Do we really need to worry about the future?

It sometimes feel like the debate over the future of libraries and librarians will never go away. Recently, volunteer-run / community led libraries in the UK have become quite an emotive issue and raised concerns over whether professional libraries run by professionally trained, paid staff are under threat. Yes, these kind of crises are nothing new but still the debate persists. But as I always like to look on the bright side, I’ll suggest that perhaps this is a good thing. As professionals (and just as people!) we should keep questioning and re-evaluating what we do, this is how we learn and improve. Our profession is a constantly developing one and we need to keep pace with technological progress, developments in information literacy, knowledge management etc. So, for us, it’s good to question what we are doing and why, and make sure that we stay fully relevant and effective with a clear purpose.

 

Another aspect to this debate is the need to show other people what we do. If librarianship is constantly questioned by those outside of the profession, perhaps we need to be more demonstrative of what we do and how what we do is good for them. Not just to the general public (who can be seen to be very supportive of libraries in a lot of places) but also to the ‘decision makers’. Before starting my MLIS I took a great online course called ‘Library Advocacy Unshushed‘, a MOOC through edX / University of Toronto. This highlighted the need to show the value of libraries and librarianship to those who ultimately make the decisions about budget cuts and closures. Not by showing that they should want what we have, but by showing that what we have and do is what they want.

 

For those portions of the general public who don’t see the value of libraries, let’s inform them! Yes, there still is a lot of misunderstanding and stereotyping of librarianship, so let’s get dispelling it! Again, reflecting and questioning is good – if we understand it properly ourselves, then we can explain it to others.

 

Personally, I don’t feel like the end is nigh. I’m heartened by things in the UK like Voices for the Library and The Library Campaign and CILIPs recent vote to actively oppose amateurisation. These things can only be good in raising awareness of the issues and challenging misinformation about the profession. But I’m also not complacent. Libraries are closing and jobs are being lost. We need to address this. Librarianship is all about providing information to people, and we’ve got to start by providing information about what librarianship is for people.

 

What do you think? Does the future look bright?

 

Photo “Library” by Kris Arnold licensed by CC BY 2.0

2 replies

  1. “Does the future look bright?”

    As with most questions about the future the answer is ‘it depends’. While the question may apply to all libraries, it depends on whether we are talking about academic libraries or about public libraries, about the health of funding levels, about large or about small libraries, about how supportive the potential user community is of the library, about how supportive the budgetary powers are, and perhaps most importantly about how creative the surrounding environment is in propelling a robust culture of risk.

    However I would posit we would not even be discussing the uncertainty facing libraries or their eminent demise if indeed the value of all libraries everywhere was understood and taken to heart by leadership, in education, in the community and in our culture, because of, not in spite of the advances in technology. But the discussion does go on and the malaise slowly taking hold in libraries is perhaps more evident in some places than in others.

    Where then might this malaise be most evident? Supposing for a moment that we consider a small community college library, and yes I am suggesting that size does matter. The community college has 50% more students than it had 10 years ago; the library has 30% less staff and half the budget per student than it did 10 years ago. Usage of library services and resources has plummeted. The curriculum does not mandate librarian assistance in information literacy instruction. Recently the new college president indicated before faculty that there is no longer any need for physical collections in the library. It should be kept in mind that small rural community colleges do not ‘always’ attract the best leadership, the most innovative minds, and the most active faculty. More ominous still, also recently, the library passed accreditation with flying colors. Over 70% of the students entering the college are tested out as not-ready for college level work. The average reading level of students is 9th grade. Of course it should also be kept in mind that the definition of entry level college work at this community college may be significantly different than is the definition of entry level college work elsewhere. So what is being described here? Let’s face it here is a ripe candidate for library dissolution.

    Sure fighting the good fight with every iota of strength in our arsenal continues, nonetheless increasingly what we have here is a rearguard action. In this particular situation, the war is over. The library has lost. There is no future in which the library retains its unique identity or its positioning in bolstering education. The question at this imaginary college is no longer so much about continuing the good fight, but rather what if anything can be done to help guide the impending implosion of library services into a channel that may allow the retention of some ghostly semblance of library-like services offered from a small office somewhere in a building dedicated to other college services. Perhaps the first step along this road is to invite faculty to participate in an open forum to discuss how they imagine the library or non-library of the future to look like. Maybe second is to look at either drastically downgrading or abandoning entirely a costly ILS. Perhaps third is to begin to re-imagine and downgrade the job descriptions of replacements for soon to retire traditional library positions. And so it goes.

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