Holding out for a hero: technology, the future and the renaissance of the university librarian.

Peter Murray Rust writes in his blog that he is “left with the overwhelming impression that the community is now past caring about the future of the library” and further that “If ULibraries wish to survive (at least more than book museums – which is important) they have to shout about it.” Gaynor Backhouse who runs the TechWatch horizon scanning service on behalf of JISC picks up on this theme and emphasises the important role of the librarian as an agent of change imploring them “to take control and set the agenda”.

One of the good things about working for JISC is that you often find yourself in interesting, but unexpected, places. In 2006 I found myself at a JISC Open Access conference in Oxford and as I have an abiding passion for libraries I inveigled my way into a group of librarians who were all talking about the changes facing their sector. At the time, TechWatch had just published a report on Radio Frequency Identification (RFID), and one of the surprising conclusions was that libraries’ position as early adopters of RFID put librarians in a unique position to have a positive impact on the long-term development of the technology. More than this, the report argued that this influence could extend beyond efforts to develop interoperability and data standards, to address more general issues that are ‘in the public good’, such as privacy. So at the time of the conference I was brimming with enthusiasm for what I saw as a kind of renaissance for the role and significance of the librarian.

Unfortunately, I was in a minority of one. The general consensus seemed to be that, by and large, librarians conform to what has become almost a personality stereotype: kind, gentle custodians of books. Certainly not the type to want to assume the billowing mantle of public sector superhero. This surprised and worried me. It surprised me because I had thought that the increasing importance of the role of technology would have shaken things up a little and challenged the more traditional view of roles; it worried me because if it were true, then the future would be a difficult place for librarians to continue to demonstrate the value of their professional skills.

Before I follow this tack any further, I should perhaps explain that ‘librarian’ is, for me, a bit of an all-encompassing term. This is partly because the application of information science has evolved so much over recent years, along with the terminology to describe it, and partly because of the nature of TechWatch‘s sallies into the world of all things library—I have a rough idea of what the terminology tools are for but I’m not expert enough to wield them. So for me, ‘librarian’ remains a catch-all term that encapsulates a kind of essence. More of a ‘journey’ than a job description.

On a professional level, my view on the change and evolution going on in libraries is obviously intimately connected with technology. Horizon scanning is a bit like doing a jigsaw you’ve bought from a car boot sale: first of all, it comes in a plastic bag, so there’s no picture to guide you. Secondly, you can see from the myriad sizes of the different pieces that there’s more than one puzzle in there and, thirdly, you know, even as you are handing over your money, that you won’t have all the pieces to complete any one, particular puzzle.

What’s especially interesting about the ‘libraries’ corner of our horizon scanning jigsaws is the way in which the pieces change before our eyes. As we work on TechWatch reports we see a bit that looks like a straightforward ‘libraries’ piece. When we slot it into place we see that it’s actually “libraries as adaptors of information infrastructure tools” (2005: TechWatch’s Semantic Web report) or “librarians as advocates of trusted computing” (2006: RFID) and even “traditional library skills and processes can be mapped to the development of Web 2.0-style applications and services” (2007: Web 2.0).

All told, the general conclusion is that, more than any other area of academic life, libraries are being forced to respond to deep and disruptive changes in both what they do and how they do it. Whilst this might not be welcome news in terms of the challenge these technologies throw down to established best practice and working culture, they do also open up new opportunities and provide a route to new power structures that need to owned and managed.

Mentioning power structures may of course be a mistake on my part, so perhaps I should demonstrate this in terms of one of my fictional librarian heroes: Rupert Giles, played by Anthony Head in the TV version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. By day, Giles is a mild-mannered school librarian and by night he is the eponymous slayer’s ‘watcher’, committed to training slayers in how to hone their superhuman powers in order to fight all things demonic. A member of the Watcher’s Council, Giles is a member of the demon-slaying establishment. What’s interesting about him is that although he starts out as a passive purveyor of knowledge, as the series progress he finds himself unable to maintain this position and ultimately ends up crossing over into slayer territory.

From curators to creators: librarians as the agents of change
A few years ago I was on a training course for something Web-related. I can’t remember the ins and outs of it now, but it took place at a university and there were a lot of librarians; in fact I suspect I was the only non-librarian. At lunchtime I happened to find myself sitting next to the university librarian who was telling me all about her job and the university’s collections, as you tend to do at lunchtime.  In return I confided a personal secret – I’d always wanted to visit the library cellars and see the secret stuff that ordinary borrowers were kept away from. I hadn’t meant it as a hint but my lunching companion immediately offered me a guided tour after the course was over. As I’m not the world’s best secret-keeper word soon got round and by the end of the day there were six of us lined up, waiting to go.

I can’t speak for the others, but it was certainly one of the most interesting evenings I have ever spent. I can still remember the thrill of rows of shelves lined with some of the biggest books I’d ever seen – some over three feet high and decorated with precious metals. However, many of these books were chained to the walls, and putting the obvious S&M connotations of leather and chains to one side, the feel was very custodial. No-one seemed to notice this other than me, certainly nobody commented, but I definitely felt we were nudging into the dark side of curation.

I mention this because of what I think the implications are for the future. If libraries are going to thrive they need to move from a custodial model to an exploitative one. Part of this is realising that library stuff is actually quite sexy and that librarians are probably best placed to point this out. Ultimately this isn’t so much about technology as understanding the beauty of the raw material. Software developers can build tools but they are not necessarily capable of re-imagining data as content: they don’t understand what the data is capable of achieving. For the end users who perhaps don’t realise just what the library ‘long tail’ has to offer, this is a critical point. What they need is a guided tour of the library’s digital underbelly in a way that demonstrates why it’s interesting, useful and also good fun.

Now if, at this point, the urge to retreat to the safety of the stacks overwhelms you, I would ask you to hang back, just a while longer. Being the agent of change, albeit a powerful position to be in and perhaps an unwanted responsibility, could have its advantages. Whilst it means that you have to take control and set the agenda, perhaps more importantly, for people with orderly minds, it means you get to do the job properly. In the library of the future this could be a key differentiator. Why, after all, should Google have a monopoly on organising the world’s information? But in order to flourish in an increasingly techno-political world it will be necessary for libraries and librarians to not so much defend a corner as come out fighting. Perhaps, like Rupert Giles, it might even be necessary to spill a little demon blood.

Gaynor Backhouse runs the TechWatch horizon scanning service on behalf of JISC.

5 thoughts on “Holding out for a hero: technology, the future and the renaissance of the university librarian.

  1. Pingback: Unilever Centre for Molecular Informatics, Cambridge - future of the library - slaying vampires « petermr’s blog

  2. Pingback: jodischneider.com/blog » Horizon scanning and the digital underbelly

  3. Pingback: Heroes, warriors and revolutionaries: bloodshed in the library of the future? : Notes from the Future

  4. mark

    ‘librarians conform to what has become almost a personality stereotype: kind, gentle custodians of books. Certainly not the type to want to assume the billowing mantle of public sector superhero. This surprised and worried me.’ It surprised I think one of the problems of university libraries is a narrowness of vision and insularity.
    I’ve just returned to this country, bang full of idea and enthusiasm, with years of experience, skills and talent. I am reluctant to re-enter the Public Library field and would love to work in an academic library.
    All the jobs advertised seem to reject applicants outright if they have no experience of working in an academic setting, even though such experience is listed as desireable rather than essential in the original job advertisement.I believe a focus on those who have just worked in academic institutions leads to fossilisation.

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