Some librarians seem to be obsessed with technology and its relation to their own obsolescence, maybe because they falsely believe that librarians are slow to adapt to technological change. In the counterfactual world of luddite librarians, perhaps libraries would become obsolete. But we’re not living in that world.
Last week I was complaining about the hyperbolic and apocalyptic rhetoric emerging from so many librarians, and it was somehow interpreted as a commentary on libraries and emerging technologies or a response to Library 2.0, leading to this hyperbolic and apocalyptic comment: “If libraries are slow to adopt ‘faddish’ technologies (whether or not they fade in a few months) they will quickly become obsolete (in the view of patrons) in this on-demand age.” I have a feeling most of this rhetoric isn’t motivated by a fear that libraries will become obsolete as by a fear that librarians will, but that would have to be the topic of another blog post. Regardless, I wasn’t talking then about technology and libraries, but about hyperbole. Now I’m talking about technology and libraries.
First, I just don’t understand this fear of obsolescence. What is this fear based on? My commenter seems actually to think that if all libraries are slow to adopt whatever technology is hot at the moment, then people won’t use libraries. There’s no evidence or argument to support such a hyperbolic statement. Would anyone these days claim that a library is going to become “obsolete” because it’s not represented in Second LIfe? This view also offers an extremely reductionist account of what libraries do for people. (Note: though I know my posts sometimes get traction in the library world at large, it should be clear from the title of the blog I’m talking about academic libraries). As long as scholars are doing academic research, libraries will not become obsolete. Will libraries change? Definitely. Will things be vastly different in 20 years? Probably. But the future of academic libraries is as dependent upon the future of higher education and the commercialization of scholarship as it is on instant adoption of any given communication technology.
Just as I don’t understand why anyone would think libraries are becoming “obsolete,” I also don’t understand the assumption that libraries are slow to adapt to technology. It seems to me librarians have long been adapting to technological change and using technology to improve library services. This article by Robert M. Hayes from the Encyclopedia of Library and Information Sciences on the history of library automation should dispel any notion of librarians as musty luddites. (The article is behind a pay wall.) MARC, DIALOG, OCLC, RLIN–all created in the late 1960s! Libraries were creating OPACs in the 1970s. How many department stores had online searchable catalogs in the 1970s? From microfilm to digitization, from punch cards to OPACs, from the telephone to IM, librarians have been adopting new information technologies for decades to provide library users with improved access to information. Far from lagging behind, they’ve been pushing the technology to its limits in their search for improved library services.
The article is a reminder that technological change has been ongoing in libraries for decades and that there are information and technical services components of such change. It’s easy to focus on popular fads like Facebook while forgetting that some of the most exciting and useful technological change in libraries is behind the scenes. The entire technical infrastructure of libraries is still evolving, and some of the most important technological innovations that benefit library users are invisible to them. Users of academic libraries gain a much greater benefit from a link resolver than from Twitter.
Sure, there has always been resistance. The article has a great quote from a 1971 College & Research Libraries issue: “In sum, our experience with the computer in library operations has been one more replay of The Emperor’s New Clothes, and what we were led to believe were distant mountains laden with gold, available merely by boring a drift in the slope, turn out, upon close inspection, to be the hairy buttocks of the well-fed computer industry. And from such a source we have gotten exactly what we should expect.” But what should be clear is that while there are obvious dead ends (such as library catalogs based on IBM punch cards in the 1950s) to feed such resistance, the resisters in the aggregate always lose.
They always lose because they’re always in the minority and in general they’re always wrong. The early adopters are also in the minority, and they’re often wrong in the particulars, but error spurs innovation as surely as success. Technological innovation doesn’t hit every library equally, making nonsense of claims about “libraries” becoming obsolete if “they” don’t adopt some change wholesale. There aren’t universal solutions to universal problems. What we have, and what we’ve always had in librarianship, are librarians working away in various places experimenting and exploring, trying to figure out if some new technology will improve library services. When they show that it can, word gets around, the idea spreads, and other librarians give it a try regardless of the resistance. “We’ve never done things this way” loses force against “This worked at other places, and there’s no reason it shouldn’t work here.”
One relatively recent example is chat reference. By the mid-90s, IM was starting to become much more popular. The technology was starting to improve. By the late 1990s, libraries were experimenting with it. It was all the rage at conferences 10 years ago, and a dead topic 4 years later because it was the norm. Now it seems odd if an academic library doesn’t have some form of chat reference. When it comes to other social media, we’ll see the same thing. If something is proven successful elsewhere, librarians at other places will adopt it quickly, just like they’ve always been doing with technological innovations. And these days the return on investment on many projects is much clearer and more immediate than 40 years ago. It’s a lot easier to adopt virtual reference solutions or create a library Facebook page than it is to retrospectively convert your card catalog. On the other hand, it’s difficult to create major digitization projects, but libraries are creating them anyway.
Hayes also addresses those who say libraries will become obsolete. Here’s his take:
There are persons who forecast their demise, in the perception that they will be replaced by the wealth of resources becoming available through the information technologies; such voices have been heard for at least the past three to four decades.…
The likely picture, though, is very different from that of those who wish to get rid of libraries. Libraries are essential and will continue to be so in the foreseeable future. Instead of being overwhelmed by technologies,they have absorbed them, made them economic and effective, and served as the basis for testing and proving them. It is also a fact that the effect of electronic information resources was to increase not decrease the use of the library. The various forms of publication are complementary and mutually supportive rather than being substitutes for each other. The use of any of them leads to increased use of the others, and the library serves as the agency for access to all of them.
Libraries are not going to become obsolete. That statement is more provable than its contradiction, because at least I have precedent on my side. The claim that libraries will become obsolete for whatever reason has nothing to support it, and certainly not the false belief that librarians don’t adapt well to technology. They’ve been doing it for decades and doing it successfully. If you wa
nt to see how librarians will adapt to technology in the future, just see how they adapted in the past. The lesson of library history tells us to expect adaptation, innovation, improvement, resilience, and endurance. I find that a more positive and more believable statement than any amount of panicky hyperbole.