Who's In Charge, Here?

Which is more important, libraries or librarians? Who gets to decide what the library will be in the future? 

November 20, 2014

I have often wondered about the way librarians use the word “library.” Sometimes we are referring to a building (“the library will be open until 2 a.m. during finals”), but more often we use it as if it’s a collective being that has agency. The library is offering a new program. The library has to cancel more journals. The library has started a strategic planning process. Actually, librarians and library staff are doing those things.

Some librarians urge us to own up to our own agency.  T. Scott Plutchak, for example, wrote in the Journal of the American Medical Association a couple of years ago that the great age of libraries has passed, but if we’re paying attention we may see a great age of librarians. We will shift from paying most of our attention to the care and feeding of collections and buildings (not to mention trying to coax people into those buildings to use the collections) and will instead will provide specialized services to scholar-collaborators as they create knowledge. Or we'll become irrelevant.  

He quotes R. David Lankes, who argues that the mission of librarians is to improve society by helping their communities create knowledge. This in itself is a shift in thinking: librarians work at libraries that have mission statements, but we don’t tend to think of librarians as having a mission. Recently, Lankes gave a talk that emphasized his belief that the profession needs to focus on librarians, not on libraries. He gave his talk a deliberately provocative title: “Burn the Library and Free the Librarians.” (It starts with a disclaimer: please don’t set your library on fire.)

This reminded me of a talk Adrian Sannier, then Chief Technology Officer at Arizona State, gave in 2008 about the future of higher ed. He suggested that new universities would not build “air-conditioned warehouses for books” now that books have all been digitized. In fact, he suggested, universities should burn their libraries down and replace them with digital commons. In 2008, that sounded radical. Today, his reasoning sounds surprisingly mainstream among librarians, even though he was badly misinformed about digital books. They haven’t all been digitized and buying digital books isn’t as simple as it sounds. First, we can’t buy them in most case, we can only license them, and even after we pay they are often so full of deliberately-added friction to inhibit copying that they can be much harder to use than the printed version. But his emphasis on creating places where people can create things together sounds like the idealized academic library of 2014. 

But here’s the thing: when we talk about the future of the library as something other than a place and a collection of stuff, when we assert the primacy of knowledge creation and the new roles librarians must play in promoting knowledge creation, we need to be collaborative – not just in offering services to those knowledge creators out there, but in deciding what in fact, the future of the library should be. Librarians have a lot of knowledge about knowledge. It's our job to keep up with technology and copyright and data management and digital humanities and changes in scholarly publishing. We have a wide-angle lens on the issues and can offer our communities a vision for how these things fit together or fall apart. But ultimately the library belongs to the community, and we need to figure out how to create its future together.   

Unfortunately, I think librarians are often using the corporate identity of the library to shield us individually from taking responsibility. That’s partly because our organizational structures tend to look far more like administrative units  than academic departments, even when librarians are tenured faculty. Very often we actually don’t have agency; we have coordinators and committees and we have to ask permission. It’s also because we’re conditioned to think that providing stuff on demand is our fundamental function, though treating knowledge as a consumer good for individuals is wreaking havoc on the knowledge commons and we know it’s not how we should be spending our limited collective resources.

Time out for a short stream-of-consciousness rant about the way we live now: That article you need? We spent $40 getting a copy for your personal use (and technically only for 24 hours).That interlibrary loan service you depend on? We won’t be able to borrow books unless another library buys a copy that can be loaned. There’s no guarantee that will happen in future. Should we put our money in providing access to a catalog of ebooks that you can choose from? That may be more efficient than relying on other libraries or guessing what you might want ahead of time, but the price is volatile and the package won’t include all of the books you want. Did you read that agreement you just signed that gives your copyright to a commercial publisher to whom your society outsources its publication program? I didn’t think so. You’re busy and you returned the corrected proofs weeks ago, so naturally the agreement seems like some last-minute red tape. This is the kind of craziness we deal with daily. The system has grown very strange and very few people are aware of the costs and limitations of how we do things now. 

When we spend most of our time feeding a completely dysfunctional system, the idea of librarians collaborating on knowledge creation (rather than on organizing access to finished products) begins to sound like a pipe dream. I think it’s where we need to go, but we aren’t going to get there by ourselves. The future of libraries belongs to the people who rely on them. How do we come together if those people are too busy to look at the big picture and librarians are afraid to say no?


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