Librarianship First Principles

The more I prep for my Library 2.0 course, the more I find myself thinking about what Library 2.0 really is all about. And the more I think about what Library 2.0 means, the more I return to what I think of as the First Principles of librarianship. I don’t mean Ranganathan’s Five Laws, though certainly those are true enough, and useful as a way of framing the philosophical underpinning of the profession. No, what I mean is this…

Most of the writing I’ve seen about Library 2.0 is in one or the other of two veins. Let me quote myself from another paper on another topic:

Literature on new technologies often appears in distinct phases. The first phase contains “gee whiz” types of presentations of the new technology and discussions of its potential. Literature in this phase is written primarily to introduce the technology to a new audience, and is often written by early adopters who have a vision of how the new technology may serve existing requirements, or how the new technology may be implemented in a new environment. … The second phase contains case studies: discussions of specific implementations of the new technology in specific environments.

Since writing that, I see these two early stages everywhere. It seems they’re universal. But I don’t mean to be disparaging; these are natural and useful stages in the evolution of the literature about new technologies. But I think these types of pieces miss the point of what Library 2.0 promises.

Because what Library 2.0 promises is nothing more than the opportunity to rethink what librarianship is and does. Miksa draws a distinction between the social organization of the library (the modern library as building, collection, management structures, etc.) and the social institution of the library (the idea that access to information is a social right). Miksa also argues that the modern social organization of the library is (merely?) an artifact of a particular period of history and technology, albeit a really radical solution for its time. He also argues that this social organization is changing again as times and technology changes. While Miksa does not ever mention Anything 2.0, I think his argument maps perfectly here: the promise of Library 2.0 is the opportunity to radically change the social organization of the library (again) while retaining the social institution, which is (I believe, and I think it’s clear that Miksa believes) the more important thing anyway.

So here we have an opportunity. Given the desire / need to preserve the social institution of the library, how can we change the social organization? How must it / will it inevitably change? And when I think about this, I keep coming back to the question that Shera poses of what it is that libraries do for the individual and for society.

So, what do libraries do?

  1. Libraries are curators of materials that they manage. The classic case of this is of course books. Though increasingly this includes electronic materials, as with data librarianship. I say “manage” rather than “own” because often the library does not own these materials — the researcher owns the datasets, for example — but the library manages it on the owner’s behalf. Digital libraries often fall into this category, because DLs often contain digital representations of materials in the library’s other collections. Though DLs compound the management problem, because once an object has a digital representation made of it, the library now has to manage two objects.
  2. Libraries are portals, or gateways, or whatever term you choose, to materials that they do not manage. The classic case of this is of subscription databases. Increasingly this includes ebooks and online periodicals. This may also, though as of yet it rarely does, include digital libraries maintained by other libraries.
  3. Libraries provide (and sometimes develop — Scriblio, etc.) mechanisms (by which I mean both tools and processes) to enable users to access materials: e.g., OPACs, etc.
  4. Libraries provide education and training in the use of materials and mechanisms. Sometimes this goes as far as using materials and mechanisms for the user, as in Reference work where the librarian provides an answer rather than sources.

So, how do libraries need to change, IMHO?

  1. Libraries do this better than any other social organization, largely because libraries are one of the few social organizations in existence for which this is a primary function. (Libraries aren’t the best at what they do; they are the only ones that do what they do.) There has been a lot of discussion in the past few years about the fact that libraries, museums, and archives — cultural heritage institutions, memory institutions, call them what you will — all perform this function. And that’s true. So what does that mean? We should combine these institutions? At least join forces to tackle common problems, like management of digital representations. But whatever joining of forces or mergers may happen, I think it’s clear that this is one function of libraries that will persist, regardless of technology change.
  2. I have one word for you: Google. Ok, I have many words for you: Google, LibraryThing, Delicious, Zotero, Connotea. I find library-based efforts like the OLE Project very encouraging: OLE is essentially trying to reinvent the OPAC from blank slate, as if OPACs were being invented now for the first time. I think this is a good approach, at least as a mental exercise: shed all your preconceptions and try to solve the actual problem, not try to build a better tool based on decades of assumptions about what the problem was throughout all that time. But let’s face it: when Google hit the streets, everyone else lost the battle to be the portal to the web. Libraries lost this battle worse than some. I know I’m not the first to say this, but… maybe libraries should just give up on OPACs and whatever else and accept that tools made by non-library vendors for non-library purposes are better at solving library problems than the tools we’ve been using all this time. We already have Google Scholar searching embedded in our websites… so it would be a gentle slide. Learn to stop worrying and love the bomb.
  3. We need to do more of this in libraries. I almost just want to leave it at that, full stop. But I can’t just leave a thing hanging out there. I think this falls out as a natural consequence of point 2, above. If we adopt tools developed for other (that is, non-library-specific) purposes, then we’ll have to tweak them. Or there won’t be tools to do what we want, so we’ll have to build them (a la libraryh3lp). What this means, of course, is that libraries need to hire more people who can program, or have professional development to that end. Plus spend less money on vendors and more money on internal technical expertise. This is beginning to happen anyway. Again, it would be a gentle slide.
  4. Libraries used to be about the only game in town here, but no longer: commercial help desks and social Q&A sites like Yahoo Answers have cut into that market. The edge that libraries have here is (1) that libraries have access to source materials (see points 1 & 2, above), and (2) that librarians care a lot about providing quality information and helping the user. Edge #1 is important, but less critical than it used to be, since see point 2 above. Edge #2 is critical, but librarians often trip over that one: as a profession we’re not very good at acknowledging that good enough is good enough.

I feel that I’m far from done here, but I’m going to just stop now and post this. I’ve been working on this post for either a week, or since 5:30 this morning, depending on how you count. Also, I realize now that I haven’t even addressed 2.0-esque technology in my list of how libraries need to change. I’ll leave that for a future post.

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One Response to Librarianship First Principles

  1. I’m with you on your recommendations for 1-3 but am not quite sure what you are proposing for 4. Are you simply saying that we should accept the way that information seekers tend to satisfice?

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