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The Unspeakable Truth

By Ned Potter (LIFE-SHARE Project Officer, University of Leeds Library)

How close is the library to death? Reports vary. Some people think the reaper is hovering over the life-support machine, eager to pull the plug; others think that kind of image is a lot of melodramatic fuss about nothing. Two things I know for sure. One is, public-funding for libraries is being cut on both sides of the Atlantic - and as we sleep-walk towards a Conservative government in the UK we’ll soon realise just how much worse things can be, particularly with regards to the arts, culture, and public spending. The other is, people who would otherwise require the services of a library have never had so many means and opportunities to bypass us entirely in reaching their information goals. So, we have issues!

Is it as simple as Change or Die? Thingology, the blog from LibraryThing, recently indicated in an article entitled ‘Why are you for killing libraries?’ that there might be a third way: impede technological progress to ensure that libraries remain relevant and needed. The e-book, it suggested, could kill us off for good – so how come we’re so keen to embrace it? It is a provocative and thought-provoking point, and my two sentence summary above is in no way adequate – I’d wholly recommend reading the whole thing. It is a counter-intuitive but ultimately fairly logical suggestion that perhaps we should be trying to slow down the uptake of any technology which could ultimately render the library empty and obsolete.

I’ve read differing explanations of the origins of the word “library”. From the Latin word ‘Liber’ meaning ‘to peel’ referring to the inner bark of a tree, on which manuscripts were written, or more simply to just mean ‘book’. Or, also from the Latin, perhaps it originates from ‘Libero’ meaning to free or liberate? I like that one more (although I fear it is less likely to be correct) as what we do is liberate information. We facilitate access to, pay for access to, point people towards access to, and generally ‘free’ information that they want. (Because, contrary to popular reports, information is not free. It is sometimes monetarily expensive, it is often locked behind complicated authentication procedures, and it is almost always buried deep within a massive heap of other information – too much data is just as prohibitive as too little.) The 'freer of the information' is a definition which stands the test of time a lot better than ‘the keeper of the books’ – we’ve been keepers of books for millennia, but we may not be for that much longer; we’ve been liberating information for ever too, and that will never change as long as our role survives. It is as agents of Libero that we may be able to endure.

What we cannot do is obstruct progress to information liberation! We cannot try to slow down the impact of the e-book, or any other format which may have a negative impact on the library’s usefulness. It’s just not right to try and divert or derail progress for our own ends – indeed, we have no hope of doing so anyway - and even to try is to betray the Information Professional’s equivalent of the Hippocratic Oath… We must embrace the e-book and everything it represents, even if doing so makes us complicit in our own demise.

Here is the unspeakable truth: if there comes a point when we are no longer required in our present form, we shouldn’t fight that, we should just leave. We cannot deflect emerging trends to suit our own industry. It would be terrible for me and you and all our peers to lose our jobs (although whatever happens there will always be some cause for a good number of libraries to remain open, I’m sure) but that isn’t a good enough reason to try and keep something alive if it effectively enters a vegetative state. I used to like the idea that we are ‘the gatekeepers of information’ but that has an obstructive ring to it now; we really do need to be more akin to willing Sherpas. It is better to fade away than to betray our roles as the liberators of information by becoming jailers instead.

That’s a stark pronouncement, but actually it isn’t as bleak as all that. I don’t think we are anywhere near the point where libraries are no longer needed yet, and that there’s plenty we can do in the meantime to ensure we never get there. The first thing is to ensure everyone knows what we can already do for them, and the second thing is to adapt to what they need us to do for them.

Let’s look at spreading the word first of all. We need to make sure everyone is making an informed decision as to whether or not to engage with libraries. This comes back to a whole host of related hobby-horses I’ve ridden elsewhere… The Library Day in the Life Project, marketing the profession in general, the Echolib debate – they all relate in some way to the idea of preaching to the potentially converted, and telling them what we actually do so they know whether or not they need us. We’ll never ‘convert’ those who are actively hostile (or if we do, it won’t necessarily be a good use of our resources when there are better targets to work on) so we must concentrate our efforts on the currently indifferent.

We have to reach people who don’t fall into our current marketing catchment area. If someone came up to me and asked me why libraries were so important these days, I could regale him or her with anything from the 30 second ‘elevator sell’ to a one-hour lecture on the value of what we do today – but sadly people don’t come up and ask, so we have to go and find them, on their terms, and via the media they engage with already. In fact, I feel as though we need some kind of professional PR. Not individually, but collectively. Imagine a news item on the radio, perhaps about libraries closing due to lack of borrowing / footfall or some such – I’ve heard items just like that. But never have I heard the announcer say, “Here is a spokesman from the Coalition for the Promotion of Libraries [or whatever] who said: [insert ‘passionate defence of the profession which might possibly encourage the radio listeners to think anew about whether we can offer them something’, here]” – yet I can think of a hundred other industries that wouldn’t dream of letting a negative news story go by without some official representation in the media, to rebuff or mitigate the stories effects. Or, indeed, to place more positive stories in the media in the first place. Lots of libraries do brilliant marketing on an individual or regional level (and learning from those success stories is important) but I’m not sure the profession per se, and the library per se, is so well represented; that needs to change. How do we go about doing this? I don’t have the answers – I’m better at formulating questions, sadly. But I’d like to simulate debate and get the input of greater thinkers than me…

The second thing we can do to ensure we never get to the stage where we have to do the decent thing and fall on our collective sword is adapt, modify, revise and reinvent. There is plenty of historical precedent for organisations to find circumstances have overtaken them and they are no longer relevant in their current form. Some are able to adapt and become relevant in a new form; some are simply unable to continue existing at all due to a comprehensive shift in the technology / market-place / paradigm. My main point in this essay is to say we that we need to engage with the former idea, because it’s not worth trying to force it if the latter happens. To take a very basic example of adapting, there is a company in the UK and Europe called The Carphone Warehouse. You can guess what it used to do, when it first started out – it sold phones for people to have in their cars. Mobile phones (and good taste) rendered car-phones obsolete pretty swiftly, but The Carphone Warehouse survives to this day and continues to thrive, by shifting their focus to mobile phones and all the associated paraphernalia. The lesson we can learn here is, they were not so tied to their previous identity that they couldn’t adapt to the changes in the needs of their customers, and even though they stopped selling their eponymous product entirely they still had value in the marketplace.

A rather weightier example might be the oil industry. Here’s a quote from BP’s website: “Since ‘BP’ petrol first went on sale in Britain in the 1920s, the brand has grown to become recognised worldwide for quality gasoline, transport fuels, chemicals and alternative sources of energy such as wind, solar and biofuels.” I’m not sure I’d agree with that entirely… (I’m trying to avoid libel here.) But what is striking about that sentence is the fact that the second half of it may be all BP is known for in a hundred year’s time. When the oil runs out, BP and all the other companies will have to focus their efforts entirely on things like wind-farms and solar energy. Say what you like about the irony (or perhaps carefully crafted and sinister strategy) that the destroyers of the environment are to become, with all their incalculable resources, its protector; the fact is the brand endures despite an almost total about-turn in their focus. They are adapting, they are fully accepting that their original purpose has a limited legacy (in certain senses of the word, anyway) and they are repositioning themselves accordingly. Major oil companies have a history of buying up patents of potentially rival technologies (steam-powered cars, for example) in order to suppress them – do we really want to go down a similar route in libraries by disrupting technological progress? Of course not, let’s skip straight to the part where we re-appropriate our resources to better engage with the current market-place.

Can libraries change? They can, in fact they are already doing it and have been for ages – the environments we work in are often unrecognisable from, say, twenty years ago. But can we cope with a Carphone Warehouse / BP style paradigm shift, where ‘the book’ as we’ve always known it is no longer our primary offering? It’ll be a damn sight harder, but possibly necessary in the long term. And, like the phone company and the energy company, we’ll be moving into a closely related area in which we already have expertise – essentially, in our case, marshalling and providing access to information online.

The unspeakable truth is that we should not try and outlive our usefulness. We certainly shouldn’t try and prolong that usefulness by effectively sabotaging our users’ ability to empower themselves. But the more palatable truth is that if we work hard on reinvention and increased public understanding, we’ll never have to be put on the life-support machine in the first place.

It is never too late to adapt.



"if there comes a point when we are no longer required in our present form"... We are certainly well past that point. But that's no reason to shed tears or "just leave."

There's much good advice in your post, but it betrays the same fundamental confusion that runs through most of the handwringing I read from librarians worried about whether or not "libraries" will survive. Libraries are a means to an end, not an end in themselves. They were built by librarians in order to fulfill our role in society -- to facilitate the connection between people and recorded knowledge for the whole vast range of reasons that this is important to people -- education, entertainment, self-improvement, science, art, religion, fun.... In the print world, building libraries as we have come to know them was the best way to do that. In the digital world it probably isn't. But as long as we worry about "saving libraries" we're missing the point. Libraries don't do "brilliant marketing", librarians do. People don't need to engage with libraries, they need to engage with librarians.

I frequently say that this is the best time in 500 years to be a librarian, and I firmly believe that. In the very rich and incredibly complicated information space that we now live in, society needs smart, creative and innovative librarians more than ever. But librarians who think that their job is managing or saving libraries are not going to be able to provide the kind of leadership and energy that is required.

We need to quit wasting time trying to figure out what the "role of the library" is in the digital age. Who cares? The library is just a tool. We know, if we stop to reflect, what the role of the librarian is -- as I said above, it's to connect people to recorded knowledge. It's the same role that we've always had. The tasks that we perform, and the settings in which we perform them, may turn out to be radically different from what our predecessors did fifty (and even 15) years ago, but our fundamental role is the same.

So let's figure out how we take advantage of the best of the new technology, along with our many centuries of tradition and expertise, and invent a librarianship of the 21st century that would be the envy of every single one of those great librarians that came before us. There is an incredible future within our grasp -- but it's a future where our focus needs to be on librarians, not libraries.

A librarian needs access to a collection. If you think you can survive on the fact that you think you can run Google searches better then the Average Joe you had better watch out.

You are going to need that brilliant marketing when you have no access to the information someones need.

I run an organization of 55 very busy people (17 degreed librarians), with a $4M budget, supporting a major biomedical research university. This year we'll spend $1.25M on licensing access to content -- all of it electronic. We don't think of it as a "collection" and the most important work we do happens outside the building (although the building remains very important and very busy). And I'm pretty sure none of us spends much time thinking that we're better at Google than anybody else (although we all use it daily and we probably are pretty good at getting the most out of it). If you think you can survive by building an excellent collection, I do hope you're nearing retirement age.

So you have access to a collection. An online collection that you pay over a million a year to access. My point is that do you come up with that million yourself? If you were on a street corner out of work as a librarian and I asked for your help you could not get me to that 1 million collection of information. So the fact that you are a librarian has no power.

What makes you useful is that you can get me to the 1 million dollars in information. Whatever entity is ponying up the money to access the info has the power. The actual database company also has power because they have the information.

So when I say collection I am not talking about a physical collection but your ability to access information. The reality is that to access deep amounts of info you need money and the entities that have money are organizations. So this idea that power rest with librarians and not libraries has a very soft underbelly.

I don't disagree with much here except your last sentence. Since I don't own the stuff I license, I don't think of it as a "collection" but leave that aside for the moment. The power that I do have rises or falls based on the degree to which the decisions that I make about how to allocate my resources (money & staff) are perceived to advance the mission of my university. But whatever power that is resides with the people who are charged with making and executing those decisions. What does it mean to say that power rest with libraries, if that power isn't in fact in the hands of librarians?
Libraries don't DO anything -- people do. Even an out of work librarian has the skills and knowledge to help somebody make more efficient/effective use of whatever information resources are available; a library building without librarians is close to useless.

That's a brilliant point, and one that I agree with. I also think it's a terrific time to be in this job, but that the hand-wringing is kind of neccessary to encourage engagement with some of the issues we're facing...

I'd love to think the librarian could endure beyond the library - but how would we make this happen, on a practical level?

- Ned

My 'Good Point' comment above was directed at TScott, not at my own essay! That'll teach me to reply on my phone...

As I say, I like the idea of the info pro surviving the building - I've written elsewhere about how we spend more time out of the library than in it these days but still seem to be defined by it. But how would it work? How would librarians function without some kind of premises in which to help people with their information needs? (And as other commenters have implied, it'd be hard to get a budget without a building!)

The health sciences library at Johns Hopkins University is now engaged in an experiment in which they are essentially abandoning the building altogether. Within the next couple of years, the librarians will all have offices out in the departments and there will be no physical collections. The director is not concerned that this is going to have a negative impact on her budget -- indeed, indications at this point are exactly the opposite.

I don't suggest that this scenario is going to work in all, or even most, settings. But we need to rethink the best uses of the building. The question, "How would librarians function without some kind of premises in which to help people with their information needs?" may unwittingly still show the bias that people need to come to us. But they don't. I don't think that electronic communication is an adequate substitute for face-to-face, but it certainly is a useful adjunct. So we communicate online, but more importantly we go to where they are. The library liaisons keep office hours in the schools, they spend time in classrooms, they meet with faculty in the faculty offices. We try everything we can think of and manage to be where they are, rather than having them come to us. Our building remains very important and I'm pretty sure it will continue to be "the library" long after I'm no longer running it, but it no longer defines what we do or constrains the space within which we operate.

Setting makes a difference, and you need to be acutely attuned to the needs & nature of your community. I think that for public libraries the building will continue to play a much more important role than it will in the academic setting. Our local public library (and bear in mind that I live in one of the poorest states in the US) is extremely vibrant and busy -- I often have to circle the lot just to find a parking place. But that's in part because its brilliant and innovative library director understands that she is running a complex of community services, and that the building itself is an important tool for doing that. But the building doesn't define or constrain her operation anymore than it does mine.

Great post, and a good comment there too. And very timely for my library, an Academic one with a strong tradition. We're not threatened with extinction so much as with being sidelined into a quaint irrelevance. Our University is embarking on a major building program to create a "Learning Hub" (this week's variation on the Learning Commons), and part of that involves using space occupied by the Library. We're losing around 25% of our space in this program, and we're faced with many difficulties as a result.

This week we're engaged in workshops with consultants to explore how the Library might fit in with the Learning Hub, and the discussion is fascinating. My impression is that most of the librarians still see the library in terms of print books, journals and lending. Yes, we have massive investment in e-resources, but .. well, they just kind of take care of themselves. They don't see them in terms of service.

After 3 hours yesterday, we finally reached a turning point in understanding: that the real role of the library and librarians is to facilitate access to information. Lending, self-check machines and returns processing are all important, but they are only one aspect of information access, and one of diminishing significance.

I don't favor the word 'marketing' because a library's importance is more social justice less commodity however, the concept is exactly what librarians need to start employing. . .and fast! I thought you made a profound point when you said you could give a great elevator speech but nobody is asking.

It gets to the element of marketing that is about knowing the needs and wants of your 'customers' where librarians could take a hard look. The most visionary and the most progressive have done so and they're busy and not complaining; they'll say it's the best time in history to be a librarian.

They are the ones that have become experts in emerging technologies, have reinvented the services they provide (showcasing their students' creativity for example by helping them build a digital portfolio of their work.), reconfigured old practices like collaboration to be more about mentoring and servicing (the high stakes tests on this side of the Atlantic have compressed room for collaboration but the cutting edge librarians are busy because they offer services and knowledge that students and teachers want and need), and have created atmospheres in their domains- both virtual and physical.

A disclaimer: I am a Mom not a librarian. I don't want you to become extinct because I believe my children and all children need you, the adults need you, our communities need you. Programs whether they be school, public or academic are hemorrhaging everywhere- it's time to set aside any separation and come together as ONE (GLOBAL) LIBRARY COMMUNITY. You will always be relatively few in number (and great in intellectual acumen and heart) and that means you simply have to recruit a public mandate. And although you used to be physically isolated you have a chance in this Century to be very visible. . .if you choose to master the public face of your web and virtual space.

I want so desperately for the profession to pool every last collective global penny and invest it with the smartest and most successful firm they can afford to help craft a message that captures the enduring qualities of what you and the institution 'do'. (I would put my money on IDEO) I want so desperately for your professional associations to pull out the stops and undertake a massive training campaign to raise all librarians (every single last one working today- because the lack of uniform excellent and modern service is killing your image) technology skills to a baseline that is ahead of the population norm. . .with a commitment that librarians will be stewards of the tools of today like they were of the stacks in the past.

The phrase 'Information Anarchy' was tossed around this week to describe the times, and it reminds one that if you fail we all fail. The flourishing of Democracy and the flourishing of Libraries have always been interconnected and people get that but frankly most of the public doesn't really know how bad the situation is, it's up to you to make sure they do by reaching out to your clients and letting them know you need their help.

If that feels icky as does the prospect of putting yourself out in the public domain to advocate than do it for the kids that will never have a ride to the library or access to the internet.

I agree with the commenter who calls out the hand-ringing- connecting people to knowledge in whatever ways this Century will allow and facilitating this generation can produce their own--- that's the adaptation that will assure the survival.

I'm going to keep my fingers crossed for a professional ad and campaign that is global in scope and a training campaign that is comprehensive and deep. BP's barely 100 years pales against the image of Alexandria, and who would want to fire the person who is their translator of the new tools of the 21st Century?

Thanks for the post and I hope IDEO takes on this cause.
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What a great post to start my Friday with. I'll be grinning all the way. And I just went to your site and bought a t-shirt. Please give my best to your brilliant colleagues.

Doubtless "liber"; the stem of this word is libr-, whereas the stems of "libero" would be "liber" or "liberat" (depending on which principal part is used); and we have "library", not "liberary". (Perhaps "liberry" is from "libero". ;)