The Lesson of Library History

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.

15 thoughts on “The Lesson of Library History

  1. THANK YOU for this!!! I have always been frustrated with just the kind of hyperbole and “the sky is falling” thinking that you describe. I also agree that the one-size-fits-all approach to technology adoption doesn’t work. I think so many libraries started using 2.0 technologies because they saw these amazing success stories out there (Ann Arbor District Library is a great example) and assumed that they could just replicate that success at their library. Every patron population is so different and we need to be cognizant of their culture and how they use technology and meet them where they are. It’s all about OUR users.
    I’m not worried about libraries becoming obsolete. What I’m worried about is us becoming not-very-useful if we don’t know what our patrons’ unique needs and wants are and focus on meeting those. Making assumptions that all libraries need ___ only encourages us to ignore our actual patrons.

  2. You’re quite welcome. Each library and its users are different, and it’s out job to explore the options and figure out what will work in our situation. A one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work for anything, whether it’s a technological tool or a library instruction curriculum or a reference service model.

  3. Thank you for this thoughtful article. My daughter recently reminded me of the old management story of how the failure of the passenger railroads was because they thought they were in the train business rather than the transportation business. Yet, my daughter reminds me, we still have passenger railroads…Whenever I come across one of these self-proclaimed prophets of the bright/dark/ library future, I ask ’em that question. “If we’re not in the books business, we must be in the (what?) business.”
    You have made a good case that libraries have been and continue to be deeply involved in technological change I especially liked the notion that “There aren’t universal solutions to universal problems.” I think Meredith’s comment responds to this rather well. There is a culture among our students and faculty that it is essential that we understand and not just by talking to other librarians about it. And that culture is nuanced not only by the institution where it occurs, but as the recent UC Berkeley Report (“Assessing the Future Landscape of Scholarly Communication”) reminds us, by discipline as well.
    Keep up the good work and for reminding us that we’re not as dumb as the railroads.

  4. Nicely written, Wayne, and a great summary of the arguments. I feel we often spend too much time worrying about not being up to date with the latest fads and not enough time doing what we do well. As you point out, it is that piece, the doing what we do well, that takes us into the future in a positive way. I think that your points are applicable to both academic and to public libraries. Libraries are most successful when they look at the needs of their local users and try to best address them using whatever tools are most appropriate. This is a much better mechanism for success than jumping on a bandwagon of any sort simply because it is there to jump on. Thanks, for the thoughtful piece.

  5. Your comments made me think of this nicely written piece by Jon Udell about his how his effort to get grant funding for his Elmcity project was blocked by funders who were stricken by the “shiny new thing syndrome.” I like his phrase about wanting to help publicize and extend the work of “evolutionary repurposers [more] than revolutionary creators.” Clay Shirky made a similar point in Here Comes Everybody when he talks about how technologies only really get interesting and truly useful when they are commonplace. It seems to me that there are a lots of technologies we are already using that haven’t been fully or properly implemented yet (anyone care to talk about the typically clunky or muddled job we do connecting offsite/offcampus users to licensed content?) The voices in libraryland that shallowly urge us to get the latest shiny new thing so that we, at the very least, appear to our patrons to be keeping up are not very helpful. Experiment, play, try things out, yes, but leave the hyperbole out of it please.

  6. “Evolutionary repurposers”…I like that. That seems to be what librarians have been doing for a long time. I don’t think evolutionary repurposers are motivated by a fear they’ll have no future. I wonder whether anyone believes this talk of obsolescence, even the doomsayers themselves. Librarianship seems rife with creativity and opportunity these days.

  7. But e-Books will replace all print, information is free, and … oh I can’t go on. Thank you for a common sense check. Things are always changing and always will and libraries will watch, adopt and move along just fine.

  8. I agree that libraries able to respond to environmental changes (e.g., technological advances) will be best situated to evolve and remain relevant to their current and future users. However, I find the argument that “as long as scholars are doing academic research, libraries will not become obsolete” somewhat problematic – especially when a distinction is drawn between the virtual and the physical academic library. Anyone who has worked with scholars outside the “academic library bubble” will know that an increasing number of them are able to successfully complete their work without drawing on library resources both virtual and physical but especially the latter (and yes, I am including social science and humanities scholars here).
    In addition, I suspect that the fear of obsolescence is based on the very real experience of many people working in academic libraries who have witnessed staff layoffs and branch closures first hand – especially over the past 24 months. It strikes me that we need to better articulate our value beyond both the traditional resource model and an ability and willingness to adapt to change. The value of the virtual library seems self-evident (stable access)… I would love to read others’ thoughts on the enduring value inherent in the physical academic library – especially areas that do not overlap with other service providers on campus (e.g., computer labs, study halls, lounges, etc.).

  9. Relevant and interesting article in the NY Review of Books called “Publishing: The Revolutionary Future.” Don’t know how my work fits into what Jason Epstein says, but he’s a book-lover who also sees which way the wind is blowing.

  10. Libraries and Librarians will never become obsolete. There will aways be a need for libraries especially when you consider all the students using them. You may be able to get information from the internet but a book on any given topic can give you more information and it is all in one place, you don’t have to waste time searching for tidbits of information here and there on the internet.

  11. I absolutely agree that student use is key to the enduring value of the physical academic library. So how is *how* they use the physical library different from *how* they use any other study space on campus? It’s not about the books, that’s for sure. For the vast majority of students, they can (and do) take library books somewhere else to read (e.g., on the bus, at home, etc.). If you don’t believe me take a stroll through any academic library and pay careful attention to what students are actually reading. We did this and less than 8% had an actual library book in their possession (and we’re guessing that some of those books had sat there all day while the people using the desk the books were sitting at changed – so we were likely over-counting). In addition, print reference collection use is shrinking, as are the size of library-bound collections in general.

  12. I think that libraries are not on the way out. However, I think we will all be surprised when we see how they are able to evolve and fit in with the changing technological times.
    A library is a collection of information, and in that sense they will never become obsolete. As long as we wish to visit and partake of a collection of information, there will always be a library.

  13. I agree that not jumping on to the next fad be it chat, IM or now twitter wont be the thing that kills libraries. It is the more fundamental changes in how people consume information that may. Apparently in the last quarter amazon sold more kindle copies of certain books than print copies. No one will want to go to the dusty stacks anymore soon. What are libraries doing about this?

  14. Pingback: Reflections on ACRL 2013 | Academic Librarian

  15. I am so glad this post is still here.

    I have a small answer to the question about fear of obsolescence. In 2010 when this article first appeared, I would have been straight-up in the camp of those perplexed by the fears of the fearful. But by 2011 I found myself firmly in the other camp. The reason: That year I tumbled to the fact that some of those in power–some such people do have a great deal of power, and control over funding–think they understand libraries, but don’t really. Such individuals almost always eventually get promoted, which can make things better, or worse, depending. But before the library leaves their radar (which it almost always eventually will), they can do a lot of damage too expensive to undo–to collections, and worst of all, to very good people.

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