Thursday, February 9, 2012

The “L Word"

(c) iStockPhoto
As part of my consulting work, I recently had a wonderful experience where I got to meet with the “Vision Group” of a forward looking academic library.  Their Director had charged them to come up with some ideas about where the future of librarianship, and therefore the library, should take them.   In meeting with me, they’d prepared a number of well thought out questions, some of which I’ll make use of in later posts.  Today I want to take on their question about the “L Word”, which of course refers to their concern about the appropriateness and the desirability of continuing the use of the word “library” in describing who they are and what they do.

I’ll admit that over the years, I’ve swung back and forth in this debate like the pendulum on a clock.  However, with years of experience in both librarianship and marketing/promotion now behind me, I’m firmly in the corner of continued usage –- provided, we redefine what it means.   Here is my thinking:
  1. Using words like “information” or “knowledge” in the description of our profession will quickly result in us being lumped into a stew of job descriptions and understanding where it will be hard to distinguish the unique ingredients that are our value-add.  Just think about all the variations of job titles we hear with regard to “Information Technology” jobs or “Knowledge Management” jobs.  No, “library” still has strong and unique identification, even if it is currently problematic for us.  Let’s examine that problem next.

  2. “Library” has, in all too many minds, become identified with “books” and that's a problem.   OCLC’s Perceptions 2010 report verified this when it stated: “Americans… believe -- overwhelmingly – that libraries equal books.” Furthermore, they stated it was an even stronger brand identification in 2010 than it was in 2005.  The report concludes that librarians should “Embrace the brand. Extend the experience.  Connect the dots.”  Perhaps.  However, I fear that means we’ll move away from it all together too slowly.  In my mind, and certainly in the minds of our users, books are but ONE vehicle out of many, that we use to communicate our vast warehouses of information and knowledge to our members.  As librarians, we’re coming from way behind in brand identification and embracing books is to continue to embrace the past.   We should be actively working to help people understand that:

    • Libraries represent the best information and knowledge available (Unbiased information/knowledge that is authoritative, appropriate, authenticated and given with context).  That library represents, just like an Olympic pole-vaulter, information that has cleared a high bar in order to be included in the information we provide access to.  This is a unique value for our members.
    • Librarians endeavor to provide information/knowledge in a variety of packages (visual, textual, auditory and tactile), which we do in order to facilitate the members’ ability to consume and use it in a way that is most useful for them. 
    • With member support of their libraries, librarianship is hard at work to ensure the above is provided to them anytime, anyplace on any device of their choosing.
    • Librarianship, by definition, implies some level of subject knowledge across all of human knowledge.  We can help our members to find alternative viewpoints, other places where knowledge intersects and has unknown, but potentially high, value and where informed and intelligent discussions can be found, held and encouraged to broaden the knowledge.
    • Finally, librarianship is about helping create new knowledge, using existing knowledge and information as the springboard.  We provide access to that high quality information and increasingly we should be providing access to tools to facilitate members creating new knowledge for themselves and others. 

So, yes – we should continue to use the term “librarian” proudly.   What we should not do is to continue the past trends of letting the “L words” languish.   Look at your physical building; look at your virtual presence; look at how you and your team interact with the members of the library.  

Are all those things/activities conveying, underscoring and driving home the value-add to information that librarianship represents?  If not, it is time to fix it.  I’m seriously hoping that the next OCLC Perceptions Report will show we’ve succeeded in this task.