Friday, November 25, 2011

Is librarianship in crisis and should we be talking about it?

I was reading Bohyun Kim's guest blog at ACRLOG which talked about how users generally don't want to come for library instruction classes but want to learn tools like LibX that speed up searches, and she asked me what I thought of it. I replied that I felt she was spot-on, having experienced the same but said it was a bit depressing.

Recently I noticed a couple of interesting comments to the blog post, in particular Veronica Arellano's which lead me to her A Crisis of Our Own Making (sidenote, she has a great blog, you should subscribe!).

Librarians are worriers, and one thing we like to worry a lot about is the future of libraries.

Veronica Arellano however thinks that we should stop writing about it. Why? She gives several reasons in "A Crisis of Our Own Making" but concludes with

"Writing about the 'crisis' in libraries tries to elicit change out of fear, rather than a desire to better serve our communities. By continuing to write our own obituaries, we are dissuading enthusiastic, forward-minded young scholars, technologists, and community leaders from entering the profession by painting ourselves as stuck in the past and obsolete."

She has a point too much negativity in particular obituaries type predictions can be self-fulfilling.

Earlier this year, I understand a retiring and very senior library administrator locally made a prediction at a library conference/talk that libraries would be extinct in the future (or words to that effect, he may have been referencing this extinction timeline that predicted libraries would be gone by 2020). I wasn't present but I understand from a librarian who had just joined the profession and who was present, that it was (obviously) utterly demoralizing to hear.

That said, I am not sure if this sense of doom and gloom is not automatically sensed by new recruits  anyway though having it said so bluntly is stunning. For example, at my very first local library talk/seminar almost 4 years ago, a very distinguished speaker (non-librarian) picked up on this and remarked on the "sense of defeat" he sensed from librarians.

So yes, we need to be careful not to drive away young, passionate people in our profession by being too negative.

That said, I do not totally agree with Veronica, that the problems and dangers facing librarianship is always totally exaggerated, everything is fine and dandy and that it's just a "Crisis of our own making".

Yes there is plenty of talent in the library world (including Veronica herself), librarians who recognize what is not working and are trying to change things but that does not change the fact that many things need to change and the way isn't always easy (definition of a crisis?). I would argue most of the people writing on these issues are indeed the forward thinking ones working to change things, after all the first step to changing things is to recognize there is a problem. Arguably though some of the ones making such apocalyptic statements are playing devil's advocate.  

Nor I am sure if I agree with her assertions that the ones who point out problems facing libraries are simply targeting practices (e.g physical reference desks that are not used) that most libraries are abandoning or better yet have found good solutions to them.

It is also not true I feel that solutions have not being proposed though some solutions such as embedded librarianship, creating collaborative learning spaces in libraries and reinventing librarianship in general are so radical it is not easy to implement without a lot of risk taking and bold leadership.

Also I worry some of the issues faced by libraries might be far bigger. Take the scholarly publishing crisis and licensing of ebooks for libraries, these are HUGE problems that cannot be easily solved and thus far I am not very optimistic about any of the proposed solutions. I believe these issues and others (mass adoption of ebooks for one) will have a great impact and will have the potential to disrupt libraries in the coming decade.

Maybe it is simply a case of half empty vs half full. Librarians of the later view, like David Lankes affirm that the best days of librarianship are ahead of us if we can but seize the opportunities and make the change, but note the conditional (if we can...)

David Lankes also wrote about this issue about predicting doom in "Beyond the bullet point: Don't be the mud"

"Understand if you are a librarian today, these students revere you. They want to be you. You are a role model. I know it’s not your job description, but it’s true. So every snarky comment and your foreboding sense of doom, it has an effect. I am begging you to expand your sense of professional responsibility to mentorship."

"As librarians we can and should argue about the shape of the future. We can and should have honest and heated debates on where we want to go now. But if you are convinced that you are the last generation of librarians, that the field is going away, then get on with it and let the folks seeking a better tomorrow get to work."

But what about those of us who worry that we might be the last generation of librarians if we don't change drastically? Should we get out of the way? There are many others like myself who are nervous, recognizing the challenges and threats facing libraries and that this is a critical period facing libraries.

But what unites both the half empty and half full librarians are that we both recognize that radical change and shifts to our libraries work are coming if libraries are to survive (or does anyone disagree with this?). But perhaps this simple division is too simple.

Meredith Farkas has written about a Library 2.0 idea adoption spectrum , describing Librarian attitudes towards adopting new technology, from one extreme "Twopointopians" who love everything 2.0 to the other extreme "alienated".

Similarly, attitudes towards the future of libraries, perhaps call it a expected library future spectrum? range from librarians who think we are doomed no matter what and should prepare to bow out ( er library-apocalypse prophets??) to a midground "Lankesian" view that the best days of librarians are ahead of us if we ,  all the way to those who think libraries are not  at risk and don't need to do much but can just continue the way things were always done.

It is a difficult balancing act, try too hard to point out problems and perhaps need for radical change and you run the risk of sounding too negative or defeatist. Some writers might have perhaps gone too far in trying to shock others in our profession into activity (e.g  Academic Library Autopsy Report, 2050  and Libraries are Dying (And That’s A Good Thing) )

But equally, thinking that everything is fine, and business as usual, always choosing the options with the least risk (when there is no such option in fact) will suffice is equally perhaps a recipe for disaster.

Imagine a young potential librarian-to-be contacts you and asks you for advice on whether he should enter the profession. What picture of librarianship should you paint? I believe it would be irresponsible not to at least mention the challenges and potential stumbling blocks that libraries are facing in the future, so they will know what they will be up against.

For the record, I don't think libraries are definitely doomed to extinction, but there is much to be done and the library world needs passionate and energetic librarians to fight for the future of libraries and the last thing we need is for recruits to come in because they think libraries are a soft option or because the job outlook is stable.

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