Tuesday, October 12, 2010

A species called librarians - Dinosaurs or Phenix? Or the ugly ducklings?

Dear Readers,
Today I have a little different topic for discussion here.
My doctoral research of five years on change, resistance and change management in library and information centres across the academic and research sectors has given me a great insight into different versions of this ongoing debate of changes in the external environment in general and knowledge and information environment in academic and research sectors in particular. With emerging Web 2.0 technologies and ideas like Library 2.0 I began to gather confidence about the growth of library profession again. But some of my recent experiences have again thrown a bouncer into my face inspite of my evident efforts in the direction of resurrection.
My question to you is very simple and repetitious (like many others) as ever. In this digital era and future generations of ipad kids, why do we need libraries and librarians at all? Should we exist or should we cease to?
Musing over this bouncer I roughly ran a search on Google (Phew! hail the popular notion - Google is God!). The following are some of the hits that intrigued me and I would like to cite and discuss.
The first one is from a Nature network blog, Scientists and librarians: friend or foe by Martin Fenner posted on Jan 24, 2010. He mentions, following the ScienceOnline2010 conference, librarian Dorothea Salo wrote on her blog:
This disconnect is the number-one threat to science librarianship today—perhaps to all academic librarianship. How can science libraries persist when scientists haven't the least notion that libraries or librarians are relevant to their work?
I share the concern of Dorothea. This is what we get to hear while amongst an elite gathering of scientists and academicians. The undaunted expression 'this species now has to cease to exist' is unmistakably flaunted by most people at most places.
While we also cannot deny the efforts of several librarians and library veterans in attempting to justify our existence and roles and to find alternatives for survival in this ever-changing world. While keeping a base of our traditional knowledge and library philosophy, we have always been attempting to strike a balance and invent new roles for ourselves. Some of them would be to participate more actively in the core business of our organizations like partnering in teaching-learning activities, acting as information manager/facilitator/provider (or whatever may suit the occasion) in scientific projects, so much so that now the librarians have a new area to enter (some have already entered) the open access publishing. This is one area which is gathering a quick momentum.
If we try and travel back in time we come across certain facts that cannot be denied.
1. All of today's scientists and academicians have come a long way, making a humble beginning, taking step after step. When they started their professional journeys, they too did not have this wider access to technology of which they talk of to compare the librarians as mundane and rustic.
2. All of them have built their charismatic and enigmatic careers with the help of the then 'brick and mortar' libraries only, which have been organized and maintained by the librarians for fostering their growth and promotion.
3. It was this species of librarians who have, first of all, gracefully accepted and embraced the technology, even earlier to banking sector.
4. When the librarians are continuously accepting the changes and metamorphosing themselves as per the need of the hour by inventing new roles, fitting into them and delivering products also, why this debate has to still continue even after so many long years?
5. A scientist or an academician is an expert in his or her own field, at the most in a couple of areas looking at today's inter-disciplinarity and cross-boundary research. But the poor librarian neither complains of the multifariousness of his role nor does he discourages himself from attempting to atleast know of about the field of research or educational endeavors his parent organization's business is in. Does this make a jack of all trades and master of none? He is still a master in his own profession. The information business!
Christina Pikas, a science and engineering librarian writes on her blog after quoting Dorothea's Salo's ScienceOnline 2010 conference experience: This isn't exactly what I had in mind. I do know that people (and more so engineers and scientists) consult their friends first, then their files, then after trying everything else, consult the library. It's sort of the library/librarian as goalie metaphor (you know, 10 other people missed the ball so the goalie has to save it). Of course, many - if not most - give up before getting to the library. And then there's web search engines which may be before or after friends, I don't think the evidence has sifted up enough to determine that order (most of the studies were done prior to the ubiquitous web)..... So one of my things is to try to get into the friends list. If not friend, then at least to make enough contacts so that the scientists and engineers I work with might think of me when they need information.
I get Christina's point of making our space among the core crowd of the organization. But Dorothea's experience is of more general in nature, in a much larger crowd amidst knowns and unknowns. I have also had such experiences while participating in some of the seminars out of my professional discipline. The point is acceptance of librarianship as a a profession at par with other professions and amongst a much wider gathering.
It is not that the librarians are not able to keep pace with technology or not interested in upgrading themselves or saving their profession from becoming extinct. A simple search about the changing roles and libraries on Google returns a million various websites including books, journal articles, research reports and papers, white papers and position papers, technical conferences and blogs buzzing with ways and means of keeping pace with today's change and being relevant in the business.
There was yet another point in favour of extinction of librarianship that the Generation Y (if I have not mistakenly identified) is born and brought up with ipads and ipods, who will in all probability will never know that something called library used to ever exist. The New York Times has published an interesting column on this debate on Feb 10, 2010. As a librarian, yes, I am thinking about this argument, but more than that as a parent I am forced to think about it even more in terms of my kids (ofcourse) and kids' kids (more obviously)! I have heard of some good libraries in the community places for kids in some places where nannies or grannies (preferably) take their pre-schoolers and kids to the libraries serving the purpose of a good outing, a refreshing walk alongside green environs. If we deprive them of such a facility in their neighborhood and schools just because they get everything on their modern digital gadgets, what would be the result?
Are we not contributing to worsening their physical health in a way? It is we who raise a hue and cry when there is newspaper reporting about kids being affected by Type II Diabetes? We put the blame conveniently on today's lifestyle. What does lifestyle comprise of? Eating and sleeping habits? It also comprises of the physical activity. Is Internet and mobile gaming an alternative to playground? If we consciously are able to say NO to this question, then we should be conscious enough to say a NO to the statement that the digital devices are the best alternatives to printed books and brick n mortar libraries. Are we replacing the teachers in school with these digital devices? From now on: the educational technology journal, Vol 19 (4), March 2010 has published an article authored by Jamie McKenzie in support of the argument "Why Do We Still Need Librarians".
As a parent I am well aware that the e-learning technology has already entered the scholastic arena. But we are supplementing our teaching-learning methodology with these technological advancements and not complementing them. Ain't we? Then why are we hell bent upon replacing the librarians with digital devices thinking that the work-flows and process-flows have been now streamlined and need no intervention? 
A human being is a social animal....a very widely known and acknowledged fact. People want to interact with each other and share emotions, happiness, fears and concerns, and look for help. I found some interesting pictures to share. It does not mean that I am against technology, otherwise I would not be writing this blog. I am trying to differentiate between technological advancement and technolust.
Who is controlling whom?
Moving towards the end of this long discussion, I have two important news items to share. At their outset they look as though they are signaling the Armageddon befalling the librarianship. A careful reading does highlight the importance of paper medium even in this digital age. Some excerpts are worth mentioning.
1. Stanford Ushers In The Age of Bookless Libraries by Laura Sydell, July 8, 2010. When the university realized the crunch for physical space they have decided to digitize 85% of their collection instead of erecting another building to house their growing collection. Now, only 10,000 books sit on the library racks physically. The library director Michel Keller expects eventually there will not be any books in future. However, the report also says, "Meanwhile, back at Stanford's new Engineering Library, librarians are looking forward to spending less time with books and more time with people."...............further, some Stanford students express mixed feelings about the shift. Engineering student Sam Tsai is checking out some old-fashioned paper books. He expresses, to read a book on the screen is kind of tiring for me," Tsai says, "so I sometimes like [the] paper form. But if I can access books online, it's much more convenient for me, so I would actually prefer that as well."
2. Digitizing the Personal Library, Jennifer Howard, published in The Chronicle of Higher Education of 28 Sep, 2010. She reports, "Alexander Halavais, an associate professor of communications at Quinnipiac University, found a partial solution to his city dweller's no-space-for-books dilemma: Slice and scan. The Chronicle asked Mr. Halavais whether the scanned books still felt like a library. Without a physical presence, "no, they really don't," he said. The scanned material "feels like a resource, but it does not feel like a library in the same way."
Well, these are some of my ramblings. So it is for each one of us to answer for ourselves, irrespective of whether we belong to the species of librarians or not, that do we spend our time and effort in duplicating and doing what the librarians are adept at, all by ourselves or do we leave it to them to continue doing their jobs and also magnanimously and candidly allowing them to become one amongst everyone, like a thread in the fabric, occasionally rendering a little glitch to the fabric by way of inventing and fitting themselves into new roles for themselves?


  1. I am richer by a perspective. Before this post, I was not aware that librarians are among the first community to have embraced the advances in technology. And what great selection of pics there! I see, after a long time, this is an excellent post. Keep writing...

  2. Thanks for the compliments. So what do you vote for? Existence or extinction? And why?

  3. I wonder if this question is really poking at deeper issues in higher education -- namely, what exactly *is* higher education? Mere vocational training to become a cubicle serf? Or is it the classical liberal arts education of the free person, that aims to develop the whole person? This seems to be the major battle brewing now here in the US.

    If higher ed. is merely vocational preparation, learning the minimal amount of reading, arithmetic, and social skills necessary to function in a corporate bureaucracy, then, no, libraries are no longer relevant.

    If it is more a liberal education of the whole person, even for those in the sciences, then, yes, libraries need to remain.

    My thought is that before we get to what to do with libraries going forward, we need to define what higher education is.

  4. RS
    A thought provoking question. With budgets budging out and space becoming costly,Internet (deepweb) supporting more advanced search, I wonder soon the question will be self answered.Yet I cannot out Librarians out because, archivals are the need of the hour in the era of RIGHTS to INFORMATION. The Librarian shall change the nature of Job...No more just issue books and receive. Shall be a semi Guide, advisor, friend to locate books/material/ repository of knowledge a way. (Prof Subrahmanyam)

  5. Oh God!
    I just lost my passionate comment while being informed that I needed to log in :(

    Here is what I thought I wrote:
    Library is not merely a place we go to in search for references and access that we cannot afford on our own. They are edifices that civilizations build for themselves, their young and their friends and enemies in an attempt to symbolise what they stand for.

    So, they are not merely about how knowledge is preserved and shared, but about the social, cultural and political processes of emphasizing and often defining what a social group considers important, relevant and therefore worth preservation. If we look closely, we are what our libraries are.

    In the most flexible and lively versions of libraries, the process of procuring, preserving, augmenting and sharing the knowledge would expand with little brittleness of attitude so as to include computers and IT.

    But even in its most retarded form, see what libraries can give us: the sheer awe-inspiration and tingling of nerves when we see rows upon rows of well-kept books, the smell of glue and leather binding, the sheen of gold lettering, and the feeling of being a small baby among the temples of one's ancestors.

    This is what individual households can rarely give, and so I think libraries would never be irrelevant. And the role of the librarian? Same as the soul had in the body.

    I believe that a librarian should not be merely an agent of change. A librarian should also struggle tooth and nail for keeping what is old. Should be tolerant towards the most debunked and criticized authors - sometimes some people are a generation ahead of their times, so they are valued only much after their copies are burned and - sometimes, they are, too. And the librarian should be a loving parent who loves the members as if they needed gentle hand-holding. A librarian should also be a politician that strives to get more resources and membership - and more...

  6. The role of Librarian in the present times is very much invaluable. We cannot really function without technology. The Role of Librarian at any given point of time cannot be questioned.The role is of a tehncologist and knowledge professional who caters the needs of the users.

    I really enjoyed this post and not aware of technological developments in the field of library science and how librarians are forward looking. They are really knowledge providers to the users and raise to the occassion of the users. Without Librarain life is like without a teacher to a student.