A few possibilities for librarianship by 2015

The library profession is at a cross roads. Computer technology coupled with the Internet have changed the way content is created, maintained, evaluated, and distributed. While the core principles of librarianship (collection, organization, preservation, and dissemination) are still very much apropos to the current milieu, the exact tasks of the profession are not as necessary as they once were. What is a librarian to do? In my opinion, there are three choices: 1) creating services against content as opposed to simply providing access to it, 2) curating collections that are unique to our local institutions, or 3) providing sets of services that are a combination of #1 and #2. This presentation elaborates on these ideas and demonstrates some of the possibilities. (A one-page handout in the form of a PDF document and Powerpoint version of this presentation is available online.)


Librarians love to create lists. Lists of Internet resources. Lists of names, addresses, and contact information for directories. Lists of manuscripts and various special collections. Above all, we love to create lists of books and journals -- our venerable library catalogs. These lists began life as simple accession lists. As new items were acquired they were added to the list. As time went on we regularly compiled these lists into books, duplicated the books (at great expense), and distributed them (at more expense). A little more than a century ago the idea of the "card catalog" manifested itself. Infinitely more flexible, it made the maintenance of our beloved lists easier as well as more flexible since we could more easily subdivide our lists not only by author and title but also subjects. The rules for creating the cards of our catalog were well-defined. The layout of the information on the card was efficient and standardized. Through the use of the card catalog our users were empowered to access the majority of the collection without the need of very much librarian intervention. Life in Library Land was good.

Trouble in paradise began to rear its head in 1965 with the advent of MARC -- Machine Readable Cataloging. The United States Library of Congress, which had been printing and distributing catalog cards since the early 20th century, started distributing cataloging information in electronic form. A few years later (1972) the ERIC and MEDLARS bibliographic database systems became available reducing the need for printed bibliographic indexes. By the early 80s there were a proliferation of such tools and libraries began whole-heartedly creating "online catalogs" from MARC data. The lists we loved to create and maintain had become electronic.

Around the same time, if not a little bit earlier, the information retrieval community was investigating various automated indexing techniques. Feed data into a computer. Extract all the words from the data. Make the data searchable. Field searching was a part of their equation, but so was free text searching and "relevance ranked" output. The approach of the information retrieval scientists was fundamentally different from us librarians. Their primary tool was mathematics where the tool of the librarian was semantics. They used numbers to weigh and measure content. We used thesauri and authority lists to bring like things together. Most importantly, we were (and still are) mostly interested in creating order -- a cohesive whole, an organization -- out of the apparent chaos of our local collections. On the other hand, the information retrieval community was most interested in finding information. We were building a system of knowledge. They were making it searchable.

Fast forward to the present day. Computers have become ubiquitous. We carry them around in our pockets. Moreover, they are connected to a global network we call the Internet. The computers create information that is "born digital". This information is put on the Web and becomes accessible without the need of cataloging. Indexing technology has matured and "relevancy ranked" output has become the norm. Enter a few words. Get back a list of documents. Select an item. Read the result. No need for field searching. No need for special syntax. No need to map your idea to a controlled vocabulary term or authorized heading. No need to go to the library. For better or for worse, people's expectations have changed, and Google has become the gold standard.

Whats and hows

Given this state of affairs, what is a librarian to do? What role can a library play in this environment? Is it possible for librarianship to remain relevant? From my perspective, the answer first lies in examining the core of the profession and then refocusing our expertise more towards our primary clientele.

At its center, the library profession provides four services against data and information for its clientele: 1) collection, 2) organization, 3) preservation, and 4) dissemination. We bring together content we believe is necessary for our students, instructors, and researchers to do their learning, teaching, and scholarship. Instead of simply placing this content en masse on our shelves we organize it into smaller, more manageable sub-collections, and we create linkages between similar times through name authority lists and controlled vocabulary terms. We believe it is important to maintain a historical record -- preservation -- so future generations can repeat and reexamine the discoveries and interpretations of today. Finally, all of this work comes to fruition when the content is shared and interpreted with our constituents through reference interviews, the borrowing of materials, information literacy sessions, exhibits, and other public service activities.

The things outlined above represent the "whats" of librarianship. They are processes valued by the wider community. On the other hand, given an environment where globally networked computers share digital information with a lot less effort, we need to be thinking about the "hows" of our profession to a greater degree. When it comes to collection, how much effort is being spent bringing together content in digital form compared to analog form? Think blog postings, websites, research data sets, scholarly preprints, conference proceedings, popular music that is freely given away, the novels and short stories written by the fledgling author, etc. Just because this content is not formally published does it mean it is not worthy of our efforts? With the advent of full text content as well as "smart" and automatic indexing techniques, is the application of name authority lists and controlled subject headings as necessary as they once were? Why not exploit automatic indexing against our own content? Our archivists have the most challenging job. With all of the digital media how can we ensure it will be readable in the near future, let alone decades or centuries from now? Forward migration of content seems to be the current best practice, but only time will tell. Finally, if we have to teach people how to use our information systems, then are the systems really useful? When people less frequently visit you at the reference desk, then how are you going to provide services to them? We need to discover way to embed our expertise into the network. More than the "whats" of the profession, the "hows" of the profession need to change in order for us to remain relevant.

Services against collections

In order to remain relevant, the we need to provide products and/or services that are either cheaper than similar products/services provided by other organizations, or we need to provide products/services that are both unique and value-added. Much of our time is spent "providing access to information" but unfortunately, with the advent of the Internet and especially Google, everybody has access to information. In fact, people are drowning in information; we are drinking from a proverbial fire hose.

Instead of simply providing access to information, why don't we provide our users with tools enabling them to use information, to put it into context, to evaluate in any number of ways. They operative word here is use. Ask yourself, "What do people do with the books, journal articles, data sets, images, etc. that they find, identify and download?" Once we answer this question, the next step is to figure out ways to enable the patron to do these things in a networked environment. What do people do with content from our libraries? Here are some answers, exemplified by action verbs:

Libraries and librarians are expected to know the information needs of their clientele. In an academic environment we are able to know what classes the students are taking and possibly what the major field of study is. Similarly, we ought to be able to figure out the scholarly interests of our instructors and scholars. Their academic credentials are on record, and the college or university employs them in specific academic departments. If we were really keeping track of our users, then we would know what they have published and therefore their research interests.

Based on this information we ought to be able to not only make our search interfaces smarter, but we should be able to create simple, introductory tools to be used against our content enabling the user to put the content to greater user. Found a data set? Provide a tool to calculate the average value of a column or plot on a graph a pie chart of values. Found all the works of Cervantes? Count all the words or phrases in his texts. Do the same against the texts of Shakespeare. Lay the words out side by side to compare them with one another.

Building collections and providing access to them represents a crowded market. There are many competitors, and libraries do not posses the technology to do it faster nor cheaper. On the other hand, we are expected to know our users more intimately than our competitors. This is our unique advantage, our niche. Coupling this information with our knowledge of how information is used, the library profession can create tools to make information more meaningful, more useful, and more within the context of our users. Collections without services are useless; services without collections are empty.

Special collections and archives

Another viable possibility for the future of libraries in 2015 is to become more like an archive curating "special" collections and becoming a repository institutional output.

The students, instructors, and researchers of our institutions are generating data and creating information. This content is almost universally digital in nature. Some of it is finished. Some of it is a work in progress. Some of it is restricted by copyright, and some of it is intended to be widely distributed without restrictions. As alluded to above, preserving content is one of the functions of librarianship, but who is going to preserve the content of your institution? Why shouldn't this become a stronger emphasis of the profession? Why not actively collect this material, preserve it, organize it, and re-disseminate it? If every library were support this process, then the world's academic output might be more freely available and some of the goals of academia more easily achieved. These are the ideas behind institutional repositories.

Similarly, libraries and archives often house sets of rare, unique, and infrequently held materials. These things might be medieval manuscripts, the unpublished papers of a scholar, or even sports memorabilia. Because these things, by their very nature, are not widely available the future of libraries may include the digitization and dissemination of our "special collections".

Both of these things -- the collection of content created by universities and the digitization of content in our special collections -- are things unique to each of our libraries. They represent niches we can fill and where competition is small. When libraries apply the tasks outlined in the previous section to their institutional repository or digitized special collections content, then libraries will be significantly and measurably contributing to the activities of higher education.

At the same time, the collection of locally created content and the digitization of special collections, these activities may have more benefits to people outside our institutions as opposed to inside. For example, your university does not need to see the research output of its own faculty as much as it might need to see the research output of other universities. The digitization of special collections may benefit on-campus users through classroom activities, or local scholarship, but the shear numbers of people outside your university far outweigh the numbers of local students and scholars. This outside population may put an undue amount of stress on your ability to provide service locally. Put another way, there may not be a business case for the collection of locally produced content or the digitization of special collections content. Unless everybody -- every library -- does this sort of activity, then the desired outcome will not come to fruition. The problem of freeloaders may be too great.

More realistic

More realistically, the future of libraries in 2015 is less like the things outlined above and more like a continuation of things we are doing presently.

Libraries represent an increasingly smaller player in the information universe. With the invention of globally networked computers, information services are much less centralized as they once were. Information creators, distributors, and aggregators abound. While open access publishing models seem to be on the rise, it is doubtful they will totally replace the more traditional scholarly publishing models, let alone the traditional scholarly communications process. Books -- the technology of the codex -- will continue to be created into the foreseeable future. They have special qualities that make them very appealing. Portability. Durability. Technologically independent. Immutability. Unencumbered by licensing. For these reasons there will be still be needs for libraries to systematically collect, organize, preserve, and disseminate books and journals. These processes will change but in reality, only in subtle ways. The changes will dictated by the materials' digital format and licensing restrictions. On the other hand, the content that is "born digital" will continue to grow and grow faster than the growth of physical books and journals. Do not put your head in the sand.

If libraries are representing a smaller and smaller role in the existing information universe, then two choice present themselves. First, the profession can accept this fact, extend it out to its logical conclusion, and see that libraries will eventually play in insignificant role in society. Libraries will not be libraries at all but more like purchasing agents and middle men. Alternatively, we can embrace the changes in our environment, learn how to take advantage of them, exploit them, and change the direction of the profession. This second choice requires a period of transition and change. It requires resources spent against innovation and experimentation with the understanding that innovation and experimentation more often generate failures as opposed to successes. The second option carries with it greater risk but also greater rewards.

Think evolution, not revolution. The activities outlined in this presentation represent some possibilities for the future of libraries. I embrace the second option, the option of change. Time and energy need to be spent now in order for the change to become reality, to discover new, additional, and supplemental roles for ourselves. The opportunities are only limited by our imagination and willingness to transform them into reality.

Creator: Eric Lease Morgan <eric_morgan@infomotions.com>
Source: This is a keynote presentation for the 4th International LIS-EPI Meeting, Valencia (Spain), November 26, 2009.
Date created: 2009-11-18
Date updated: 2009-11-23
Subject(s): presentations; librarianship;
URL: http://infomotions.com/musings/future-2015/