Tell Me If You've Heard This One Before

Are you tired of the "library of the 21st century" as a lede yet? I sure am. 

July 6, 2017

Another day, another article with the man-bites-dog lede “libraries, threatened with irrelevance, now care about students instead of dusty old books.” I won’t bother linking; they are legion.

Libraries aren’t threatened with irrelevance and we don’t face a Sophie’s choice between books and students. In the 40-plus years I’ve been working in academic libraries, both as a student at an ARL library (they had a letterpress! and taught classes on hand-printing books long before they thought to call it a maker space!) and as a librarian working in a small undergraduate library, there was never a point where books lost out and services for students won. From what I can gather from the historical literature, American academic libraries have always provided services to help students learn, and they still have books.

The library I work in today was built in the early 1970s and the planning documents made it clear it was a “teaching library” that must accommodate whatever form learning might take in the future. The internet as we know it wasn’t on the planners’ horizon, but multimedia learning was hot. Luckily the architects, guided by a smart and persistent librarian, designed a flexible floor plan with ample room for wiring and more electrical outlets than the architects thought we needed (though, of course, we’ve had to add more). But none of this was hugely novel. The libraries that predated the current one back to the college’s founding were also designed for learning. We had a lot more books in the 1970s than we’d had in the 1870s, but housing books wasn’t the primary purpose any of those libraries. Learning was. Always.

Books had primacy in the past because students have always prized efficiency. In the 1970s, it was a lot easier for students to find information in books than through other means. Finding articles entailed flipping through indexes or abstracts, interpreting abbreviations, writing down the details, checking the catalog to see if we subscribed to the publication and had the relevant issue, tracking it down on the shelves, and using it in the library or spending money to photocopy the article because journals were harder to replace than books and keeping a complete run was fetishized. Finding a book simply meant looking up call numbers for things that you knew would be in the library unless they were checked out and you could take them home. Easy peasy.

The convenience ratio between using books and using articles flipped. When the library still wasn't connected to the internet, we had InfoTrac CDs running on a PC connected to a dot matrix printer. Magic! When it suddenly was easier to print out articles than to find books, the dominance of the book in the lives of students shifted (though so far as I can tell, the 1970s multimedia craze never really made a dent). Similarly, a lot of basic questions were hard to answer before Google and Wikipedia. Sure, we get fewer questions asked today, but information is easier to find, hurrah! Any question that has to be asked of a librarian simply because the package in which the information needed is hidden in an inconvenient place, online or off – that’s not reference, that’s troubleshooting a technical problem. I don’t mind doing it, but it would be better to not have the technical problem in the first place so we could instead talk about how to frame a question, develop strategies for exploring a topic area, or discuss how to evaluate arguments or interpret primary sources. Having information easier to find does not render libraries irrelevant. It helps us focus on what matters.

So people now find information more conveniently in places other than books and book use has naturally declined, but that hasn’t made books obsolete. An academic long form argument often provides the kind of contextual information that students need and scholarly articles omit. We still buy books, and they still get checked out by young folks who actually like books and libraries, despite the claims of their elders. And we do lots more, too, adding new services and resources if they support the curriculum and a liberal arts education and phasing out work that no longer seems a priority. We have operated this way since the college was founded. It’s nothing new.

Administrators who rely on libraries the least (and mostly didn’t use them even when information was harder to find) seem to be the ones most likely to predict their irrelevance. Maybe it’s because libraries are expensive and they think it’s all free on the internet (it isn’t); maybe it’s because they are responsible for student academic support offices that are too scattered and ill-housed and a library renovation could solve that problem (it might). Saying “it’s about students, not books” is a strategy to fend off complaints when books are put into storage to make space for new services. (It won’t, but that’s another story.)

What I think has changed the narrative is the metrics mentality. Libraries once compared themselves to others based on how many volumes they had. Now they’re measured by what they contribute to institutional productivity. Depending on the institution, that may mean student retention or it may mean contributions to patents and grants - or both, along with a whole host of measures that can tick along on a constantly-updated dashboard demonstrating value. Whether we’re counting books or measuring the library’s contribution to productivity, it has nothing to do with books versus services. It’s about branding. In the past, reputation was measured in books, and now it’s not.

In the meantime our work will always involve supporting learning, and some of that learning will involve books, as it has for generations and will for a very long time. It turns out the 21st century library is actually nothing new, or rather libraries have always been as new as they have to be. 

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