Thursday, January 06, 2011

Can we please stop the "library is dying" hysteria already?

This is going to be a bit long, so my four readers are warned. I tend to stay away from this type of topic, but to be honest, I am getting a little tired of the constant "the library is dying" hysterical meme going in and out of Librarian Blogsville and the less-than-well informed media. I read the piece in question, and I spent some time writing some thoughts. So here it goes. This is mostly a writing exercise as well as just letting some stuff out.

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"I'm sorry, did I break your concentration? I didn't mean to do that. Please, continue, you were saying something about best intentions. What's the matter? Oh, you were finished! Well, allow me to retort" --Jules, from the film Pulp Fiction.

Brian T. Sullivan's column in The Chronicle of Higher Education, "Death by Irony" (which just got the title changed when I rechecked the link to  ""Academic Autopsy Report 2050" because one reader too many could not tell the piece was meant to be satire or irony) about how academic libraries will be dead by 2050 pretty much begs for a rebuttal. I've heard the piece is supposed to be satire, and that would not worry me were it not for the fact that our campus president would likely view it seriously and use it as evidence to close the library down. That the author is an instructional librarian does not help the matter either since people will always need a librarian to show them how to use information effectively. It's one area where we add value. That he is so dismissive, even in jest (assuming it is jest) just makes me wonder what kind of librarian is he.

I have refuted the column, in a slightly different form previously, in a small piece I tossed over in my scratch pad blog back in November of last year. Some of the arguments I wrote back then would be very applicable now.

Let me take Sullivan's points one at a time:

  1. "Book collections became obsolete." The old canard that e-books and online texts will take over the world. First, I wonder what kind of students Sullivan works with because here our students still have a very strong preference for printed books or what they call "real books." Sure, more distance students are embracing e-books, but on campus at least, print still rules the day. Second, the digital book interfaces still leave a lot to be desired in terms of usability. Honestly, I don't see that getting better by 2050. In fact, a lot of the phone calls we get when it comes to e-books are variants of the "how do I get the book/make this work?" questions. And let's not even go into the whole licensing versus ownership and how to access and/or authenticate certain users questions though those questions do add to the pain and can show why print books are not going to die any time soon in spite of some folks' wishful thinking. Third, as for campus IT managing e-book collections, I don't think they can or are willing to actually manage e-book collections. Such management does require more than just pushing some buttons, applying some code, and making sure the Internet works so users can get to the e-book platform. What I am trying to say is that e-book management is a lot more than just the technology. Guess who negotiates the contracts and then organizes the information, metadata, so on to make it accessible. Not the IT people. That would be a librarian. 
  2. "Library instruction was no longer necessary." Really? There are so many ways to refute this, but I will try to be concise. To start, see my retort to #1 above. I will say: guess who teaches students and faculty to use those e-books. We do, and we do so for individuals as well as groups. Do you honestly think the IT Department will do such work? Nope. Faculty will probably not do it either for the following reasons: 
    1. They may not want to give up their class time. 
    2. They may not know how the systems work. After all, who on campus makes it their job to keep up with e-book, databases, so on, then teach it to others? We do. Heck, were are the ones who often have to drag the faculty into the 21st century. 
  3. "Information literacy was fully integrated into the curriculum." To this I say, "that will be the day." See my #2 above. This also assumes that faculty will actually commit to information literacy with more than lip service to how good it is or a few small measures to pass accreditation. Yes, librarians will play a role in designing the new curricula that integrates information literacy, but I think the partnership will continue beyond the design. For the answer, I would look to models of embedded librarianship or even campus writing labs, which will survive as long as faculty prefer to just send the kids over there to get help with their basic writing or their research skills. We already see it when we get students at the reference desk who say, "my professor sent me here to get research on X." This also means that the reference service will not disappear. And as I am typing I am wondering, if we do achieve integrated information literacy in the curriculum, is that not a good thing? Especially if it works as I envision it, being a collaborative effort? I thought that was the holy grail for many academic librarians.
  4. "Libraries and librarians were subsumed by information-technology departments." I will grant that some librarians who are more technologically inclined will seek and find jobs in IT. Now, IT subsuming everything in terms of the library? See #1 above in terms of collection management. Also see #3 above in terms of teaching information literacy and reference services (don't worry, I am getting to Sullivans' 5th point). It's not all about technology. There are significant elements of people skills (here is another post waiting to happen, but I digress), pedagogy, information organization and management among others that IT pretty much lacks. As for cataloguing being done by vendors, even when they hire former librarians to do it, I can refer you to our cataloguer so she can tell you about time and labor going into fixing what the vendors provide as well as making sure it works locally. Your local IT department is just not going to have that level of care or quality control or customer service (yes, cataloguing IS a public service). Librarians do, and no, the librarians who jump over to IT won't be doing it either since they will be focused on actual IT work. Again, the library and its librarians are not going anywhere. 
  5. "Reference services disappeared." I've already considered much of this in the above. Reference services may and will take new forms, but they will not disappear. As for tiered services, what Sullivan did not mention is that tiered models usually work on a triage model where the nonlibrarian knows when to refer a question up to a professional librarian. While a well-trained paraprofessional or student worker can be very capable and knowledgeable (and we are assuming good training, which is quite a variable), they certainly cannot do everything and usually have a librarian for back-up to fall upon. This is an important detail missing from Sullivan's column. He also mentions that low-wage paraprofessionals cost less. I would suggest he look at companies who prided themselves on sending operations to India that are suddenly bringing their call centers back to the U.S. Or that credit card company that now brags that you can get a REAL person on the first call attempt rather than the cheaper phone tree. Yes, they actually use that as a selling point: talk to a REAL person. Just because something is cheaper, it does not follow it is the best thing to do.Your campus librarians are information and education assets. Or you can let economics trump your quality, which leads us to #6. 
  6. "Economics trumped quality." We don't have to wait for Sullivan's dead library future for this. I may have to grant Sullivan this one. Economics is trumping quality in higher education, and we are seeing the consequences in a less skilled workforce, less educated college students, social promotion and grade inflation, etc.If the powers that be use "economics trump quality" as their excuse to kill the library, they ought to be ashamed of themselves, and they ought to be fired because it means they will be willing to cut corners elsewhere to save a few bucks. And if you think Wikipedia and Google Scholar will replace the library more cheaply,  you may as well admit defeat now and just let Asians, Europeans, and others who already beat the U.S. in every educational measure to just flat out take over while our students clean their toilets and make their Big Macs. I say that about the U.S. because when you look at stories of libraries dying, you don't see as many overseas (except for the British, where The Guardian has one every so often); more often than not, you hear of countries struggling to open libraries. Now I am not being extreme. I am just running with the "economics trumps quality" and the libraries and librarians as expendable luxuries and taking them to logical conclusions. Because if academic libraries are the heart of the campus, and we let economics trump quality, what else in higher education are we willing to amputate/remove/kill in order to save a few bucks? Is that really the future? I hope not, and as long as we have our academic librarians and libraries, probably not. 
For more on the "economics trumping quality" line of thinking, I would recommend taking a look at The Five-Year Party, which I recently read

    1 comment:

    Anonymous said...

    Hear hear. I have been hearing this same library-is-dying theme since I enrolled in library school, well over 20 years ago. And my library is busier than ever, has taken on new functions, etc. Not that we should all roll over and die, or just ignore change - but time after time, we have undergone massive changes, and come out stronger, not weaker. Some libraries will die, others will grow. But we are our own worst enemies, as a profession.