Tuesday, January 27, 2015

If information has become ubiquitous due to the Internet, can librarians do the same?

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After my last blog post on library branding, I had an engaging exchange with a good friend who often says things that cause me to pause and think. That conversation was about what constitutes “expertise” in today’s information environment.  Then, over the holiday break, I read a recent book called “Virtual Unreality: Just Because the Internet Told You, How Do You Know It’s True? by Charles Seife.”  Finally, during that same holiday break, while visiting with another friend, who had recently written and self-published a book, he told me that while doing the research for his book, his very knowledgeable librarian, using substantial libraries resources, couldn’t find anything for him that he hadn’t already found using Google or Google Scholar.  In my thinking all of these dialogues converged together.  Here’s why.

A point most everyone, including librarians, agrees upon today is that due to easy accessibility, today information is truly ubiquitous in our environment.  Tapping or talking into our mobile devices readily retrieves information.  Increasingly, we can use normal conversational language in forming the inquiries.  In response the answers are delivered to us in mere moments.   It’s fast, it’s easy. Who needs a library or even a librarian anymore?  As a librarian, I know I’m not alone in having encountered numerous college and university administrators that have said this, nor am I alone in being asked at parties or at airports or on airlines, when being introduced and explaining I’m a librarian, being given the sad, sorrowful look and asked: “With eBooks and Google, aren’t libraries and librarians a thing of the past?”  That’s when I know I have someone in front of me that needs a major update on librarianship.  (Not that it’s really their fault. As I’ve long said, librarians do not excel at articulating their value-add).

Yes, information is ubiquitous today but here is the problem; so is so-called “expertise”.   Senator Patrick Moynihan once said, in an oft-quoted statement: “everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not everyone is entitled to their own facts”. Unfortunately today, that no longer seems to be true.   As Seife documents in the book mentioned above, the criteria for holding “expertise” has been substantially lowered.  Today, you can be an “expert” by being a celebrity, by being rich (and buying a think-tank to generate “facts” that support your position) or just by being very persistent and vocal in making your position well know.  You can say just about anything online, and if you get a big enough following of people to read and repeat what you’ve said, you’ve by default earned the title of “expert”.  Social media, blogs, pod-casts and today’s TV media all permit, promote and foster the creation of so-called experts, most of who would not pass previous generations criteria for that term. The use of research and/or facts to support positions, particularly research and facts that have passed through tests normally applied to scholarship, have become totally secondary if required at all.  

We also know that we’re facing a population where concentration is becoming rare.  Multi-tasking has become a way of life, as has our supply of mobile devices. Soon those devices won’t even require carrying because they’ll be strapped to, or embedded in our bodies further exacerbating the problem.  Thoughts have become messages limited to 140 characters (Twitter) or videos that need to be limited to 3  minutes on YouTube, 15 seconds on Instagram and 6 seconds on Vine.co. (a definite trend there!).  We know Facebook and Google are using profiling to place us in silos in order to increase their ad sales.  However, those silos also result in us no longer thoughtfully exploring ideas or positions, particularly those that might conflict with our points-of-view.  As a result, we end up with a society, community, campus where we only read what we agree with and where we count on trending Tweets or friends to tell us what we think we need to know from the overwhelming, and ubiquitous, information flow.  It’s a very difficult environment, where simplicity triumphs over sophistication.

Now, let’s get back to libraries and librarianship, because it is this environment we’ve just described that gives librarianship the opportunity to create new, real and sustaining value.  However, as with so many opportunities, it also requires change. 

My previous post pointed out that librarians have not been diligent in keeping their brand up-to-date.  We’ve let the word “books” be our brand for way too long.  That was OK when libraries were THE place to go get information and most of it was made accessible in a book format.  However, that day is long gone.  

This has been compounded by the fact that when we did adopt new information tools, we lagged in the adoption curve and thus when finally introduced, we all too often, in a rush, simply tried to fully emulate that tool (look at our new search tool, it’s just like Google!).  When we did that, it meant we did not take the time to make clear the differentiating values librarianship provided (deep Web searching, alternate points-of-view, appropriateness, authoritativeness and authenticity).  This resulted in the commoditization of the new tool and as a result, it was quickly discounted (why do I need to go to the library, I can search Google and I’ll find more?). These problems were further exacerbated by the rise of mobile devices.  Librarians tended to simply push out their Google like interfaces (although frequently dumbed down) onto those devices. Now lacking the face-to-face interaction with the user, librarians easily became one with the technology. The result?  Librarians became identified with their technology and the total package was commoditized.  Which is where too many libraries still are today and why so many of us have ended up in those painful discussions about their profession and its future viability.  

Leading librarians saw what was happening and decided they had to adapt and so they defined a new pathway.  One, which allowed the value of librarians to be affirmed and even, expanded.  While not in the majority, their examples are now solidifying and are offering solid answers to the questions asked in those discussions.  The results work to ensure that expertise is seen as something that must be earned and measured by established academic criteria and not simply by creative marketing.

If we look at the recently built Hunt Library at North Carolina State, the newly announced, planned library at Temple University in Philadelphia or those institutions that are beginning to transform their existing facilities like the University of Oklahoma Libraries you can see recurring themes emerging with the use of phrases like: collaborative workspaces, intellectual commons & crossroads, knowledge creation, innovation centers and entrepreneurial centers.  In other words they are places where ideas come together, intersect, are examined, analyzed and improved.  This is done under the guidance of people who have earned the title “expert” through the normal channels of academic rigor and peer review, sometimes via face-to-face, sometimes virtually using librarians new investments in technology to support this exchange.  As a result, librarians are increasingly now able to be where their users are located and to add new and demonstrable value to the knowledge creation and supply chain.  Our goal has to be to make the value of Librarianship as ubiquitous as information

(In an upcoming blog post, I’ll talk about ways to fund the retraining of librarians and the reshaping of facilities to support these new pathways.)