Evolution, the death of librarians and the end of history

9 November 2011

Today aspiring book restoration librarian @hanmunn alerted me to a back and forth in the LA Times about libraries, librarians and whether one can survive without the other.  These two opinion pieces fairly neatly sum up a larger series of skirmishes that have been occuring on the margins across at least the English speaking world, but particularly in the UK and US as their governments seek ways to cut spending in economic recession.

Libraries versus librarians

The original piece by Regina Powers complains that politicians keen to cut spending on libraries but wary of the political ramifications of closing libraries have chosen to cut professional staff (staffing being the largest cost in most library services).  Thus the service level is compromised, but the buildings stay open.  Dan Terzian counters that now that we have Google and the internet librarians are outdated and libraries should just hire liberal arts undergraduates.

In my view they are both a little right but in the medium to long term both wrong.  Powers is  right to point out that a library without librarians is ‘like a hospital without doctors’, but Terzian is right when he says that libraries need to change in the digital era.  Strangely, however, Terzian’s example of why librarians are no longer needed (the success of the New York Public Library) is a long list of projects best planned and implemented by librarians - whose training and experience is directed exactly towards such things as “e-publications, crowdsourcing projects and a user-friendly online library catalog”.  These are indeed the sort of thing that libraries should now be concentrating on, and the best people to lead and implement such projects are librarians.

There are two basic flaws with the argument that libraries no longer need librarians because we have search engines and the internet:

The filter bubble

Firstly there is the issue of bias, echo chambers and what has come to be known as ‘the filter bubble’.  Exclusively relying on computers and, in particular, the same search engine/s to seek information can trap people within one particular view of the world or at the least obscure relevant information.  Relying on automated ‘spiders’ to categorise information does indeed help us to answer simple questions quickly; but if the purpose of libraries is to ‘spread knowledge’ as Terzian claims, or to ‘expand minds’ as I wrote in my last post, then the abilities of Google, DuckDuckGo or any other search engine to find ‘facts’ quickly is not nearly as relevant as one might first imagine.

The end of history

Secondly, there is the question of what librarians do ‘behind the scenes’ and where search engines and other discovery tools find their content in the first place.  Google’s project of digitising thousands of books could never take place without the prior thousands upon thousands of librarian-hours spent organising, cataloguing and storing the books in the first place.  Database products like ABI/Inform or General Onefile need information professionals to compile them.  “Crowdsourcing projects” need professionals to direct and lead them.  User friendly library catalogues need professional information organisation and retrieval experts to design them.  The problem with the argument that the internet is an adequate replacement for librarians is its myopically arrogant assumption that we are living in the end of history - or at least the end of the history of information.  As if no new work is necessary to record, store and organise information, culture or history.  As if somehow the birth of Google was ‘Year Zero’ for information management.

Better librarians

Terzian and others seem to think that library science students are still just taught the Dewey Decimal system and Library of Congress cataloguing rules.  I went to library school eight years ago and learned neither.  Instead, we were taught XML and Dublin Core, along with theories of information management and access.  These days students are being taught Java. What Terzian (without realising it) is really demanding is better librarians and better librarianship.  The traditional ways of providing library services are indeed mostly doomed.  It does not naturally follow that librarianship is irrelevant, however. Professor Dave Lankes makes this point in a recent vlog post.  Continuing the doctor analogy, he points out that in the nineteenth century medical doctors’ traditional practices were increasingly becoming irrelevant.  Rather than disappearing, however, they embraced the new technology and became associated with the new ways to doing things rather than bleedings and questionable tonics.  We can take this idea a little further - should we really be exploring a future with fewer libraries, but just as many librarians?  Is it the case that rather than sacking librarians and keeping libraries, we should close libraries and keep the librarians?  Doctors aren’t just found in hospitals.  They do home visits in densely settled areas of the world, travel with the troops on battlefields and in Australia we have long had the Royal Flying Doctor Service operating in remote areas to fly a doctor to the patient rather than moving the patient to a hospital.  In a digital, online context, all these could be models for future librarianship.

Evolution, not revolution

This is not about librarians simply wanting to keep their jobs.  This argument is really about who controls access to information under what circumstances.  Are we going to invest in a citizen-based human information design and management structure, or are we going to hand control over to private companies, legally bound to maximise profit?  It’s about librarians better articulating what they do, and doing it better.  It’s about arguing and displaying the value (in both monetary and intrinsic terms) of libraries, librarians and citizen-centred knowledge.  When it comes to keeping, organising and disseminating information and knowledge, the key has always been evolution.  In this field we should always be wary of revolutionary theories - they always lead to loss of information, knowledge and culture.

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