On libraries

I came across Matt’s musings on libraries. The upshot of his story is that libraries are still living in an enterprise 1.0 world. He cites the fact that one has to physically go to a library, that the collection is basically hard copy (and even the hard copy is not reliable since items may be missing or out of date), and even the internet service requires a booking and is therefore not instantaneous. Libraries are essentially static collections.

This is not totally true of course. There are access points and information available from libraries on the internet. For example, the PICMAN database of photos is online. Perhaps an enhancement would be to allow tagging and comments to such a collection. There could even be a blog based around historical photos, modern image preservation techniques, and storytelling.

However, the nub of the matter is that libraries are no longer the single comprehensive source of a wide swathe of information and knowledge like they used to be. It’s true that Google and instantaneous access to information from other online sources are often preferred. Today, information is about immediacy, networks and collaboration. At the same time, libraries do themselves no favours when they are seen to be collectors and holders of information rather than distributors of information and advocates of the knowledge society.

Libraries need to be not only depositories of information, but delivery channels for information.  Libraries could make use of their space by holding seminars, creating social spaces like cafes, and encouraging other community events to host functions in the library space (subject to that space being available of course). Libraries need to enhance linkages between people and information resources, both structured and unstructured. Libraries need to market themselves and their knowledge professionals as being part of a chain of information flows rather than just offering a commodity stock. Lastly, libraries need to embrace openness, interactivity across a range of channels, innovative practices, and fun!


14 responses to “On libraries

  1. Yes, you’re right. It’s not all true. There is some hope. But will librarians see the light before it is too late?

    I would love for libraries to be the centre of socio-cultural convergence, yet I weep when librarians preach information literacy, and that their role is to teach people how to use libraries with them as the gatekeepers to knowledge. What about reviewing? What about tagging? What about their important role in social computing and improving the wisdom of crowds found in reference material like Wikipedia? What about the power of knowledge is in its sharing?

    You’ve hit the mark when you talk of the need for libraries to evolve. Maybe if a few more librarians were thought leaders in the information architecture, knowledge management and web 2.0 spaces, perhaps we would see some action.


  2. Well, look at some of the library 2.0 stuff, and you’ll see that we aren’t so totally behind 😉
    I think many librarians are seeing their role as evolving to include helping people contribute to knowledge, understanding and community- e.g. by supporting online initiatives, providing spaces etc. But we still have a duty to building collections which reflect our community- and right now that still means a repository function is important.
    I think the debate will truly move forward when libraries aren’t thought of only in terms of ‘information’, but more of community- without thinking that automatically means online social community 😉

  3. Thanks to Matt and Pete for your comments. I agree that the repository function is still important, but the challenge is to move beyond that and actively engage people rather than be passive collectors of information. Libraries can perform their community role more effectively by creating more channels of information flow and in becoming part of the Web 2.0 conversation. I wonder if the moniker “librarian” has anything to do with it….

    Thanks again.

  4. I think librarian is fine as a name. It’s the assumptions that are the problem 🙂 Libraries have never been static or indeed passive as a whole; they seem so through a lens of social software tagging etc.
    Anyjob title with ‘information’ in it is even more limiting, as libraries are about so much more than information access/transfer, although that is were we all begin.
    Libraries are building flickr etc sites, encouraging the use of social software to create locally relevant meterials etc. See Slow Library, Tame the Web and Walt Crawford for examples and discussion.

  5. There’s certainly something culturally entrenched in the title ‘librarian’ that limits people’s understanding of ther role. It may even limit the thinkin of those who call themselves librarians.

    More over I see much of this discussion as an emerging issue of the intersection between web, social psychology, organisational psychology, and knowledge management. I don’t know many people who span all these fields. Until we see more of them in positions of power within our organisations, library or otherwise, we’re just not going to see the real transformation that enterprise 2.0 promises.


  6. Matt,

    I think you’re right and that’s why knowledge management opens the door somewhat since KM can encapsulate that multidisciplinary knowledge and skill set. That’s not to say everyone in KM has that skill set, but it’s more likely to happen by choice or circumstance with a multi-disciplinary approach.

  7. Multi-disciplinary approach.

    I like it 🙂

    Maybe we should be talking about the skills required to really get L2.0 off the ground!


  8. Those skills woudl be, in no particular order:-

    team work
    technical awareness (not necessarily programming level)

    Librarians are often possessed of such a skill-set, but it goes unrecognised because of other people’s ideas of what librarians are. And maybe some people limit themselves as ‘libarians’, but overall it’s not such a problem. Indeed we may well need such people 😉

  9. @Peter: That’s a good start, esp if by ‘service’ you mean user-centred design mentality. Too many systems are thrown in with an emphasis on the business requirement or drivers rather than determining how the people are going to use it actually want to use it. Information Architects are good at designing systems based on user-centred design principles.

    @Brad: Any thoughts on the disciplines required?

    I’d say:

    * Social Psych
    * Knowledge Management (or other info science)
    * Information Architecture
    * Taxonomy/Folksonomy design
    * Web 2.0 science, theory and approach
    * Communications marketing strategy (ya just have to know how to understand your users and who they are!!)


  10. Pete and Matt,

    I think that librarians do have service and knowledge skills appropriate to our world today. However, perhaps more needs to be done in terms of professional training (and continuous training) to incorporate a wider skill set that includes social psychology (although I hear social psychology these days has dropped down the psychology discipline heirarchy!), basic technical skills and/or understanding for Web 2.0 applications, and Marketing skills. A lot of what librarians do and provide is limited by poor Marketing. It’s been about 20 years since I did my Grad.Dip Information Science at UTS Ku-ring-gai and a lot has changed since then!

  11. I distrust pyschology, soc psych even more so ;)One of my MSc lecturers was a soc psych grad…
    I do think lib education needs updating, and some sense of the social aspect of what we do needs to be revisited

  12. Distrust psychology?!

    Maybe because of the bastardisation in the pop-psych/management-psych area.

    One of my areas of expertise is in organisational psychology. It’s very useful in understanding the theories behind people, motivation and work.

    The applications of the discipline, in KM and learning, are quite vast.


  13. Not sure how far I’d go down the psychology debate here, but I do think it’s important to understand client needs, personality, learning styles and preferences, and be flexible enough to understand them. This has been always part of the traditional librarian’s tool kit in terms of the “reference interview”. So, psychology and motivational considerations have been part of the library scene before. Perhaps they need to recognised but also updated, as we all need to be, to the changing information and knowledge environments.

  14. Ah, I distrust pyschology in its pat manifestations true.
    What is important is to try, where possible, to meet people as they are, not as theories would have them.

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