Are Libraries Doomed?

Are libraries doomed to extinction? I get the feeling from some articles and discussions on some blogs that a lot of people seem to think so. I won’t point to any particular discussions, but I do sometimes get the impression that some librarians think libraries have to change radically or die, that somehow contemporary libraries are so outdated that they will soon go the way of the buggy whip if they don’t adapt completely and immediately. If we don’t immediately adopt this gadget or re-engineer everything for the different styles of every cohort of students, then we’re all failures. As I said, I get this from reading blogs and articles, because nobody I know ever discusses the issue, at least not with me. If libraries are sinking rapidly, then my colleagues are models of grace under pressure. But is there any basis for that belief, if in fact anyone believes it?

Often the discussion is of technological change. It seems to me that libraries do adapt even to technological change, albeit slowly at times. I’d be willing to bet (not much, because I’m only a librarian) that librarians on average have been ahead of the public on average with lots of technological change. OCLC began 40 years ago. OPACs have been around for 20 years. Libraries were making information available online before most people even knew what online was. Popular IM programs appeared in the late 1990s, and within 3-5 years many libraries were setting up chat services. (That might seem slow, but I suspect it was decades from the invention of the telephone to the advent of telephone reference.)* Before I started library school, I wasn’t paying much attention to any online developments. To say that librarians fight change is to ignore the many real technological changes that libraries have been adopting for decades. Libraries are slow to adapt, possibly, but so are most non-commercial organizations.

If libraries do die, I’m not sure what will replace them. Infotopia, I suppose. Will there ever be a world where all information is digitized, freely available, and easily findable? This to me would be Infotopia, and I’d be happy for it, even if it meant the extinction of libraries. Does anyone see a trend toward this? Because I don’t. I see a world with increasingly more restrictive copyright laws and the commercialization and corporate control of information. Sure there’s a lot of information on the Internet and some activities, such as ready reference, might be dying. But plenty of information still isn’t freely available, and it’s not clear that it ever will be, even if the fight over open access is won by the good guys. A lot of the talk about social software and the ease of generating content means that a lot more information is available, but not necessarily information anyone wants. Anyone can publish a blog or set up a wiki, but at the moment these are of limited scholarly value compared to books and journals. And how many freely available data sets are out there?

Even if all information is ever freely available, which I doubt will ever happen, there’s still the problem of finding it. Our library has a huge amount of electronic information that is technically freely available to our users, but that doesn’t mean they can find everything. Much effort goes into the never-ending task of trying to select this information, purchase it, organize it, catalog it, promote it, and make it findable for both librarians and everyone else. Will these tasks just go away in the future? It seems unlikely.

From my limited perspective, it seems that the information universe grows vastly more complicated with every new digitization project or publishing venture, not to mention the good to be found on blogs and websites. Libraries try to make sense of this chaos. Even if they ultimately fail to control the information universe (which is inevitable), they still control enough of it to make it more useful for scholars that it would otherwise be. There’s also the personal element. A big part of my job could just be labeled Problem Solver. Librarians solve problems for their users, and not all problems can be solved with the click of a button. (One time I very much wanted to tell a problematic graduate student, “I solve problems, and right now the problem is you,” but I don’t think librarians sounding like Dirty Harry is a good thing.) Librarians communicate and interact with people in ways that can’t be replicated by machine. Will these problems go away in Infotopia? Will no one need to talk to someone in the library?

It could be, however, that the death-of-the-library discussion is more concerned with public libraries. If public libraries go extinct, it’ll be worse for us all, but if that dark, unlikely day ever comes I’ll be too concerned with making sure I don’t go extinct to worry about it.

*For an overview of phone reference and its relation to chat reference, see the following article by Kathleen Kern: “Have(n’t) We Been Here Before? Lessons from Telephone Reference.” The Reference Librarian no. 85 (2004) p. 1-17.