Seth Godin wrote a great post today – I’m sure you’ve read it by now – on the “The Future of the Library.” It’s a future with librarians who serve as catalysts of digital information access and as collaborators with their patrons. Given the state of the economy and the fact that libraries have always used the latest technologies to collect, store, and diffuse information, the “library of the future” is always a favourite blog topic, even outside of librarianship. But when some one who works in spheres well beyond what we do, some one like Seth Godin, waxes poetic on our profession, we stand up and take notice.
And take notice we did. Some of the earliest commenters include:
- Buffy Hamilton, who draws connections to Lankes’ Atlas of New Librarianship, as well as to the unfortunate situation that Los Angeles teacher-librarians find themselves in this month
- Bobbi Newman, who lays vendor and wikipedia economics out on the line and shows why it’s the libraries and librarians who are pulling more than their weight when it comes to e-resources; Newman also reminds Godin in no uncertain terms that the librarian’s role as educator should never be underestimated (this is where she always excels)
- Gwyneth Marshman, who considers how information access is just as important to academic and special libraries as the printed word is to public libraries
I held back on my two cents because I had too many demands on my Monday (like a third cup of coffee to make it through the afternoon), but that doesn’t mean that I don’t have an opinion. When it comes down to it, I agree with Seth. Mind you, Godin isn’t saying anything new or profound either about or to librarians. Seth is saying all the things that many of have said before, that:
[a] librarian is a data hound, a guide, a sherpa and a teacher. The librarian is the interface between reams of data and the untrained but motivated user.
Or, when discussing the pedagogical aspect of our work, that any good librarian will take:
responsibility/blame for any kid who manages to graduate from school without being a first-rate data shark.
Seth likes his animal imagery, for sure: librarians are data hounds who help our youngsters grow into being data sharks. I like these metaphors, too, and like them a lot. What’s there not to like in these statements? Seth Godin is speaking about the potential and the responsibility that our profession has, and he’s speaking to a general audience. Godin is speaking to the world and to librarians when he says he foresees a library as a place full of digital and print containers of information, managed by librarians who know where all the information is stored, how to get to it, and how it all fits together. This is a future where librarians don’t work in dusty offices, don’t work with card catalogues, and don’t shush people.
But wait a second. Seth has got some great ideas, but I think the future Seth wants is very much here already. Librarians are at the cutting edge of tech, bringing people and their data and information together. We help people create knowledge. Hell, we can make the trains run on time.
Or, that is, a lot of the time, we can help others make the trains run on time. And here’s my real issue, which doesn’t haven so much to do with Seth as it has to do with ourselves. I’m glad to see that Seth and I are on the same page and that we both think that librarians need to be tech mavens and data gurus. But the problem is that a lot of us aren’t. A lot of us are focused squarely on the educational side of the profession. There is nothing wrong with that. We are teachers, after all, and we have a crucial role to play in research methods, in critical thinking, and in lifelong learning. I couldn’t be more serious when I say that since I work in information literacy and know first-hand that some one has got to show these students how to create a research plan, how to mock up a topic and a subject, how to open a database and how to create a hypothesis. I am dead-serious about this because I’ve met enough students in my short time as a librarian to know that these skills are not taught adequately in all classrooms (this is not the fault of teachers, by the way: it’s symptomatic of poorly funded educational systems at all levels, in my mind). Indeed, many of us must be focused on our pedagogical role because it is an important and vital part of our professional obligations. But when so many of us are working in the front of the house on the educational side of things, who is it that’s making sure the gears don’t get gummed up and slow down the system? Who really is working on information storage, search, retrieval, and organization?
I’m not being willfully ignorant here. I know full well that there are plenty of librarians who still work in Tech Services, in Bibliographic Control, and in Systems, and I value their work. The thing is that I value their so much that I think it’s a subfield of our profession that more of us should be acquainted with. In my place of work, a mid-sized university with some 600 academic databases from a bevy of vendors, there are very few librarians who know how they all fit together, and there are few others actively working in data collection and storage into local repositories. This is our collective loss and it it’s a disservice to our patrons and to our institutions. Collectively, we should know more about our systems and our data collection, but we don’t.
Dear fellow librarians: don’t take this as a criticism of our work. Instead, take it as a call to arms. The world has gone digital, and we were there to guide it through its growing pains. MARC long ago taught us a lot about systems, authorities, and control, and this is an area we still have strong expertise in. So, let’s not sit by the wayside as the world steams ahead of us on account of the knowledge we developed and then shared in information systems and retrieval. It has become more and more apparent that the Internet really does need a strong cadre of “editors” and “curators” who truly understand how to select, store, and retrieve the best information out there; there is no single search bar to rule them all, but there are librarians who can help others find and then use the information they’re looking for. Seth Godin is right on the money in his post only because he’s seen the writing on the wall and is parroting what we know already: that the world’s gone digital and it needs some help figuring out what do with all this data. Let’s use our skills in information literacy, yes, but let’s also use our skills in information organization to fine-tune the systems already. We can’t be the best teachers of information retrieval, of information literacy and of research skills unless we understand the systems which house the information in the first place.