Sunday, June 14, 2009

Going, going, gone??

It’s one of those days where I find myself on a morning flight between the offices of Ex Libris in Chicago and Boston, and I’m scanning today’s newspapers. I’m reading them on an Amazon Kindle, which is appropriate because this morning’s news stories have much to say about the accelerating move of books and information from analog to digital.

The “Financial Times” (June 10, 2009) carries the article “School textbooks near digital doomsday” wherein it details how California’s governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger is promising to replace costly “outdated” textbooks with digital learning devices. He goes on to call textbooks “antiquated, heavy and expensive” and states that he no “longer sees the need for traditional hard-bound books when information is so readily available in electronic form”.

The next article I read is in Wired (June 2009) magazine, entitled “The Future of Reading” where Clive Thompson, in the subtitle states “To save books, publishers must go digital—and let audiences unlock the potential of the written word.” Thompson goes on to say that “Books are the last bastion of the old business model—the only major medium that still hasn’t embraced the digital age.” He then nudges us to “stop thinking about the future of publishing and instead think about the future of reading.”

All of which causes me to once again pause and ponder about the future of libraries and librarianship. As information continues to move to the digital medium, I wonder why we expect students whose textbooks and other sources of information are readily available electronically and wherever they are, to come to the library to use our resources, be they digital or analog? Will the library as “a place” or librarianship as a service have sufficient added-value to end-users to justify its continued existence? Or, will Deans and Provosts begin to eliminate librarian positions and/or library facilities on their campuses because they buy into the “it’s all available digitally” belief? Not to mention, they currently have to deal with an economic crisis so does that give them the perfect excuse to reduce/eliminate if they think this way? (In fact, later in the day, I talk to a consortium director who tells me the elimination of librarian positions is exactly what has happened at two of the colleges in his consortium). At the same time, we’re seeing the Pennsylvania state library have nearly 50 of their 57 staff positions eliminated. Left with such a skeleton staff one has to speculate if they’ll be able to do little more than keep the doors open and even then, at very limited hours, with very limited services. This is not exactly the future of librarianship we all had in mind, I’m sure. This leads me to the belief that we’ve arrived at a very important time for libraries and librarianship. It’s time to redefine them and then rapidly move towards that redefinition before it’s too late.

An interesting, yet obviously preliminary and partial part of that redefinition, is described later in the same June issue of Wired ( in an article by Steven Levy entitled “The Answer Engine” which describes Stephen Wolfram’s new Wolfram Alpha service . Applying a computational engine to the vast amount of digital information already available, Wolfram Alpha attempts to answer questions poised using the digital information now available. If you haven’t yet taken the time to experiment with this product, I would certainly encourage you to do so. Most librarians will likely find an encounter with Wolfram’s tool frustrating at the moment, but the potential it shows is fascinating.

What you’ll find clearly missing in this service, is what many of us librarians learned in the course called “Reference Services” which is where we learned how to interview the user, before starting the search, to find what exactly would meet the users information needs. There are many ways to do this in today’s digital environment. The point though, is that this is a place where clearly the skills of librarianship are needed and could play a very important role. Engaging in the development of these types of enhanced services is a place where I believe librarianship should be focused and headed, today and tomorrow. Of course, in the short term we need to show more immediate results. This can be done with activities such as those we describe in our Initiatives blog and as I’ve recently described in a post in the Federated Search Bog.

What seems obvious to me after reading all of these articles is that if we don’t start filling gaps like these with library services and librarianship skills, others will. If we want librarianship, and the values it represents, to survive intact, we must more rapidly adapt to this environment just as information is doing in moving from analog to digital. Otherwise, librarianship will be gone.