Making it Work
People Use Library Resources
Steve Lawson riffs on a Ryan Deschamps post on the benefits of a library for children in “Look it up, kid,” posted January 27, 2007 at See also… (stevelawson.name/seealso/) Deschamps’ son wanted to know more about the Hoover Dam, and instead of going directly to the internet Deschamps suggested looking it up at the library. Lawson recounts a similar conversation with his five-year-old son Luke, who wanted to know more about sea anemones and what they eat.
My first impulse was to reach for Wikipedia, but then I remembered that Luke and I had talked about dead-tree encyclopedias recently, so I told him that this would be a perfect thing to look up in an encyclopedia.
I had intended to look it up with him in an encyclopedia at our public library, but then Shanon brought him by my library one afternoon, and we took a walk through the reference section.
Lawson makes this a narrative of discovery. World Book “was disappointing”—it might have answered the question but had no photo. Britannica wasn’t much better. So they went off to the Q’s “and did much better with our search there (incidentally, sea anemones eat zooplankton and algae).”
Then Luke—not yet a reader—got excited and started looking for other encyclopedic work, wondering whether the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy might have anemones, for example. Lawson quotes Deschamps (kudos to Ryan for this sentence):
At this library visit, his learning was not restricted to a specific “information need” but developed into an information haven, where all the neurons in his head would snap, crackle and pop as he went from resource to resource.
I’m on Lawson’s side when he grumps about the phrase “information need” and it’s worth noting that a good library does make “you feel a bit more alive, a bit more connected to people and ideas across time, a bit more aware of how much there is to know.” And, as Lawson notes, there’s nothing to buy at the library.
Deschamps’ post “The crux of the biscuit: Do I believe in libraries?” appeared January 15, 2007 at The other librarian (otherlibrarian.wordpress.com). It’s a longer narrative, starting with an admirable scene of Deschamps reading to his son “like I always do before he goes to bed.” (Early and lifelong reader, here we come.) When his son asked about the Hoover Dam, he responded “I think you will have to go to the library to learn more”—and that started him thinking about the relevance of libraries in the “Web 2.0 technology world.” Admitting that looking it up on the internet would be more “efficient,” he believes his son will have an advantage because he says “go to the library”—and offers some reasons for this: The learning environment, an other mind, serendipity, the “digi-print combo,” creating a learning routine and the motivational factor. Deschamps expands on each of those six, thoughtfully and eloquently. A selection from each of the six expansions:
Learning is neither playing nor work. It should not be seen as frivolous nor should it be something that should be rushed. Learning is a serious yet fun activity that helps a human being develop. A library is designed to emphasize the fun-yet- serious aspect of learning.
In my view, there is an intrinsic value to asking someone else to help you with a search. If nothing else, the other person could end up using different search terms than those you might try yourself.
Dewey still does a great job of sexing up a search. Even though Amazon and Library Thing have book covers to attract people’s attention online, they do not have the diversity of shapes, colors, sizes and contrasts that the physical library has.
There is nothing like using a computer with a good print resource on your lap. The library encourages this sort of multitasking better than the average home office.
Get hooked on the three-week circulation cycle, and you have a darn good habit for yourself and all your family.
The library can have a lot of motivational benefits. Love can be one. Coffee is another. A productive day on the laptop might be yet another. If the library is doing what it is supposed to be doing, you ought to want to come back time and time again. This means you are learning and liking it.
So, do I believe in libraries, even in an age where the Internet is faster and references questions are becoming scarce? You betcha big time. As a citizen, I would fight to the death before letting a flippant “it’s all on the Internet” editorial destroy the reputation of the public library. It’s not all on the Internet. Anyone who says it is needs to get out [to the library] more.
It’s hard to comment on these two posts other than applaud and point to good parents at work. Oh, and to say, “Go read these and think about them.”
Later we get three related posts about books in academic libraries—a concept some academic librarians seem to find old-fashioned, particularly since, you know, kids these days don’t read.
Marc Meola puts it concisely in a March 10, 2007 post at ACRlog (acrlblog.org), “Are academic libraries ready for kids who read”, referring to previously-discussed stories demonstrating that kids are, indeed, reading books—and in record numbers. Those kids will soon be entering college…
Uh oh. Now that we’ve dumped all our books and installed wireless everywhere, it turns out that kids read! Call them the generation born with Harry Potter in their head. Is your library ready and do your librarians have the skills to deal with them?
Barbara Fister comments, “Academic libraries need to celebrate the fact people really like books.” Pamela Snelson offers “Libraries at the cutting edge” in the March 29, 2007 Inside higher ed (insidehighered.com), noting the “trendiest meeting place on many college campuses” with its coffee bar, wireless internet, etc., etc… “And free access to books. Lots of books.”
Snelson notes, “Circulation and visits at college and research libraries are on the rise.” She discusses library web strategies but also the importance of the physical collection, not all available online. While 90% of college students now “visit the online library from home,” physical library visits grew from 880 million in 2002 to more than a billion in 2004—and circulation was up 6% over that period, to more than 200 million items. “In short, if the classroom is the first stop in the learning experience, the library is the next, and great libraries continue to be a key to a great education.”
Laura Cohen posted “Academic libraries and books: A good thing” at Library 2.0: An academic’s perspective (liblogs.albany.edu/library20/) on March 29, 2007. She notes an American Libraries article that recommended splitting book-related services (“libraries”) from everything else and giving “everything else” a different name to avoid the “baggage” of books. Cohen says:
It's foolish to divide up the world of information into media types, with some formats seen as burdens to the advancement of modern academic libraries. In a world with so many options for interacting with texts, this just doesn't make much sense.
There’s more here about how libraries and librarians can add value to resources—and Cohen takes issue with a David Lankes statement, “[Librarians] need to market how they add value, not their great collection of stuff.” As Cohen says, “Actually, I think we should do both.” Indeed. Later, after discussing tailored blogs as a way of adding value, she notes:
Obviously, blogs aren't the only ways in which libraries can add value to the educational experience of reading books. I'm just using this as an example to support my point that libraries and books can co-exist just fine in the 2.0 world. In fact, Library 2.0 can make this co-existence better. Let's emphasize our association with books by offering students the means to comment on them, raise questions about them, analyze them, recommend them, associate them with similar books, write essays about them, and so on, all on the social, interactive, participatory Web. In other words, we've got work to do.
Adding value and going beyond books: Great. Downplaying books as a fundamental part of academic libraries: Not so great.
Heather Newman wrote “Books aren’t the hook” in the April 15, 2007 Detroit Free Press. It’s about gaming in libraries and how much it draws in teens and others—but the lede’s a little misleading. “Once a month, more than 100 teens pour into the Rochester Hills Public Library—but they don’t come for the books. They come for the games.” Read that and the next few paragraphs and you might think games are pandering—they increase door count but do nothing to turn kids into readers. (Is Dance Dance Revolution educational on its own merits? That’s another discussion.) Then, in the ninth paragraph, there’s a key note: “The number of books checked out, especially in the teen area, goes way up on video game days.”
They come for the games—and some of them stay for the books. To read. That’s repeated a little later: Video game events are popular with youth “and kept kids coming back to the library—and checking out books.”
Finally, an item from a movement I find myself joining, Slow Library (loomware.typepad.com/slowlibrary/), this time Jessamyn West posting “Taking the local” on April 6, 2007. West makes the same connection between Slow Library and Slow Food that I do and considers the question: “Once you get to the point where most library patrons in most places have at least nominal access to the same materials, what makes your library, the one in your town, yours?”
She suggests that web software can offer even very small libraries ways to answer that question, making useful things to bring back to their communities. “A library with a $23,000 budget can use them to help them do their jobs, their existing jobs and maybe some new ones, better.”
Once we get to the point where internet access isn't so shiny and everyone gets the idea that we're all part of this giant global community, they're still going to want a place to read a magazine, or play RuneScape, or download an audiobook, or find an old picture of their house, or just talk to someone about the weather. The more we can use the Web to go out and get things, the more it's important that we have a place to bring them back TO.
Jennifer Macaulay posted this question on Life as I know it (scruffynerf.wordpress.com) on February 9, 2007: “Innovative thinking—Why is it so hard?”
Without a doubt, there are some really innovative people in the library world who are doing some amazing things. But are these people the norm or are they the exception? How many of us do innovative things or have innovative ideas on a daily basis (or a weekly one)?
Macaulay perceives innovation as difficult, particularly within a “culture that doesn’t foster innovation.” She points to others who have suggested that lack of sustained feedback is a barrier to innovation and thinks that rings true—particularly because innovative projects are just that: Projects.
Life returns to normal after they have been completed. They have a beginning and an end. We don’t have a continually evolving innovative attitude. And, we don’t necessarily have good mechanisms to encourage spontaneous feedback. People don’t generally come up and say “I have a great idea.” More often than not, they only voice an opinion when asked about something.
Macaulay quotes Stephen Abram asking tough questions: Does management require every idea to be fully formed? Do new ideas get crushed under negative feedback? She wonders, “How we get staff to be excited about the library…to think creatively?”
For most people in most libraries, innovation may not happen on a daily basis: There’s a lot of work that just needs to be done. But her points are well taken. Macaulay believes “innovation has to be a team effort—something that everyone buys into.”
The comments are interesting. Jason (the Pragmatic librarian) talks about bringing “experienced staff” on board—maybe by executive fiat.
I am certainly not advocating that administrators tell experienced staff to use every new technology available or get fired. Rather, administrators should encourage the kind of “reciprocal mentoring” that Abram advocates, where technology-savvy staff can get their less tech-savvy counterparts to think about libraries in broader terms related to the contemporary world. Perhaps such staff could be designated to keep up with innovations, and hold seminars every so often for all library staff to attend. It may seem “passive,” but it’s better than telling staff that they’re on their own to keep up. Of course, if innovative thinking seeps its way into a library’s culture, such a program would probably become unnecessary over time.
He’s right in saying “the designated staff would need to have a light touch.” Telling people they should retire or get out of the way—or, as Jason says, “innovate or die”—will alienate them. He offers sound suggestions: reverse mentors should use “experienced” staff interests as entry points and show how innovations “fit in with the perennial roles fulfilled by libraries.” In other words, show the continuity in change. Jason offers caveats:
I am not talking about using the technologies available today “because they’re there.” In fact, getting stuck on specific technologies seems just as regressive as not adapting them at all… I believe that we should primarily think about the “timeless” aspects of libraries (an arguably vague concept), and figure out ways that we can improve on them with new and emerging technologies.
Macaulay responds with a particularly good insight:
One thing that I do think can help is to remove the technology aspect from this discussion. Innovative ideas do not necessarily have to rely upon technology…. One of my thoughts is that in a truly innovative culture, everyone feels comfortable expressing new ideas or thoughts about how to improve services. My overall impression is that so many people tend to be scared of or wary of technology because they don’t understand it, because it intimidates them or because it frustrates them. I find that technology often limits what we are able to do mostly because it isn’t well understood by the majority. In an innovative culture, ideas should flow freely.
Somehow this discussion relates directly to Ryan Deschamps’ notion that we’re at a point where “any idea to implement a technology ought to begin with a ‘yes’.” If you read the whole discussion (not included here), Deschamps does not mean all new suggestions should be implemented. He means the starting point should be openness to new ideas, then looking for a plan and seeing how they fit rather than “starting from no.” Macaulay posted “Just say yes to technology?” on April 11, 2007—and she’s “not convinced that just saying yes to ideas that involve technology is going to help resolve organizational issues.” Macaulay believes cultural change needs to be deeper than this—and that fit always needs to be part of the discussion: “The technology needs to fit the situation, the library and the people.”
Ultimately, it seems that people are trying to figure out why the answer to proposals dealing with even simplistic technologies is more often than not No. This is a tough question…The library needs to have an organizational culture that accepts and even embraces change—one that encourages testing and trial by error. It is easier to say yes to ideas in a testing environment and it may be less threatening to those who don’t take well to change.
Deschamps’ post also set off an interesting, sometimes heated discussion—and I may deal with that as part of a cluster about librarians’ willingness to disagree with one another. But not in this installment!
The same day as Macaulay’s post, Steven Bell posted “Real library innovation or just new toasters” at ACRlog, Bell wonders whether academic libraries are innovative at all. “Yes, we harness a number of relatively new technologies to deliver a new service, but does that qualify as innovation? Perhaps we are confusing something new with something innovative.” He’s relating back to an earlier survey on technology innovation in academic libraries and wondering whether some of these “innovations” are “the equivalent of giving your user community purple ketchup?” (pointing to a BusinessWeek article by Dan Saffer on pseudo-innovation, an article that asks whether we’re just “innovating for innovation’s sake in order to roll out something that is new and improved”).
How would you answer this question for the new things you’ve done in your library or that you want to do? “Do these sound like innovations—derived from the unmet needs and desires of users—or simply the result of libraries that felt they needed to roll out something new and improved?” It’s a tough question, but I think Bell’s example (institutional repositories) is in a third category: Something the institution and its community need and that the library recognizes that they need. The community, in this case, is scholarship. The fact that individual scholars don’t seem to appreciate the need for institutional repositories doesn’t negate that need. Most faculty members probably don’t worry much about preservation in general; that’s one reason you have professional librarians. Still, Bell’s conclusion bears thinking about:
I’m not knocking these libraries that have introduced some extraordinary new services to their user communities. I can’t argue with the value of being able to offer continuous new improvements. But let’s think more carefully about innovation and what it really means to produce something truly innovative. As Saffer says, “Rather than simply making novel products and services, we should strive to make better, more meaningful ones. Now that would be a true innovation.”
Since this section began with a post based on a Ryan Deschamps post at The other librarian (otherlibrarian.wordpress.com), let’s end it with a different Deschamps post—“Measuring staff time—is it costing us in innovation?” (February 14, 2007)
Deschamps notes cases where there’s a choice between building “a piece of technology” in-house and outsourcing it—presumably the kind of thing that you can build in house, like a website or mashup (with the right people).
You ask a tech-savy staff person how long the project would take him/her to develop. Two weeks? That’s over a thousand dollars if you count the person’s salary! We can outsource for [marginally] cheaper than that.
This, in a word, is a poor way to manage staff resources.
Why? Because that may not be the relevant cost. The staff member’s already on board; the relevant cost is “lost opportunity”—the value of the staff member’s time if they’re doing something else. But there’s another issue as well, which Deschamps points out in the third item below:
If you’d be taking that staff person away from a really valuable project, then I’d say you are justified in outsourcing. If that staff is just twiddling his or her thumbs then you are losing lots. Consider:
1. The loss of dollars spent on the outsourced product.
2. The lost productivity caused by putting your developer to less valuable or “make work” projects.
3. The lost knowledge and skills that could result from your staff doing the project.
He mentions usability and maintainability as possible reasons to prefer outsourcing, but those cut both ways: You may have much better control over the usability of something developed in house. He discusses a number of related issues that suggest thinking more about the virtues of inhouse development, at least in some cases. Consider your website: Is it really your website or is it a few possibly clumsy facades erected over a canned product:
Libraries using CMSs with designs that don’t hide the product. Joomla sites will look like Joomla. Drupal sites will look like Drupal. And because we don’t know how to code a little bit of php, we put up with it — even when we know that the site will get really tired fast.
The first comment from David Delong mentions “lost knowledge”: the extent to which outsourcing gives away institutional knowledge and leaves the institution more dependent on the supplier.
I don’t have lots of commentary on these items, other than to say this is interesting and important stuff. You can’t do everything in house, but how much do you lose when you rely on outside sources? How do you foster a culture where new ideas are encouraged without going overboard? How do you find balance—between feasibility and controlling your own destiny, between continuity and change?
Lynn Scott Cochrane (Denison University) starts off with “If the academic library ceased to exist, would we have to invent it” from the January/February 2007 EDUCAUSE Review (www.educause.edu/apps/er/). She notes the conventional wisdom among college students and some parents that “everything needed for research is available free on the web” and the resulting view that academic libraries are “costly dinosaurs—unnecessary expenses in today’s environment.” Then she imagines August 2010 at Excellent College (EC), a liberal arts college with 2,000 undergrads and 200 faculty. EC decided to stop funding its library.
Instead, it will give students a tuition rebate and give faculty a stipend representing their share of the annual amount that would previously have gone to support the library's collections, facilities, and staff—about $2.7 million total. Each student and faculty member will get $1,230. For now, the library building and hard-copy collections will remain in place, student assistants will keep the doors open, and custodians will clean the facility; but database subscriptions will be discontinued, and no other services will be provided. Since the college has a robust honor code, circulation of materials will be on the honor system. Students and faculty will now be on their own to secure the information resources they need to fulfill their responsibilities.
Cochrane offers seven predictions, expanding on each. I’m rewording here:
Ø Students and faculty will buy the necessities first—students using $600 or more of the rebate for textbooks, faculty a comparable amount for their key journals. That leaves $630 for everything else.
Ø They’ll go to Google—and not do as well for a variety of reasons, including the limitations in Google Scholar.
Ø Then they’ll go to the public library—which in most cases will have “few, if any, scholarly journals, databases, or monographs.”
Ø Then they’ll go to Huge State University (HSU)—but HSU made the same decision as EC, so there are no databases and the books are all being used by HSU users.
Ø So they’ll subscribe to databases—but some of those are only available at institutional levels, and other general ones cost $500 to $700 per year for one individual’s use. There’s the allotment. Want a subject-specific database? You’ll have to pay for it out of pocket.
Ø Students and faculty will figure out how to generate lists of who subscribes to what so that they can illegally share IDs and passwords—and maybe they’ll put together a database of who has which books. Sort of like a circulation system, but maintained voluntarily—which means it won’t be maintained during key parts of the academic year.
Ø EC’s president will need information on an alumna and potential donor, access to old board minutes and other stuff—but the college archives disappeared along with the librarians.
In other words, EC desperately needs to establish a library. With librarians. And pooled resources. Cochrane gives a current illustration: A faculty member (elsewhere) who downloaded an article through library databases—and who had inquired about getting a copy of the volume from which the article came. The volume cost $1,200.
Let's assume that libraries had and will continue to have two basic roles: (1) to purchase published materials in all formats and make them easily available to users; and (2) to identify, preserve, and manage unique special collections and locally produced information resources and make them easily available to users. Let's further assume, based on the recommendation of several experts in library administration, that libraries should move to a fifty-fifty split of expenditure and time between these two roles. In other words, academic libraries should be spending approximately half their time and money on capturing, preserving, and distributing locally produced materials, such as scholarly monographs, essays and articles, research and project reports, artworks, photographs, analyses of fieldwork, documentation of campus events, alumni-produced intellectual property, correspondence, campus records, and minutes of the campus board of trustees. These materials are not and never will be available in the marketplace from vendors; they are the products of local efforts…
Over the next decade (probably less), library leaders need to help those of us in academic libraries to reduce our focus on the publisher-driven model (role 1) and increase our attention and resources to the user-driven model (role 2). Then we can do what we've always done best: bring order out of the information chaos swirling around us. We will acquire, preserve, and direct users to quality published resources appropriate for academic purposes; but more important, we will acquire, preserve, and direct users to unique local materials not available elsewhere.
If you hear echoes of Slow Library—local and mindful—you’re not alone. If you hear a strong suggestion that the traditional roles (and collections) of academic libraries continue to be important, and that building the local history may become even more important: So do I. I don’t believe that’s limited to academic libraries. I believe the best public libraries will increasingly be places that build community knowledge.
ACRL announced “top ten assumptions” for the future of academic libraries—developed by the ACRL Research Committee based on a survey of “member leaders” and a literature review. Here’s the list:
1. There will be an increased emphasis on digitizing collections, preserving digital archives, and improving methods of data storage and retrieval.
2. The skill set for librarians will continue to evolve in response to the needs and expectations of the changing populations (student and faculty) that they serve.
3. Students and faculty will increasingly demand faster and greater access to services.
4. Debates about intellectual property will become increasingly common in higher education.
5. The demand for technology related services will grow and require additional funding.
6. Higher education will increasingly view the institution as a business.
7. Students will increasingly view themselves as customers and consumers, expecting high quality facilities and services.
8. Distance learning will be an increasingly common option in higher education and will co-exist but not threaten the traditional bricks-and-mortar model.
9. Free, public access to information stemming from publicly funded research will continue to grow.
10. Privacy will continue to be an important issue in librarianship.
I think assumptions #1-3 are safe, if perhaps obvious; #s 6 and 7 are probable and unfortunate (I hate to see students view themselves as “customers and consumers”: it seems demeaning. And it’s sad when colleges and universities are regarded as businesses); #9 is certain—but “grow” can mean anything from a modest level of growth that does little to threaten the big-publisher hegemony to serious OA alternatives. I trust #10 is true (but sometimes wonder), I hope #8 is true (that distance learning doesn’t threaten onsite education—noting that education and learning are related but not identical), and I don’t know enough to comment on #s 4 and 5 at all—except to say I’d like to see informed discussion on the range of IP issues as they affect the future of scholarship and creativity.
An expanded document on these assumptions is available at www.acrl.org/ala/acrl/acrlpubs/crlnews/backissues2007/april07/tenassumptions.htm. I find it interesting that the expansion of #5 seems to assume a “tipping point” after which print becomes an “out-of-favor technology,” which I’d argue is untrue for books but echoes claims of academic librarians determined to get rid of print collections. On #7, the expansion says, “Today’s students are increasingly paying the true cost of their education and demanding to be treated as customers”—which is not true for many public institutions and a tricky generalization. (Do students really yearn to be treated as customers? Sigh.)
John D. Berry is an academic librarian. He commented at Vitae libros (vitaelibros.blogsource.com) on April 6, 2007. Berry isn’t thrilled, noting “Some of it is just protectionism and some of it appears to be a total failure of vision.” A few of his thoughts (not all—go read the post!):
Ø On #2 and its “in response” attitude: “Last I heard we are a profession. One of our professional obligations is for us to define what we do, not be market driven.”
Ø On #3: “Yes, this is so and directly contradicts item #8 below. We can't do this 24/7 with bricks and mortar. Which means bricks and mortar will become increasingly irrelevant.”
Ø On #4 and #10—well, those two you’re just going to have to read in the original.
Ø On #6: “Only if the members of the profession and the academy let it head in this direction. We didn't become world leaders in education and innovation by educating as ‘a business.’“
Ø On #7, noting that Berry is at the University of California, Berkeley: “From here Students had better just remain students inside the hollowed halls. Public education is still cheaper than Private. The day when that is no longer true—then they can act that way.”
Ø On #8: “Distance learning will evolve in capability, capacity (bandwidth) and content and increasing replace bricks and mortar. Why remain vested in place, when you can have a World venue for far less investment.” I have a problem with that; I believe going to a campus to learn still has its virtues, at least for undergraduate education.
Ø On #9: “Most unlikely, the trend if anything is going in the other direction. They all must think Google and company are doing the digital work they are doing for altruistic purposes?“ Here I think, Berry misreads what’s being said. I interpreted #9 as being about open access to government-funded research. The trend is in that direction. I’m not sure what Google has to do with this. Their digitization certainly doesn’t make information less publicly available, or at least I can’t arrive at such an interpretation. (Yes, Google Book Search errs badly in treating post-1923 government publications as though they were copyright—although outside the U.S. some of them may be. That’s a different issue.)
Berry concludes: “Sigh, I think I will go back and re-read William Gibson, his vision of the possible futures is more interesting and thought provoking than this middle of the road pseudo-professional babbling...”
Marc Meola commented on the list in an April 26, 2007 post at ACRLog. In part:
The two that have generated the most discussion on the [lists] have been 6 and 7, which deal with applying a business model to higher education and viewing students as customers or consumers. As this makes many academic librarians retch, I think the committee needs to spell out more exactly what this means, why they think it will come to pass, and why they seem to think we are powerless to do anything about it.
In general I think we need to be both more humble about our attitude toward the future (face it, we have no idea what’s going to happen) and be more rigorous when we do think about the future. Assumptions or predictions can sometimes seem as if they are being offered by those whose true aim is to turn assumptions in to self-fulfilling prophecy (look at #5 for example). Or perhaps there is no hidden agenda but assumptions turn into self-fulfilling prophecy anyway (this is the way things are going so we better go along with it.) I’d like to see more clarity and transparency about who thinks what may be happening and to clearly distinguish that from what it is that we want to have happen. When thinking about the future, let’s not give in to determinism or give up our agency.
Self-fulfilling prophecies will always be with us; Meola raises good points. In comments, Steven Bell calls the list “a bit of a letdown” and views the assumptions as describing the current state of higher education.
This issue keeps popping up as a debatable issue—even if this is particularly a case where “the” is the wrong word to use, given how different libraries, their communities and their physical layouts can be. For some libraries, the reference desk as such may be on the decline and that may be a good thing. For some libraries, the reference desk may continue to be enormously useful as a place. And for many, probably most, a variety of reference methodologies—roaming reference, IM/virtual reference and at-the-desk reference—will continue to make sense.
Steven Bell and Sarah Watstein offered “Debating the future of the reference desk” at ACRLog on March 27, 2007. The post cites points made by them in a debate at Columbia University—Bell arguing that “we should eliminate the desk by 2012,” Watstein arguing against. Portions of Bell’s key points:
Several libraries have already done away with the traditional desk or are no longer putting subject specialists at desks.
Advanced technology like the Vocera device can allow librarians to be connected with users at any point in the building…
We’re not getting real reference questions anymore; we are getting lots of printer and computer questions (you call that reference?); we are getting more questions that require time consuming consultations and those should be managed at locations other than reference desks
The reference desk is just a symbol for reference service; getting rid of the desk does not mean getting rid of the service
Leveraging new technologies to eliminate reference desks will not eliminate the human touch; it will only mean it migrates to other service points…
Portions of Watstein’s opposing points:
The reference desk is a powerful symbol and essential to the mission and purpose of academic reference service, but also to the culture of our academic libraries in general; an academic library without a reference desk is unthinkable
In our increasingly impersonal world, the value of personal service has never been higher….
Transactions may be down but academic library reference desks are still incredibly busy; our reference desks are symbols of our service in action.
Search and discovery in our complex information environs is not getting any easier… Today more than ever users need an intermediary; reference librarians can perform more efficient, more precise and more knowledgeable searches
A teachable moment in person is not equal to a teachable moment online…
…Today’s desks are designed to serve not just a purpose, but also our audience. They are more durable, have greater aesthetic appeal, are more customizable, and truly complement the versatile learning environments that increasingly define our academic libraries.
[A sidenote: Reporting on this session does not violate my new general rule of not commenting on conference reports—because these notes come directly from the speakers and must be assumed to correctly reflect what they intended to say.]
The closing paragraph is interesting, and reminds me why I don’t do debates when they say “a good debate should really polarize the issues…” I read their reasons for such polarization, but I consistently find debates to be less informative than less polarized discussions. In fact, “We don’t think desks will become extinct over the next five years, but we do believe the profession will be experimenting with multiple reference models some of which will not require a traditional desk. Methods and modes of providing reference service will continue to change—and must, if we are to stay relevant to our users.”
Which is fine, but that means there is no debate. It’s a classic “and not or” situation—and many if not most libraries, at least larger ones, are already not only “experimenting with” but using multiple reference models, some of which do not require the desk.
Anne of Bad girl librarian (badgirllibrarian. blogspot.com) argues strongly for the continued usefulness of reference desks in “Reference desk o reference desk” (April 17, 2007). She reads articles about whether or not we want to keep the reference desk and wonders whether those articles “make anyone else crazy?”
Yes, reference is changing. Yes, students are tech savvy and like to communicate primarily through txt messaging and MySpace or Facebook. Yes, “where's the bathroom” and the art of unjamming staplers and printers is not why I went to library school. But there’s something to be said for being out there.
I want to see how the patrons are using our space and our resources. I want to be there for when they get stuck. I want to see the questions people ask about my disciplines and collections. Being out there is how I learn what to teach and buy for the collection.
I'm happy to answer questions through IM—I love Meebo and tell everyone they should use it. I think del.icio.us is great for storing collection-relevant links… I think email and chat reference are easier than in-person reference because I can send users the links and they’re right there. I've done mobile reference with a laptop and no print collection—no sweat. But for all of those situations, the users have to know where I am.
The library building is symbolic. Most students prefer the online resources, and if they get stuck and can figure out who to ask for help and how to get ahold of them without getting up, they will. But sometimes they just don’t know who to ask. And that’s when they come to the reference desk. Take it away, they won’t ask at all.
There’s more—and Anne notes that she’s coming from a social science/humanities background where there are few perfect keywords and results may require sifting through many resources. She concludes that reference will keep evolving—but that spending part of her time “doing the same things I do at my desk” out where people can find her continues to be valuable.
Thus spoke pragmatic librarian (pragmaticlibrarian.wordpress.com) posts a discussion of these issues on April 17, 2007. It’s best read in the original, and comes from a place with a combined circulation and reference desk. His concluding paragraph comes back to a pragmatic middle that’s different for every library:
In the end, however, I think we all just need to be honest with ourselves. Especially with relatively few staff, a library with a busy reference desk can’t just get rid of it because of some “visionary” proclamation. Similarly, a library with a slow reference desk can’t hold on to one for the sake of tradition, especially if time and money can allow librarians to engage in more visionary work. Ultimately, it’s up to individual libraries to decide whether “traditional” reference desk duties seem more useful for their communities, or (time and money permitting) if librarians should do more than clearing various mechanical jams and pointing patrons to the bathroom. Personally, I think we all should be willing and able to do either one, depending on the needs of the library where we happen to work at any given time. Some institutional honesty and a willingness to critically examine the nature of reference desk transactions seems like a good place to start.
It works differently in each situation; it’s hard to argue with that final sentence.
That heading may make little sense; it’s used to set off discussions of single items that appear to function differently than blog posts and the like. These are the things that originally appeared in The Library Stuff.
John Dupuis, a science librarian at York University, thought carefully about where his job might be in 2015, resulting in a series of posts at Confessions of a science librarian (jdupuis.blogspot.com) beginning June 21, 2005 and ending December 12, 2006. The December 12 post includes a link to an aggregated PDF including all seven posts and running 11 single-spaced pages.
It’s an impossible discussion to summarize but I’ll offer a few notes (while encouraging you to read the whole thing, even if it is sans serif). Dupuis is looking at his environment—“reference, instruction, collections and scholarship in an academic science & engineering library.” Just as the projections would be different for almost any public library, they would also be different for humanities and social science libraries.
In his introduction, Dupuis notes that just since 2000, eresources have gone from “nice-to-have to only-thing-that-matters” (in science libraries), and Google has gone “from a cute little niche search engine to the eight hundred pound gorilla.” Still, lots of things are done the old way: “we still buy an awful lot of books, the vast majority of our reference interactions are face to face” and some journals—even science ones—are print only. “This is obviously still a period of transition.”
The first topical essay in the group covers reference. He believes questions and how answers are delivered will change radically—partly because he’s an optimist: “Online tools will become increasingly comprehensive and comprehensible.” He expects “harder and more challenging” questions—but still questions. He expects face-to-face reference to “continue to be an important service” whether it’s done at a desk, roaming, consulting in a study room or from remote locations. Reference interviews (I like his wording: “sitting down with someone and talking out their problem”) will continue to play an important role. He believes that, come 2015, he’ll still sit at a desk in a physical library and answer questions from patrons—but also offer more virtual communication. “Are there any changes I can’t currently imagine? I hope so.” In a followup, he mentions reference wikis and threaded discussion lists for reference interactions.
The first post on collections offers his prediction that he’ll still be buying some print books in 2015, mostly in the history and philosophy of science, but with many “books” moving online or dual format. He makes useful distinctions between books designed to be read through (which are likely still to work best in print in 2015) and those with content that benefits from being “broken down, recombined and focused on specific needs”—where online resources and possibly custom print-on-demand packages make more sense. He anticipates buying almost no journals in print form (probably true for science)—and also expects to see “virtually all” journals abandon the issue model, becoming entirely article-based. He anticipates that blogs, wikis and other new media (he says “social software”) will start to have an important impact on scholarly publishing—and the biggest challenge in a decade will be “marketing to students the resources we do purchase—convincing them that we have something to offer that beats what they can get for free.” A followup concerns open access, which he regards as “a really tough area” for prognostication. He anticipates a variety of business models but thinks there may be a tipping point in 10 to 15 years toward a more open, instant publishing methodology. He expects even more aggregation.
When it comes to databases, Dupuis takes an interesting stance: He’s fairly certain Google and its successors will “leav[e] no room for the traditional abstracting and indexing vendors” by 2015. He looks forward to canceling A&I databases once Google Scholar is “good enough for virtually all needs.” He expects to spend that saved money on full text databases: “People already expect that everything worth reading is online—it seems to me a good marketing strategy is making it so.” He wants to license “the full text version of Google Print when it’s finished”—which makes enormous assumptions about copyright and the will of publishers to make that legal and feasible.
The final essay, 14 months after the penultimate one, is a long discussion offering further thoughts on abstracting and indexing. It’s a tough discussion, one that relies somewhat on Dupuis’ sense of “good enough” being, in fact, good enough for an academic library. He thinks automated and informal retrieval methods will be “good enough” to eliminate any need for proper subject indexing. He notes that users like using free resources and find that search engines “mostly return fairly relevant hits for most clearly defined topics”—and he thinks “good enough” is “not necessarily a bad thing” in most cases. He argues that librarians should be loyal to patrons, not to A&I or content publishers, and that the goal of serving his user community as best he can may—he believes will—mean minimizing expenditures on discovery tools to maximize expenditures on content and infrastructure.
Here’s a sentence that gives me pause, but he may be right: “I think that in the next decade we will certainly start to see expenditures on A&I databases diminish as free alternatives get better and, more importantly, are perceived (by our users and, ultimately, by us too) as equivalent to the more expensive alternatives.” It’s the “more importantly” that bothers me—the idea that perception is more important than reality. “Gives me pause” does not mean I’m sure he’s wrong; it means I’m uneasy—but I’m also not a science librarian.
There’s nothing wrong with a feel-good piece once in a while, particularly when it’s well thought out, detailed—and not from within the library field. This article by Will Sherman falls into that category. It appeared January 30, 2007 at DegreeTutor, a site for online education (www.degreetutor.com/library/adult-continued-education/librarians-needed). Sherman has a BA in Language Studies from the University of California at Santa Cruz; he’s definitely not a professional librarian.
The article starts with a link to Blake Carver’s dystopian predictions at LISNews way back in October 2005. (That megapost is at features.lisnews.com/features/ 05/10/07/0921246.shtml?tid=18. I commented on it at even greater length in Perspective: Library Futures, Media Futures in C&I 5:13 (Mid-Fall 2005), available at citesandinsights.info/v5i13b.htm—but heck, since the only other essay in the issue is Life Trumps Blogging, you should download the whole thing at citesandinsights.info/civ5i13.pdf.)
The Sherman article is some 5,000 words—12 printed pages (or seven C&I pages). It’s worth reading on its own and in full. The subtitle is “33 reasons why libraries and librarians are still extremely important.” I’m mostly just providing the reasons themselves and the conclusion; the bulk of the text expands on the reasons. Sherman leaves out a whole set of place-related issues, but that’s only to be expected. Consider this a detailed cite for a particularly interesting pro-library piece from a somewhat unusual source. Go read it.
1. Not everything is available on the internet
2. Digital libraries are not the internet
3. The internet isn’t free
4. The internet complements libraries, but it doesn’t replace them
5. School libraries and librarians improve student test scores
6. Digitization doesn’t mean destruction
7. In fact, digitization means survival
8. Digitization is going to take a while. A long while.
9. Libraries aren’t just books
10. Mobile devices aren’t the end of books, or libraries
11. The hype might really just be hype
12. Library attendance isn’t falling—it’s just more virtual now
13. Like businesses, digital libraries still need human staffing
14. We just can’t count on physical libraries disappearing
15. Google Book Search “don’t work”
16. Physical libraries can adapt to cultural change
17. Physical libraries are adapting to cultural change
18. Eliminating libraries would cut short an important process of cultural evolution
19. The internet isn’t DIY
20. Wisdom of crowds is untrustworthy, because of the tipping point
21. Librarians are the irreplaceable counterparts to web moderators
22. Unlike moderators, librarians must straddle the line between libraries and the internet
23. The internet is a mess
24. The internet is subject to manipulation
25. Libraries’ collections employ a well-formulated system of citation
26. It can be hard to isolate concise information on the internet
27. Libraries can preserve the book experience
28. Libraries are stable while the web is transient
29. Libraries can be surprisingly helpful for news collections and archives
30. Not everyone has access to the internet
31. Not everyone can afford books
32. Libraries are a stopgap to anti-intellectualism
33. Old books are valuable
Society is not ready to abandon the library, and it probably won’t ever be. Libraries can adapt to social and technological changes, but they can’t be replaced. While libraries are distinct from the internet, librarians are the most suited professionals to guide scholars and citizens toward a better understanding of how to find valuable information online. Indeed, a lot of information is online. But a lot is still on paper. Instead of regarding libraries as obsolete, state and federal governments should increase funding for improved staffing and technology. Rather than lope blindly through the digital age, guided only by the corporate interests of web economics, society should foster a culture of guides and guideposts. Today, more than ever, libraries and librarians are extremely important for the preservation and improvement of our culture.
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