaching MLA CE related to the nursing profession, I've always started by looking at nursing information needs and how librarians can help them meet these needs. So often, participants react negatively to including this content. To paraphrase, who cares about the professional struggles of the nursing profession? Why don't nurses come to the library?
Without truly understanding the information needs and working conditions of those we serve, how can we even begin to advise on what full-text and point-of-care resources might be needed?
Pam Sherwill and I are currently analyzing the results of the NAHRS/MLA survey of Magnet Coordinators at hospitals that have achieved the coveted Magnet Recognition. Watch for our sharing of the great comments valuing librarians.

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