I’ve been doing some historical research lately – actually, just looking back at some documents from a decade or two ago, but it feels like visiting another time. How very different libraries were in 1997 or 2003. Back then, we were all anxious about the shift to digital and faculty suddenly wanted help teaching students how to help students evaluate websites. The web was new and scary, a random grab-bag published without the usual editorial processes that made information trustworthy. Of course, students had at least as much trouble making good choices among books and journal articles, but insecurities around technology suddenly made librarians and their teaching role relevant - at least until the web became part of our everyday life.
Today, I see another kind of insecurity at work. How can we prove the value of libraries when information is so widely available? If we don’t seize on every new technology and stake a claim to it, are we dooming ourselves to irrelevance?
Back in 2010, an innovative figure in public libraries said libraries were screwed; everyone would demand ebooks as printed books died away, and publishers at that time weren’t willing to license them to libraries. (Now all of the big 5 publishers license books to libraries, though the price for a single user license is generally far higher than for a printed book.) He argued we would have to change our purpose dramatically or perish. The ebook apocalypse didn’t happen. It turns out that a lot of people still prefer print – especially younger readers. Ebooks are now loaned at most public libraries, but as a supplement to the print collection, not as a replacement. Sometimes the things we do are more valuable than we realize.
In my library, we’re having heavy discussions about how we can better support teaching and learning. Students aren’t using the library the way they did even two years ago. Part of it may be that their residence halls offer more privacy and students no longer have to escape them to concentrate, so the library feels less busy. Or it could be that the information they need is easier to find than it once was, or the kinds of assignments faculty make are changing. We want to find out what’s going on and have come up with a research plan to do that next year, but the reason we want to know isn’t that we fear irrelevance. It’s because we believe it’s important for students to have experiences asking their own questions, that the experience of self-directed inquiry is an important and even transformative kind of learning, and we want to see that as many students as possible have those experiences.
Times change. It’s not as hard as we thought to evaluate what we find on the web. The high tech library of 2005 is a museum of obsolete hardware. The pursuit of members-only abundance through licensing bigger packages of content served up on user-unfriendly platforms seems a loser’s game when finding lots of things is easy but curation is hard.
At the core, what purpose do libraries serve in our communities? How can we serve that purpose given our current circumstances? That’s what we need to figure out, not for our survival but so that we can be useful.
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