Disclaimer: After reading this again, I realize that I am making some pretty dramatic statements that apply to a lot of people, most of whom I like a lot. So it is important that I explain that the writer of this blog bares no resemblance to any librarian you have known or not known. I have no formal training in the management of libraries or the science of librarianship. I speak as an outsider, and my ideas should be treated as such. With this in mind, please read on -- or not!
Waking up, high in the Smoky Mountains, somewhere west of Boone, North Carolina, has emboldened me to attempt to describe two shifts in the functions of libraries and librarianship. First, we’re up in the mountains, living in a magnificent house, by a golf course celebrating my father’s 80th birthday. It was a surprise to him, although I suspect that the severe gravel roads that brought us up here probably were not entirely comforting to him — until we arrived. All four of us boys are here with our families.
Now, on to the point at hand — since I’m the first up in the morning, surprise, surprise, surprise. I wrote, while at NECC, about a school librarian I rode the conference shuttle with, and the conversation we had about cut-backs in school libraries. That article drew a good bit of conversation (especially after I fixed the problem that initially prevented people from commenting). It is an issue that deserves a great deal of conversation, because there is no doubt that the institution is in jeopardy.
First of all, I would like to make an important distinction that I see, when I think about that conversation. There is an important difference between libraries and librarians. Libraries, as we think of them, are soon to become obsolete. What will be the point of a library, when nearly all of the information that its patrons need on a day-to-day basis will be available to them with a mouse-click. Certainly people will continue to want to come to the library for fiction and for traditional research, but in a world with 500 cable channels and broadband Internet streaming into people’s homes, this will simply not be enough to continue to invest in libraries. I don’t like to say this. I’m a romantic, with it comes to information. However, we live in an exhilarating time of change, and that’s where our enlightened focus should be.
Librarians, by contrast, are more important today than they have ever been. We all live in a global digital library where we search, subscribe, synthesize, archive, and even maintain our own personal digital libraries. The problem is that almost none of us know how to do these things to the degree that would bring full benefit of the Internet home to its users. We need people to somehow teach us how to do these things. No one is more qualified to lead us into the information/knowledge/conceptual age than librarians. Granted, librarians have much to learn about managing digital networked content, and that learning will never be fully accomplished. Life-long-learning is an occupation that we all share. ..and quite frankly, any librarian who does not believe this, deserves the book shelf they’ll be left on.
Yet, we still think of the library as a container. We continue to value books, bookshelves, card catalogs, and the other containers of content. This is the past of information, but it is not the future, nor is it a significant part of its present. We’ve been comfortable with containered information, because it is easier to label — good or bad, authoritative or without authority. Being able to place value on containered information based on who wrote it or who published it, made the job of deciding its appropriateness easier. But when information no longer flows in containers, its source becomes difficult and sometimes impossible to determine.
In a time of rapid change, to disregard information, because its source can not be incontrovertibly determined, would be to waste a wealth of useful content.
Source, as a measure of information’s usefulness does not go away. However, I believe that one of the shifts that we will need to make in how we think about information and in the skills that we bring to bare on research is a shift away from source as the determining factor for using information and a shift toward value. The question will not always be:
Is this an authoritative source?
Instead it will always be:
Does this information effectively help me accomplish my goal? Is it valuable to my mission?
Most certainly the source will often be a contributing factor in determining information’s value, but it will rarely be the defining factor.
In one of my next blogs, I’ll describe why the obsolete library should not go away, but instead, meld into something else.