Tag Archives: future

Research Librarianship in Crisis: Mediate When, Where, and How?

This month’s post in our series of guest academic librarian bloggers is by Bohyun Kim, Digital Access Librarian, Florida International University Medical Library. She blogs at Library Hat.

The talk about the crisis of librarianship is nothing new. Most recently, back in May, Seth Godin, a marketing guru, has written on his blog a post about the future of libraries. Many librarians criticized that Godin failed to fully understand the value of librarians and libraries.  But his point that libraries and librarians may no longer be needed was not entirely without merit (See my post “Beyond the Middlemen and the Warehouse Business”). Whether we librarians like it or not, more and more library users are obtaining information without our help.

One may think academic research libraries are an exception from this. Unfortunately, the same trend prevails even at research libraries. In his guest editorial for the Journal of Academic Librarianship, “The Crisis in Research Librarianship (pre-print version)”, Rick Anderson makes the case that patrons are finding information effectively without librarians’ help, citing the drastic decline of reference transactions in Association of Research Libraries (ARL).  According the ARL statistics, the number of reference transactions went down by more than 50-60 % since 1995.

This is particularly worrisome considering that at research libraries, we tend to place reference and instruction services at the center of the library operation and services. These services delivered by physical or online contact are still deemed to be one of the most prominent and important parts of the academic library operation. But the actual user behavior shows that they can and do get their research done without much help from librarians.  To make matters worse, existing library functions and structures that we consider to be central appear to play only a marginal role in the real lives of academic library users.  Anderson states: “Virtually none of them begins a research project at the library’s website; the average student at a major research university has fewer than four interactions with a reference librarian in a year (and even fewer of those are substantive reference interviews); printed books circulate at lower and lower rates every year.”

We have heard this before. So why are we still going in the same direction as we were a decade ago? Could this be perhaps because we haven’t figured out yet what other than reference and instruction to place in the heart of the library services?

For almost three years, my library has been offering workshops for library users. Workshops are a precious opportunity for academic librarians to engage in instruction, the most highly regarded activity at an academic library. But our workshop attendance has been constantly low. Interestingly, however, those who attended always rated the workshops highly. So the low attendance wasn’t the result of the workshops being bad or not useful. Library users simply preferred to spend their time and attention on something other than library workshops.  I remember two things that brought out palpable appreciation from users during those workshops: how to get the full-text of an article immediately and how to use the library’s LibX toolbar to make that process even faster and shorter.

What users seemed to want to know most was how to get the tasks for their research done fast, and they preferred to do so by themselves. They appreciated any tools that help them to achieve this if the tools were easy to use.  But they were not interested in being mediated by a librarian.

What does this mean?  It means that those library services and programs that aim at increasing contact between librarians and patrons are likely to fail and to be received poorly by users. Not necessarily because those offerings are bad but because users prefer not to be mediated by librarians in locating and using information and resources.

This is a serious dilemma. Librarians exist to serve as a mediator between users and resources. We try to guide them to the best resources and help them to make the best use of those resources.  But the users consider our mediation as a speed bump rather than as value-added service. So where do research libraries and librarians go from here?

I think that librarians will still be needed for research in the digital era. However, the point at which librarians’ mediation is sought for and appreciated may vastly differ from that in the past when information was scarce and hard to obtain.  Users will no longer need nor desire human mediation in basic and simple tasks such as locating and accessing information. Most of them already have no patience to sit through a bibliographic instruction class and/or to read through a subject guide.

But users may appreciate and even seek for mediation in more complicated tasks such as creating a relevant and manageable data set for their research.  Users may welcome any tool that libraries offer that makes the process of research from the beginning to the final product easier and faster. They will want better user interfaces for library systems. They will appreciate better bridges that will connect them with non-library systems to make library resources more easily discoverable and retrievable.  They will want libraries to be an invisible interface that removes any barrier between them and information.  This type of mediation is new to librarians and libraries.  Is it possible that in the future the libraries and librarians’ work is deemed successful exactly in inverse proportion to how visible and noticeable their mediation is?

In his guest editorial, Anderson presents several scenarios of research libraries “going out of business.” Libraries being absorbed into an IT group; Libraries losing computer labs, thereby losing a source of transaction with users as laptops and handheld devices become widely adopted; Libraries budget taken away for better investments; Libraries’ roles and functions being eroded slowly by other units; Information resources that libraries provide being purchased directly by users.

So if a library comes to lose its facilities such as a computer lab, a reading room, carrels, and group study rooms, would there still remain the need for librarians? If a library ends up removing its reference desk, workshops, and other instruction classes, what would librarians be left to do?  If we consider the library space that can be offered and managed by any other unit on campus as the essential part of library services and operation, the answer to these questions would be negative.  As long as we consider reference and instruction – the direct contact with users to mediate between them and resources – as the primary purpose of a library, the answer to these questions would be negative.

Libraries may never lose their facilities, and the need for users to have a direct contact with librarians may never completely go away. But these questions are still worth for us to ponder if we do not want to build a library’s main mission upon something on which the library’s patrons do not place much value. The prospect for the future libraries and librarians may not necessarily be dreary. But we need to rethink where the heart of research librarianship should lie.

Librarianship: As We May Evolve

This month’s post in our series of guest academic librarian bloggers is from Debra Kolah, head of the User Experience (UX) Office at Fondren Library, Rice University in Houston, Texas. She also blogs at the Effervescent Librarian.

A 1947 film located in the online Wayback Archive, The Librarian, urges young people to become librarians, and features a traditional library, and lots of books, and no technology—not even the early technologies of the library world. It stresses you must have two things to be a librarian: a love of books, and a love of people. Ten years later, the classic 1957 film Desk Set, starring Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, pits a traditional librarian against a suit from IBM. It is his task, as an expert of “electronic brains,” to automate and replace the jobs of the reference librarians at a television studio.

I love these examples of librarianship, not just because they are quaint and outdated, but because, at the time, they spoke truth. A love of books got you far in 1947, and in 1957 there was a fierce battle raging between a group called the documentalists, and traditional humanist librarians. Librarianship is a golden thread that organizes, illuminates, and provides knowledge. Luckily, we are now more open and responsive to innovations in discliplines, and infuse our profession with methodologies and best practices from every disclipline. When we have suffered from information overload, the chemists have helped; even now, when we need to find out what our users are saying, and what they are doing, we rely upon anthropologists, like Nancy Foster. This is a wonderful thing about librarians — we are some of the best people at work arounds, and we look at other fields for answers. Jesse Shera, who once scolded us for being slow to adopt technology, would be proud.

A brief glimpse into the past serves us well. One tale that is interesting is the story of two chemists who entered library school, and then went on to become leaders in the world of organizing scientific information.

• Eugene Garfield received a BS in chemistry in 1949 from Columbia and an M.S. in Library Science in 1954. Garfield created Current Contents which provided journal contents in a simple, regular and comprehensive format. He also spearheaded the indexing of scientific articles by their bibliographies, which creates a system of citations so that the very ideas of science can be traced. In 1960, his firm name became the Institute for Scientific Information, and began publishing an ambitious index entitled, the Science Citation Index, which both the NIH and NSF had declined to publish. The SCI later became the Web of Science.

• The other chemist, Robert Maizell, received his Phd in Library Science from Columbia in 1957. His dissertation was entitled: Information Gathering Patterns and Creativity: A Study of Research Chemists in an Industrial Research Laboratory. He was interested in how chemists found information in their day to day life. Maizell’s solution to information overload was fairly simple: do instruction and teach abstracting. He wanted chemists to do abstracts, and make the literature more accessible. He first published Abstracting Scientific and Technical Literature in 1971. A glowing book review in the Journal of Chemical Education says, “Chapter 14 is an excellent introduction to the use of computers and their corresponding information systems both in future automated abstracting operations and as current support systems for highspeed printing, producing ‘keyword’ indexes and in maintaining and servicing interest profiles for users involved in Selective Dissemination of Information Services.”

Regardless of their methods, the infusion of chemists changed librarianship, and information science, forever.

E-Science, the evolution of scholarly communication in a digital world, depends not only upon the selfless engagement that chemist turned librarians like Robert Maizell offered, but a truly more transnational approach and embrace of semantic web capabilities. We are seeing a revolution in the digital humanities now, where historians are creating data driven databases to organize and make sense of their data, which they freely publish, and make available for others. This is certainly the case for Andrew Torget, who created election data that is now incorporated into Google maps and freely available to the end user. This means that millions around the world used Voting America layers in Google Earth. To do digital librarianship in the future requires looking to the past, and understanding the history of who created some of the great information and storage systems. We will slowly move past solutions created in the Cold War, embrace open technologies, and yes, we will still need to love books, and people. And we need a new recruitment film. Especially one that attracts scientists that are good at data, and want to become librarians.

Browsing, Searching and Finding

January always brings lots of discussion about the future, and probably even more so this year now that we’re a decade into the second millennium. Collections are central in much talk about the future of academic libraries, which naturally leads me to thoughts about browsing.

I have a confession to make: I don’t browse through academic library stacks much anymore. There seem to be a few reasons for this:

  • I work at a small college library which is part of a larger university system that includes over 20 schools, each with its own library. Many of the books I need I borrow from the other colleges in the system via our shared catalog.
  • The discovery methods I use have shifted away from browsing. Typically I learn about new books through association news, ads in library science journals and magazines, or via blogs, Twitter or other internet sources. (It’s hard to say whether there’s a feedback loop here: if I worked in a larger library would I browse more?)
  • I also read across a wider range of disciplines than I did before I was a librarian. When I was an archaeologist there were a couple of call number ranges in close proximity to each other that I’d occasionally browse through (good old CC and GN), but if I tried that now I’d be all over the library.
  • And, I sheepishly admit to a bit of browsing fear: I always seem to have plenty to read, from journal articles to the biblioblogosphere to the three work-related books sitting on my desk right now. So I’m somewhat scared to spend time browsing in case I find more than I have time to read.

Though they definitely use the library, I don’t typically see faculty at my college browsing our stacks, either (maybe their reasons are similar to mine?). But I have noticed that students often want to browse in the library. Many students, especially those new to the college, stop by the reference desk and ask “Where’s the psychology section?” or “I need to look at the architecture books.” It’s easy to forget how opaque an academic library, even a small one, can seem to undergraduates. Last semester a student said to me, in an awed whisper, “the library is so big.”

All of this leads me to wonder about the future of collections at my library. If faculty don’t browse much anymore, how would they feel if we were to propose moving some of the lesser-used materials to off-campus storage? Though common at many college and university libraries, faculty may not agree with this strategy, as we saw late last year with the faculty protest at Syracuse University.

On the other hand, if students are still browsing, how can we make it easier for them? We have those nifty bookmarks from ALA with the Library of Congress call number ranges printed on them, and I like to pass those out to students who ask about broad subject areas. Would it be helpful to students if we added signage that displayed the subject names next to the call number range signs on our shelves?

Whatever happens, I’m sure that the next decade will bring lots of change for our collections, and I’m eager to see what’s in store for the future.