Adapting to a changed world

A funny thing happened while Mark Lamster was writing about how libraries are more popular than ever for Metropolis Magazine.  Well, two funny things happened.  First, he didn’t really give enough evidence to prove his claim.  And second, he rhymed off the different ways that libraries have manifested themselves through the ages.

(I’m not going to fault Lamster for not sufficiently explaining his popularity claim since I assume that an editor wrote the headline. Besides, this is from a news site that is focused on architecture as opposed to information science. His concern lies elsewhere.)

I think all librarians need to read this article.  And I don’t mean that everyone should skim it between e-mails. I mean everyone should sit down and read it.  It won’t take long to do, I promise, so you don’t have to give me the tl;dr line. What’s so important about this article is that an outside observer is speaking to other outside observers about what libraries have looked like in the ages-old past, in the recent past and present, and what they will look like in the future. Lamster’s article inadvertently explains that the library as so many of us like to think of it – as a wondrous cathedral of knowledge and public reading room – is only a recent understanding of the term. Rather, libraries have been closed buildings with closed stacks and difficult-to-use technologies for centuries. Libraries have been loci of state power much longer than they’ve ever been the democratic, open, free spaces we think of them today. But as society shifted to become freer and more egalitarian, so did the nature of the library shift to become what we know it to be today. And libraries will change again, and again, to meet the needs and opportunities that future users bring.

I’m linking to Lamster’s article because I want to stress that libraries are not defined wholly by their collections. I don’t think that libraries must be filled with books in order to have any use to the world. Libraries with books are great. Libraries with books are beautiful, wondrous things, actually. But have no need to fear the library that has fewer books compared to x years ago. Libraries with fewer books can still be information hubs and community centres. A library that gives up stack space for meeting rooms and research space, that moves books off-site to make way for local business support centres or for information portals such as geospatial data centres, language labs, digitization centres, local collections, archives, etc., is still a useful space that serves the public good.

There’s a good chance some you will object or reserve judgment since the jury is still out on the long-term viability of collection models the prioritize access to licensed material rather than purchasing content outright. Some of the people Lamster interviewed also expressed consternation that libraries are adapting to the digital world in ways that don’t suit them. That’s okay: we can continue Whither Print? debate another time.  My argument is not whether collecting print is good or bad.  My argument is that we must honestly come to terms, as a profession, with the effects that advances in information technology has on our services and spaces. The world around us has changed, full stop. Online information repositories have increased in number and become easier to access, and our users now keep Internet access devices (read: smartphones) in their pockets where ever they go, so libraries must continue adapt.

Don’t fear change, fellow librarians, and don’t fear technology.  Embrace it, because your users have done so already. It’s better for us to be part of the online access movement and be able to guide its direction than to react to it. Let’s build and be present in the networks that link people, the places they inhabit (physical and digital), and the information they seek in their lives.

Part of me is cringing since I’m typing this today, in 2012.  And another part of me wonders if writing this on a blog will only preach to the converted.  That may be so.  But I feel a need to continue flying the flag and to declare what our role can be in this online environment.  I hope you do, too.

Micah Vandegrift on the librarians of the future

Micah Vandegrift of HackLibSchool has written great post on the future of libraries (or on the librarian of the future, anyway you cut it) on his own blog; it neatly parallels some of the things I’ve been ranting about on blogs and on Twitter this past week.   He, too, sees the need for librarians to increase their technical knowledge and abilities, and to increase these competencies fast:

My advice to LIS students? Get digital skills, whether you want to or not. To those who want to work in academic libraries? Get deep knowledge of digital trends, including CompSci, Data science, information architecture, digital humanities, digital archiving practices, CMS’s and yes even programming . . . To current academic librarians, maybe its time to use some of your free continuing education credits and update your skill set to remain in the know.

Kudos to Vandegrift for calling it as he sees it.  It’s high time that we stop acting like we’re the kings of the library technology castle unless we actually have the ability and are willing to defend these statements.  We need to not only walk the walk but also talk the talk when it comes to information technology as it affects our workplaces, other people’s lives and their research, and our culture in general.  Librarians aren’t so removed from this sphere that we can’t accomplish this, but we have some catching up to do in order to make it happen.

On a sidenote, I’d like to note that Micah makes this call to arms without have to deal with any of the off-base assumptions made by Jeff Trzeciak (recipient of the 2011 Jeff Trzeciak Award for Just Not Getting It) in the run-up to and during #fulmac11.  I believe this IT question presumes that credentialed librarians are the experts on librarianship and should be the people who organize and run our information centres and libraries.  What matters here is the amount of IT knowledge we’re bringing to the profession when we enter it, and also what we’re doing to enrich ourselves and our organizations once we’re there.  The letters MLIS (or MLS, etc) will remain compulsory;  Let’s just find a way to emphasize the IT within the degree.



CLA 2009 Recap: Tech / Copyright / Leadership

Last weekend I attended the 2009 CLA Conference in Montreal. Although I’ve already reviewed some sessions that focused on tech/people intersections, I haven’t given a good re-cap of the conference as a whole. And I don’t think I’m willing to start now that a full week has passed  since the conference ended. Many other bloggers, far more eloquent than I, have already written about the weekend so it would be just as well to look them up. Instead, I’m going to render my experience into three broad categories. We love the number three, especially when categorizing and listing things, so it should work out well in the end.

1. The Tech.

I’ve written a few times about the tech conversations I had already, so I don’t want to beat a dead horse much longer except to say that CLA 2009 confirmed to me the fact that technology and social media are great tools to help people but remain secondary to the relationships we have with our communities. I’m more than happy to start a Twitter account for any organization I work with or for, but I’m going to use that Twitter account get in touch and keep in touch with the organization’s community and not just because Twitter’s cool. The People Factor remains essential to librarianship.

2. Copyright in Canada.

Copyright is a bit of an academic interest and pet project of mine, so I made a special point to attend several sessions dealing with copyright legislation, debates, and struggles in Canada. Bill C-61 may have fizzled out in Ottawa last year, but it was only by the mechanics of Parliament that it did, and we can be sure that the next iteration is in development and soon to hit us over the head again. Tony Horava at the University of Ottawa and Olivier Charbonneau at Concordia University both gave good talks that reminded us of the current lie of the land and hopefully reinforced the fact that the status quo is not good for any one or any organization. Whether you represent a culture industry, Big Media, or the average citizen, you are likely demanding and expecting change regarding copyright, digital use, and fair dealing. More librarians need to become informed about the byzantine frameworks, policies and debates going on about copyright and then get vocal on this issue.  To do so is not just to act in the interests of the profession but also to act in defense of our civil rights.  Both copyright holders and copyright users have rights and privileges under the Copyright Act, and we must see to it that ours are not eroded.

3.Librarianship and Leadership.

Our profession (let us all reserve judgment on the “whither a profession?” debate) is rather fortunate relative to other fields in the culture industry. We are part of an organized, international group of managers and leaders who know more than a thing or two about preserving and promoting the cultural, social, and intellectual interests of our communities. But the proper administration of LAMs demands more than an expertise in virtual reference, government documents and cataloguing. Our profession, privileged as it may be, needs to “take care of its own” and improve its ability to manage its resources. What’s more, I’d go so far to suggest that it’s not enough to lead only our institutions.  Rather, we must “use our skills for good” and play a larger, leading role within society. As librarians, we have a developed expertise in the organization, dissemination and use of information, and as a profession we owe it to ourselves to use this expertise to improve the communities in which we live. By developing and nurturing our profession’s leadership skills, we stand a greater chance of not only strengthening our cultural institutions but also leaving an indelible mark in society. I may only be at the start of this new career in information science, but I know enough to applaud initiatives like the National Summit on Library Human Resources that was held in October 2008.  When we consider the future of the profession, we must consider how we’re going to govern it and why we’ll govern it in such a manner, all the while reminding ourselves to question how it will fit in with and shape society at large.

That’s enough pontificating for one evening. Carry on.