The Future in the Past

I finally got around to reading Robert Darnton’s essay on the Library in the New Age in the New York Review of Books, and was pleased with the conclusion both reaffirming the traditional importance of the research library and expressing some enthusiasm for the abilities of digitization projects such as Google Books to further scholarly research. He notes in the essay that words printed on paper is the best known long term storage medium, and that’s something for us to consider for the future as well as the past.

A month ago I read a post at Gypsy Librarian summarizing an article speculating about how much would be lost for libraries if some sort of disaster wiped out our electricity. (The article is also discussed at Logical Operator.) Given a sufficient enough world energy crisis and I suppose that future is plausible even if improbable, though if we enter some sort of Mad Max post-apocalyptic world we’ll probably all be too busy defending our desert fortresses against roving bands of toughs to worry much about research. Still, the point is an interesting one. The pre-microfilm research library was impervious to this sort of disaster. Books printed on non-acidic paper last a long time, and that fact has been proven with time. They don’t even need the exquisite care they sometimes get now. When weeding the philosophy collection in the open stacks, I several times came across sound copies of two and even three hundred year old books just sitting there.

While I’m a big supporter of digitization projects and like the ease of use and power of search that digital texts give us, I still worry about the future. Sometimes those of us who like printed books and are skeptical of some technological claims for future information bliss are accused of being too traditional, too rooted in the past. We must look to the future. See what the exciting tools are doing for us! I can see what the exciting tools are doing for us, and in many cases I heartily approve. However, it seems to me that some techno-thrill is centered merely on the present, not on the future. Traditional research libraries have always shown a concern for the future. The collections we have now that allow historical research are there because someone in the past collected them for future use. Darnton’s example of the Folger collection is an excellent example of this.

I found his discussion of the multiple Folios had some personal relevance because of a discussion I once had with someone from Project Gutenberg. I was working in a used bookstore at the time and during a slow period we were arguing about the future of books. He was convinced that the future of books was electronic, while I was making the self-serving case that print books would be around for a long time to come. Though he was in fact haunting a used bookstore, he said he could read any book he wanted on his Newton (this will date the conversation somewhat). Anyway, the discussion got on to scholarly editions of Shakespeare, a topic I have a bit of knowledge about. He informed me that scholarly editions were irrelevant, and that any old text could be put online and everyone would be happy with it. In other words, he was assuming that the works of Shakespeare were stable texts, that there’s just, for example, an unproblematic text of King Lear. For the sake of argument, I’d be willing to admit that the general reader of Shakespeare probably doesn’t care about the details, but that unconcern is built on the foundation of texts created by scholars working with multiple texts of Shakespeare to try to create a best text for the general reader. It’s just not true that there is a single, stable Shakespeare just as it isn’t true there’s a single stable text of the Bible, to name another book that the general reader often assumes is unproblematic. Editions matter to the scholar, and they should matter to everyone. Do all digitization projects consider this?

A concern for the future is a concern that what is being collected will be available for future use. Unfortunately, in many respects libraries are thinking less of the future and more of the present. Consider the example of scholarly journals. Until relatively recently, journals were purchased and that was that. The publisher could fold. The journal could dissolve. It didn’t matter. The journal issues that had been purchased were still there in perpetuity. Now, however, libraries routinely aren’t purchasing journals, they’re purchasing access to journals, which is very different. Though all would be lost if we lost electricity, less dire circumstances could still lead to the loss of said access. If libraries stop subscribing, sometimes they might lose access to back issues that they had once been able to get. The stability of online collections differs, of course. JSTOR seems to me about as stable as can be, though I don’t think research libraries should discard all their old copies of JSTOR journals. A research library would be quite foolish to start canceling subscriptions to necessary journals because they’re now in ProQuest, though, as good as ProQuest is at providing a lot of content.

All is subject to uncertainty, and no individual library of the past could be sure that their collections wouldn’t be destroyed by fire or natural disaster (though rarely has this occurred on a grand scale). Had that happened, though, the results would be disastrous for the individual institution and its scholars, but less so for everyone else unless the collection was very unique, because there are so many research libraries. Could we be so sanguine about the future? If publishers of the future started collapsing in some economic meltdown and their online offerings disappeared, would we still have what we had at one time purchased, or would then be reliant once more upon the pre-electronic collections?

I’m not trying to paint some gloomy picture of the future of research libraries or attempting to manufacture a crisis, because I don’t feel gloomy about that future and I don’t think a crisis exists. I don’t think libraries are dying. But I find it odd that most of the time I see projections and prophesies about the future of libraries, they all concern the way some technological contrivance is going to affect the way we deliver content and services, but rarely on what that content will actually be. We’re told, for example, that mobile devices are ever more common and that we will have to adapt to them. That’s fine for some things. I have a mobile device of my own and use it all the time, but I think they’re only useful in their place. I don’t think people will be reading scholarly monographs on their smartphone. With DRM and copyright being what it is, I can’t even see much of a future for reading scholarly monographs from libraries on dedicated ebook readers, which is too bad because that’s a future I’d like to see. However, a concern for the future is a concern for preserving the past. The future of a research collection is its past, in what it has preserved and made available. If we abandon the known, stable good of print, can we be sure that what we collect now will still be available 100 years from now?

I don’t know the answer to that question, and I’m not especially alarmed, but it’s a question well worth addressing. If the collections of the future are just the things we managed to digitize, then they might be relatively more impoverished than our print collections are compared to all that has been printed. If the digital versions don’t survive, we will have lost a lot. Right now we can’t address the problem because we are too concerned with the flux of the present to think much of the future and because there’s no way we can answer the problem of longevity and preservation without a lot of time passing by to prove the point one way or another. We take our multiple leaps of faith and hope for the best, because that’s the best we can do right now. Regardless, we must always be concerned not just with present flux, but with future stability. The research library always shows concern for the past and hope for the future.

Some librarians are criticized for resisting “change.” I put the term in quotes because it’s used so often in the library literature but is an almost contentless word. Change has no concrete meaning; everything depends on the specific change. Is it a change for the better or worse? Can we tell? What are the reasons for change? Are they good ones? A concern for “change” is usually poised as a concern for the future, but there doesn’t seem to be much agreement on what that future might be. This makes perfect sense, and I’d be very skeptical indeed of librarians who claimed with certainty to know exactly what libraries and library users would be like in twenty years. What bothers me about so much change rhetoric is its reactive nature, though. Instead, I prefer those librarians who change because they want to create a certain type of future, not because they think if a contemporary fad isn’t exploited that libraries will become irrelevant. For research libraries, that future seems clear. We want to create a future where the human record of the past will be widely and indefinitely accessible. The future of research is in the past and its preservation (and by past, I include the very recent past as well, so in a sense almost anything is the past, including those statistics from last year you’re using to make arguments about the present). How we go about preserving this past will determine the possibilities of future research, and for now the best bet might be to take the piecemeal approach suggested by Darnton. Digitize, but don’t forget to buy the books. Print isn’t dead, and it lives a long time. Insisting on buying print books isn’t a reactionary resistance to change, but instead a cautious consideration of future needs in a time of uncertainty.

Some Things Don’t Change

If you keep track of library blogs (and if you’re reading this you probably do), then you’re no doubt aware of the many devoted to change and innovation. Sometimes these blogs come across as pessimistic meditations on how libraries will fade away if we don’t change quickly (I find those tedious), and sometimes they’re more cheerful and want to bring good things to librarians and library users (though sometimes a bit too fluffy for me, these are the ones I usually learn something from). There’s a similar thread in the library literature, and I have a small pile of articles on my desk urging librarians to adapt quickly to changing circumstances and savvy patrons–in the case of academic libraries, especially “millennial” patrons who are supposedly so tech-savvy and advanced. I’ve written before that I’m not at all sure our younger users are really ahead of us (or at least me) technologically, which is why studies showing that students aren’t particularly “web wise” don’t surprise me. I also resist the gloomy librarians who think that libraries are nearly extinct. Libraries are far from dead, which to me implies that the urgency of change rhetoric is a bit overblown. Another signal that the change rhetoric may be too hyperbolic is that some things haven’t changed at all and probably won’t for a very long time.

Just to put things in some perspective, I want to discuss something that hasn’t changed much: humanistic study. I work in the humanities, and humanists have been doing roughly the same sort of work for 500 years and show little sign of stopping. 500 years. Think about that. Since the late 15th century in Italy, when humanists began to define themselves against the reigning scholasticism of the universities and study classical literature from a secular perspective, their activity has been more or less the same. They read, write, edit, and respond to texts through texts, especially the treatise and the essay, genres still going strong today among humanists. They write on topics relevant to the human condition. One can read the philosophy or history from that period on and recognize it as something distinctively modern, and as something that we still more or less do, sometimes better and sometimes worse. The subtitle of this blog recalls the topics of the Renaissance era studia humanitatis: grammar, rhetoric, poetry, history, and moral philosophy. These are among the liberal arts, so called because they were and are by many still believed to be appropriate studies for the development of free persons.

Technology changes. Nations rise and fall. Scholarly languages go in and out of fashion. Attitudes and values shift. The humanities remain the same, a living tradition of the best that has been thought and said the world over, a scholarly conversation begun in the Renaissance that continues today.

Certainly, the humanities have evolved. Our standards of historical evidence and philosophical argument have grown much more rigorous, for example, and the classical focus has waned. However, even as the humanities have evolved, they have remained recognizably the same sort of thing. Though no longer the central part of humanistic education, the classics continue to engage us. Some fortunate remnant of every new generation inevitably rediscovers Plato, Aristotle, Homer, or Virgil and reinterprets those writers for contemporary needs. Students still study Greek and Latin and gain something by that study. Even though the classics no longer remain central to humanistic study, the topics and techniques are remarkably the same. Humanists write treatises and essays explicating, interpreting, or arguing with other treatises and essays about topics of human interest. They write literary criticism. They edit and translate new editions. They learn foreign languages to enjoy foreign literature or read the work of foreign scholars. They depend on libraries to supply the books and essays they need for their work, and now they can easily acquire almost anything they need rather than scour old monasteries and attics for undiscovered treasures.

Several blogs I follow talk about the need to innovate, or they’ll say, “for those interested in innovation” or something like that, or perhaps they’ll link to that inflated list of 100 bad excuses not to innovate. Since I’m not worried about being considered a luddite or a technophobe or hostile to change (which it should be clear I’m not), I will say I’m not the least interested in innovation. Mere change means nothing to me. Innovation as an end in itself seems to be what some people mean when they embrace the concept, and this seems to me oriented too much toward commercial culture and the constant need to tempt the masses with shiny new objects so they will spend, spend, spend and drive our consumer economy. Such a focus is at odds with the goal of humanistic study, and one could argue also at odds with the attitude appropriate for free human beings. Humanistic study, and to some extent the entire mission of the university and the university library, has a constancy of method that has hardly changed at all, especially since the rise of the research university.

In the humanities, we do have shiny new ideas, but the are embodied in the same old textual discourse of the past 500 years. I’m interested in acquiring appropriate collections and making sure scholars can find and use them. Any innovation that helps in that mission is a good thing. Any other innovation is irrelevant to my needs. But in the humanities, the technological innovations tend to be obvious electronic replacements for traditional tools. Now we have ebooks, ejournals, email, all just e-versions of things we have had for centuries. We have even, if you believe such things, survived the paradigm shift from modern to postmodern thought with no radical changes in the substance of communication, only the means. The rise of new communication technology has been an enormous boon to the humanities and we should all embrace it, but it has only served to aid very traditional methods. We’ve exchanged print for online, broadsides for blogs, but we haven’t exchanged language for grunts (if you except the output of some French poststructuralists).

A lot of the innovation obsession concerns processes. Are we doing things as well as we could be doing them? I have no problem with this. As much as anyone I dislike the we’ve-always-dunit-this-way attitude. I want to know the reason you’ve always done it that way, which isn’t always easy to articulate (probably another blog post there). Regardless, I find senseless resistance to change as foolish as obsession with constant and radical change. If you want constant or radical change, I also want a reason, and the reason can’t be “because we’ve never done it this way.” What’s missing from many discussions are the reasons for innovation.

Not always, however. Sometimes the reason given is that people are changing. There’s a lot of talk of the changing tastes and needs of younger library users, much no doubt accurate. However, it’s not always our mission to adapt ourselves to new users as to adapt new scholars in the humanities to the 500-year-old tradition of humanistic scholarship. We should definitely make it as easy as possible for all scholars, the new and the old, to be able to find and retrieve their necessary books and essays as quickly and efficiently as possible, and in this respect we should innovate as necessary. But we should always keep in mind our mission. In the humanities, the mission isn’t to assume that students don’t read, for example, and adapt to their needs. They have to read, a lot, and well. There’s no other choice in humanistic scholarship.

The humanities are about reading and thinking through language and texts. We can’t assume that they inhabit a “visual culture” and there’s an end on it. There’s almost no visual culture in the humanities outside of art or film criticism. Humanistic scholars read, write, discuss, argue. They don’t make collages or Youtube videos, at least not as a central part of their scholarship. They might record a lecture, but that’s usually much more boring than reading an essay. I don’t know why we sometimes assume that the newest generation is somehow too slow or shallow to be able to adapt themselves to this scholarly tradition. They play video games, and they read books. They make videos, and they write essays. The liberal arts, the studies proper to free and rational human beings, are alive and well. That they aren’t the stuff of reality TV or celebrity websites means nothing, because they have always been the domain of the relative few who seek to question or reflect upon the world around them. Higher education in America gives us the opportunity to expand the benefits of the humanities, not assume that such study is irrelevant to the desires of today’s youth while we desperately flail around trying to seem relevant.

For better or worse, we have to acknowledge that the humanities have in many ways hardly changed for half a millennium and that they aren’t changing now. I rarely work outside the humanities, so I won’t try to extend this argument further afield, though I think it also probably applies to many areas of the social sciences. I’m just putting forth one reason why I don’t feel the urgency or anxiety about innovation or change that many other librarians seem to. I feel comfortable using any new technology or adopting any new service model that comes along as long as I also feel confident that such change serves the living tradition of scholarship in the humanities.

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.

Threat and Communication

Rhetoricians sometimes talk about the psychologist Carl Rogers, specifically his notion that threat hinders communication and persuasion. The basic idea should be obvious to everyone. If I feel threatened by you, I might listen to you, but I won’t be persuaded. I might be ordered, forced, coerced, or manipulated, and I may have to capitulate to your demands, but I won’t be persuaded and won’t willingly do what you want me to do. In an organization, this means I might very well resist you in cunning ways, especially if I feel I have little power in a direct confrontation.

I say the basic idea should be obvious, but often isn’t, because persuasion isn’t necessarily what some people set out to achieve. Chaim Perelman writes in The Realm of Rhetoric that the aim of argumentation is “to elicit or increase the adherence of the members of an audience to theses that are presented for their consent.”

Communication may be hindered even by relatively mild threats. I don’t need a gun put to my head to feel threatened. I can feel threatened professionally or personally, and this can mean standard arguments might not work. As Maxine Hairston writes:

“Ironically, those situations in which the classical methods of using proof, evidence, and logical deductions are most apt to fail are just the ones we care about most. Such arguments often concern issues that affect us deeply-racial and sexual matters, moral questions, personal and professional standards and behavior. Where there is dispute about this kind of issue, communication often breaks down because both parties are so emotionally involved, so deeply committed to certain values, that they can scarcely listen to each other, much less have a rational exchange of views. ” (Carl Rogers’s Alternative to Traditional Rhetoric, College Composition and Communication 27:4. Link is to JSTOR)

I bring this up because I think it has some relevance to discussions of change, technology, politics and other contentious issues within librarianship. How much do proponents of certain changes or political positions try to persuade reluctant librarians? And how might reluctant librarians feel threatened? And if they feel threatened, how might that perception of threat be reduced? Saying “you just don’t get it” isn’t persuasion.

Rogers contribution adds more understanding of the person to traditional rhetoric. Rhetoric isn’t just about argument, it’s about persuasion. Arguments sometimes don’t work. An argument may be sound, but if people aren’t persuaded, it still fails. To persuade, those arguing need to treat their opponents with respect and understanding, to try to see the world as the other sees it. Hairston outlines 5 rhetorical actions based on Rogerian theory:

1. Give a brief, objective statement of the issue under discussion.

2. Summarize in impartial language what you perceive the case for the opposition to be; the summary should demonstrate that you understand their interests and concerns and should avoid any hint of hostility.

3. Make an objective statement of your own side of the issue, listing your concerns and interests, but avoiding loaded language or any hint of moral superiority.

4. Outline what common ground or mutual concerns you and the other person or group seem to share; if you see irreconcilable interests, specify what they are.

5. Outline the solution you propose, pointing out what both sides may gain from it.

If we all followed these guidelines, there might be fewer librarians who feel threatened by change. Frustration and hostility never persuade anyone.

Are the Users Ahead of Us?

Inside Higher education had an article a couple of days ago about a new study on technology use among undergraduates. As we’ve been hearing for a while, students are using more information technology than ever. This certainly comes as no surprise. They use social networking sites. Everyone has a cell phone, a laptop, and an iPod. The study noted that many students are comfortable with a variety of information technologies, but don’t necessarily want them everywhere. “Over half of laptop owners don’t bring them to class at all,” the article says. And, “the study finds ‘themes of skepticism and moderation alongside enthusiasm,’ such that 59 percent preferred a ‘moderate rather than extensive use of IT in courses.’” And as much as it might frustrate some librarians trying to make contact with students, some places they want to be left alone. “Students appear to segment different modes of communication for different purposes. E-mail, Web sites, message boards and Blackboard? Viable ways of connecting with professors and peers. Same for chat, instant messaging, Facebook and text messages? Not necessarily, the authors write, because students may ‘want to protect these tools’ personal nature.’”

That more or less confirms my experience with students. Technologically, they’re usually not ahead of me. After all, I have an iPod, a smartphone (only 12% of students have one of those), a laptop, a blog, an rss reader, a Facebook site (which I rarely use), and a Blackboard site (which I use intensively for my class). I use some of those Firefox extensions. I made a toolbar for the Princeton library that the library ignores but that some students and colleagues use. I just made a wiki for my reference department and am giving a demo on it tomorrow. I’ve even been on Second Life a few times, and found it mightily boring, though the new Princeton island is nice. Just to get a reaction, I told the students I’d looked them all up on Facebook, and commented on the great parties it looked like they’d attended. They were appalled until they realized I was joking.

Yesterday, I asked my students about their IT knowledge. Since we have a class blog that becomes an integral writing assignment for the course, I wanted to know who had blogged before. Only one student, who had signed up for the course partly because he liked the idea of the blog. A few students read blogs, but mostly those of their friends. Most of the students didn’t really know what an rss feed was, and only a couple used them. I doubt they’d spent much time on Second Life. They use a lot of IT, but have gaps in their knowledge, gaps they might never want to fill.

To shift the subject slightly, the library just started hosting blogs, and I created one for the philosophy department, partly just to see how WordPress works since I use Blogger for the course blog and Movable Type for this one. However, I don’t think I’m going to use the blog for a while, because I don’t think it will be read by my target audience, in this case philosophy professors and graduate students. I’ve talked to some, and while some are very cutting edge, most are very traditional is their approach to information. They read scholarly journals, not library blogs. They’re happy emailing me with problems; they don’t need to IM me. The graduate students may be different, but not necessarily. I oversee the philosophy department’s private library, and a couple of years ago I caved in to some grad student demand to leave the print journal collection intact, even though every one of the journals was available online through the university library.

This brings me in a very roundabout way to the question in my title. I often read library blogs that argue we should be adopting new information technologies because that’s where our users are at. I’m not so sure. I think that those librarians are ahead of their users in this respect, as I believe I’m ahead of most of my users. As a reason to change, catching up with the users might not be a very good one, because I suspect most of the users might not be caught up with us.

Does this mean we shouldn’t play around with new modes of communication and information technology? Certainly not. It just means that some of the urgency of calls to change ring hollow for me. We must change QUICKLY and NOW! But that urgency doesn’t seem to fit the facts.

To be honest, most of the techie blogs I read are by public librarians. It’s been a long time since I worked in a public library, but I would think the typical undergraduate at a four-year college is technologically ahead of the average public library user. And I would also suspect that members of the public who are the most technologically advanced, who have smartphones and laptops and read blogs and keep up with information technology, are probably the least likely to use public libraries for anything other than leisure reading. I use our public library for my daughter to get books, period, and not even that often, since we buy her a lot of books.

So is it the case that in either academic or public libraries the users are ahead of the techies? Or are they just ahead of the luddite librarians, if there be such? How wired is the general populace or the average student population? Are they really ahead of us?

Changing Information Needs of Faculty

The latest Educause Review has an interesting article on “The Changing Information Services Needs of Faculty.” In it the authors report on a study of “attitudes and perceptions of academic collection development librarians and faculty toward the transition to an increasingly electronic environment.”

For the most part the perceptions of faculty are encouraging for any anxious librarians. Faculty value libraries highly for their collection development functions: buying materials and preserving them, especially in electronic formats. This hardly comes as a surprise to me, since buying stuff is one of my main functions for the faculty in the departments I serve, along with solving problems and explaining any library procedures that might be considered byzantine by the uninitiated.

One minor disagreement concerns the “consultative role” of librarians. “The consultative role of the librarian in helping faculty in their research and teaching is viewed as an important function by most librarians [I bet it is], but most faculty members do not put the same emphasis on this role of the library.” Again, not much of a surprise. I often get requests to track down hard to find resources or to purchase materials the library doesn’t have, but almost all of my research consultations are with students. Usually professors only contact me for help if they’re doing research out of their usual areas. Librarians who think they know more about a scholar’s research than the scholar does are often deluding themselves.

The major disagreement between librarians and faculty concerns the relevance of the library in the future. For example, “in the future, faculty expect to be less dependent on the library and increasingly dependent on electronic materials. By contrast, librarians generally think their role will remain unchanged and their responsibilities will only grow in the future.”

Some anxious librarians may question the future of the library, or whether libraries will be needed, especially since so much information and so many resources are online and more or less easily searchable. Why bother with the library?

One key problem is the meaning of “library.” I think the article uses the word “library” equivocally. The major disagreement may be that faculty expect to be less dependent on the library, while librarians expect their responsibilities to grow, but faculty and librarians may very well mean different things by “library” when they answer these questions. Faculty expect to be “increasingly dependent on electronic materials,” but who provides most of these electronic materials? The library, obviously.

By “library,” do we mean the library building, or even the library website as first stop portal to scholarly resources? If we do, then the library probably will become less relevant. Even some of the hard core humanities professors I know don’t come to the library if they can help it. They want everything available online, so they can work from anywhere. I can’t blame them, because I’m the same way. I don’t want to be tied to a particular place for research.

But the library as place is increasingly not what I and some other librarians mean by “library.” The library building is great, and will probably always be an important location for residential college campuses. Physical books will probably still be an important part of research, at least in the humanities, for a long time to come, and traditional library functions will survive for the time being. Personally, I get great satisfaction from wandering around a research library with millions of books, which may help explain why I’m a librarian. I’m not alone in this satisfaction, but the joys of wandering around a good research library are not the same as the joys of research and scholarship.

The “library” will eventually become a mostly virtual world, consisting to a large extent of “electronic materials.”. It’s only a matter of time, as much as some librarians try to fight it. Librarians care about the format of information, but researchers usually don’t; they care about the ease of access. However, that doesn’t mean that whatever the library becomes isn’t the library, or at least the functional equivalent for the library in scholarly research.

Academic libraries will be useful for what content they provide and for helping people find and use that content when they need help, just like they are now. Libraries buy and organize materials, even if the materials are all online. Perhaps scholars aren’t using the library website as their first portal to information, but even if they use Google Scholar or some equivalent the content is often available only because someone in some library has made a decision to purchase it or digitize it and a lot of people have worked to make it available. This stuff doesn’t just buy or digitize itself, and it doesn’t just organize itself, either. And if researchers need help using it, they will need the expertise of librarians, even if these librarians don’t sit at a reference desk or even in a building called a library.

Some librarians grow anxious with declining circulation or reference stats, or with the disappearance of traditional ways in libraries. In many ways, it’s the success of librarians and others to make so much information easily available that leads to the anxiety. We’re so successful we won’t have jobs anymore! For some reason, this doesn’t bother me, and as a relatively young librarian who has an interest in supporting serious scholarship I should probably be more anxious than some of my older colleagues. I’ve got at least 30 more working years ahead of me, and it would be nice to have a job for those years, but I’m not sure it will bother me if that job changes radically over the decades.

Perhaps it’s a lack of imagination on my part, but I can’t imagine a time when all relevant scholarly information is digitized, organized, freely available, and easily accessible to all, at least not a time in any immediate future. (If I can just make it to 2040, I’ll be safe!) And if that ever happens, I think that whatever World Brain the library evolves into might just be called a library, and the people who make it happen librarians.

Google 2.0 as a Teaching Tool

One of the best ways to encourage people to try new things is to show how they benefit and how easy it can be. Librarians should be persuaded by the argument that a particular change will benefit library users, but some aren’t, and to be fair, it’s not always clear the latest new tech fashion really will benefit anyone in the library but the people who enjoy playing around with new gadgets.

But just considering changes in information technology and social software, I’ve lately been trying to make the case that learning new tools isn’t just fun (since for many people it isn’t) or a good way to communicate with students (sometimes yes, sometimes no), but that it also brings some personal benefits. What personal benefits can it bring?

(On a side note, as I’ve been working on this post, I’ve run across two interesting blog posts that try to provide reasons for librarians to learn about some of these new tools: David Lee King’s follow up post on Basic Competencies of a 2.0 Librarian and 20 reasons why learning emerging technologies is part of every librarian’s job at Librarians Matter. Both of these posts present good reasons to learn new technologies and show how such learning is relevant to contemporary librarianship.)

I’ve been focusing on ways the technology can immediately benefit librarians by helping them personalize and organize their own information environment, and I’ve been doing this specifically through Google, because in their drive to take over the world, Google has made it easier for people to come to many of these new tools through a one-stop shopping exercise.

Recently, I’ve been giving some talks through a New Jersey library cooperative called Infolink, and also working closely with a couple of colleagues teaching what I call Google 2.0. Focusing on Google is a good way to introduce people to a wide array of tools at one time. (By the way, I’m giving a hands-on Infolink workshop at some New Jersey public library sometime in August. That’s about as specific as my self-promotion can be right now. If you get the opportunity, sign up. I’m entertaining and informative, and I bet that’s more than you can say about your last few library presentations.)

For example, lately I’ve sat down for long sessions with two colleagues who wanted to know more about all of this 2.0 stuff. By the end of my last two-hour session, the colleague I worked with had accounts for Google email, Talk, Bookmarks, Calender, Groups, Docs & Spreadsheets, Reader, and Page Creator, as well as a Blogger account and new professional blog. Orkut seemed a waste of time, especially since he already had a Facebook profile. Whenever Google gets around to merging completely with Jotspot, I’ll even be able to add wikis.

The Google-phobic librarian might ask, why Google? Google isn’t the only place, or even necessarily the best place, to get all this stuff! The answer should be obvious. Google has a great search engine, and they are putting together in one place a lot of useful tools. My goal isn’t to be a shill for Google (though if they want to give me a lot of money, I’ll be happy to shill for them); my goal is to introduce librarians to new information technologies as easily as possible.

By the end of the sessions, my colleagues also had the tool I think is essential for making this as easy as it can be — the iGoogle page, with all of its movable gadgets. We loaded up their iGoogle page with the Gmail, Gtalk, Bookmarks, Calendar, and Reader gadgets, plus some other things. We loaded the Reader with a few blogs and feeds relevant to their work. We loaded the Bookmarks with some useful websites. I showed them how to easily add items to the Reader and the Bookmarks. And it’s all right there on one web page once they log in. They don’t have to move from page to page or go out and find the information. Now information comes to them. They don’t have to remember. It’s just there, and my assumption is if it’s there they’ll use it.

And what was my rationale for encouraging them to do this? Because they’ll have fun? Absolutely not. Because they’ll recapture their youth and be “relevant” to the teenagers coming into the library? Of course not. Because they’re inferior if they’re not up on the latest trends? Considering they are among the colleagues I respect the most, certainly not. (I have to say that, because if all went well, they’re reading this on their feed readers right now.)

My rationale was that these tools could save them time and effort, and allow them to replicate a common information environment wherever they log in. With these tools, they can get information relevant to them and share information in many formats more quickly and efficiently than they could before. The tools make their life easier and help them in some way. If they see further applications for them, or if the knowledge allows them to know more about current trends, that’s just an added benefit. What sells a lot of us on emerging technologies is not that we want to be relevant or “hip” or something, but that we see benefits in the technologies that others might not see, and we see those benefits because we have incorporated the technologies into our lives to a greater or lesser extent and lived with them for a while. Most people are already comfortable living with Google as a search engine, so the transition is made easier.

Sure, I’m ignoring all the competing services by concentrating specifically on Google. I’m not talking much about other feed readers or social bookmarking applications like Del.icio.us that would let people share their bookmarks. For the most part, I’m even ignoring the broader concepts behind this technology. (I’m certainly not trying to define what Web or Library 2.0 means.) But at the end of a couple of hours, someone receiving this training knows more about the possibilities of social bookmarking, online group working environments, blogging, RSS, and other tools than they would before. They are able to use a lot of social software in practice and see its benefits for them. The theory can come later.

Reasons to Change

In an essay published last year — Technological Change, Universal Access, and the End of the Library — I argued that before considering any sweeping or radical changes, librarians should take a teleological approach to change and know what end they aim at before changing. This sounds commonsensical or perhaps just trite as long as you don’ t think librarians ever make significant changes in response to crises or anxiety, to give two possible causes of change.

Libraries can of course make changes merely in response to a crisis, or because of anxiety, or because powerful people order the change. I’m certainly not disputing that. I just want to briefly consider how to persuade people to make changes willingly, assuming that the change is rationale and has a coherent end in view.

Let’s consider a common change called for in today’s libraries: learning (or at least learning about) new technologies. Why might people keep up with the latests gadgets and tools?

1) They like change. Some people just get bored with their regular routines. I like ritual and routine, but I’m also incapable of looking at a system or process or tool without considering the flaws and how it might be changed for the better. I don’t always bother to make the change if the opportunity cost is too high, but I still see the problem. But I don’t think most people like change, at least not change that effects their daily lives and isn’t obviously an improvement. It could be that a lot of people just don’t like to change even when it would be an improvement.

2) They like learn about new stuff. This might seem the same as number one, but I can imagine people who like to play with new tools without liking other kinds of change, and I know there are a lot of people who just like to play with the new gadgets for no useful reason. I like to learn and play around with new tools simply for the sake of learning, just like I read books and articles on various subjects for the sake of learning about them. I’m naturally curious and also adapt quickly. I like the opportunities my job gives me to learn new things. However, I wouldn’t want to come into the library every week to find a new office or a new reporting structure or to find they’d moved the restrooms around. For a lot of people, myself included, to enjoy change, the change has to come in the midst of a lot of routine. We need the safety of central order to enjoy novelty and eccentricity.

3) Change is good for the library users. In an ideal world, this would be a persuasive reason for librarians to change, if in fact a particular change was good for the library users. Ultimately, libraries are there to serve users, even if your concept of the library user includes, like mine does, library users not yet born. As a common ideological point among librarians, it should serve as a basis of agreement that can then lead to an argument for change. But we don’t live in an ideal world, and a lot of librarians don’t care about library users, or at least not enough to overcome a natural resistance to change.

4) Change is good for the librarians. Now we have, I think, struck upon a persuasive reason. I like change when change is good for me. I’m the self-interested rational person that economists dream of, or at least sometimes I am. Changing for the library users is great, but if the change is going to hurt the librarians, most librarians are not going to change unless forced, and forced change creates so many problems and grievances that it rarely seems a good idea.

Forced change is itself a way to hurt people. To treat people with respect and decency, you can’t force them. You have to persuade them. Often to persuade them you have to show them how a change benefits them, not just how it benefits others. (The corollary to this is that to treat people with respect and decency, one must be willing to listen to them and accept when they’re right. Refusing to do something just because you can refuse isn’t any more ethical than forcing people to change for no good reason.)

Sometimes this can’t be done, and the argument that a change is good for the library users will have to suffice. I think that’s okay, because properly defined and defended, that should be a decisive point in most arguments for library change. But showing that change is also good for the librarians helps to build more consensus for possible changes.

In this post, I’ve merely put forward some theoretical reflections on change. In my next post, I’m going to consider how librarians can be persuaded to keep up with some technological changes relevant to librarianship.