No heads in the sand here

Whither are libraries going?   Just this week a colleague suggested to me that librarians might be a dying profession.  However, I don’t believe that, nor do I think that librarians have their heads in the sand about the evolving nature of their profession, clients, or facilities or materials.

Not only are we hearing this message from outside of the profession, but we are also hearing it in our own messaging within the profession.  I think my biggest objection to this line of thinking is that it doesn’t honestly reflect the complexity of changes going on inside libraries or information management today.

Our role in the new media

 An excellent article in the current issue of Harvard Magazine , Gutenberg 2.0 offers up fascinating insights into the  evolution of library services, as so many of us in the field try to look forward and consider what the future of library services for students and patrons might look like.  Changes in media are affecting all of our services, and the way we interact with print and with our patrons, as Dan Hazen of Harvard College points out.

“Internet search engines like Google Books fundamentally challenge our understanding of where we add value to this process,” says Dan Hazen, associate librarian of collection development for Harvard College. Librarians have worked hard to assemble materials of all kinds so that it is “not a random bunch of stuff, but can actually support and sustain some kind of meaningful inquiry,” he explains. “The result was a collection that was a consciously created, carefully crafted, deliberately maintained, constrained body of material.”

I love the wording he chooses here–that materials can be assembled to support and sustain meaningful inquiry.  When we are working with students, while we both acknowledge and value the contributions of Google to our ability to offer resources to students, we also know that it broadens their choices in a somewhat haphazard fashion with little structure or form.  (Which of course can be a good and a bad thing.)   As users, web 2.0 tools allow us to impose our own structure and organization to those materials, which is a plus in terms of flexibility.  But when working with  students whose ability to sort flotsam from jetsum is somewhat unsophisticated, this can be challenging.

Hazen puts it eloquently:

“Internet search explodes the notion of a curated collection in which the quality of the sources has been assured. ‘What we’re seeing now with Google Scholar and these mass digitization projects, and the Internet generally,’ says Hazen, ‘is, ‘Everything’s out there.’ And everything has equal weight. If I do a search on Google, I can get a scholarly journal. I can get somebody’s blog posting….The notion of collection that’s implicit in ‘the universe is at my fingertips’ is diametrically opposed, really, to the notion of collection as ‘consciously curated and controlled artifact.’”

As school librarians, we see a tremendous need for helping students sort through that “universe at their fingertips” environment(as do their teachers).   How do students recognize signposts that something is a blog site or a biased think tank or a fradulent site?   How do they sort the ephemera from what’s important on topics they only understand at a surface level?   At the school level, students may be savvy at the tools themselves, but the thinking involved in really analyzing, evaluating and sorting through information are learned, not innate skills.

Hazen goes on to discuss another dilemma our students face as readers–in traditional print sources (newspapers, magazines, books) information was organized on the page in a purposeful way, often in context with other articles or chapters to build a sense of a whole work.

“When you get into the Internet world, you tend to get a gazillion facts, mentions, snippets, and references that don’t organize themselves in that same framework of prominence, and typology, and how stuff came to be, and why it was created, and what the intrinsic logic of that category of materials is. How and whether that kind of structuring logic can apply to this wonderful chaos of information is something that we’re all trying to grapple with. . . .”

And where does this leave us as librarians trying to help students make sense of this environment?   Hazen  :  “For librarians, and the library, trying to straddle these two visions of what we’re about is something that we’re still trying to figure out.”

Embedded librarians?

Some of the Harvard libraries (as we all are) are trying to sort out what that future looks like, both in terms of dealing with the changing organization of the actual materials and in terms of the use of research materials and the librarian’s role in that.

For example, Isaac Kohane, director of the Medical Library at Harvard Medical School, sees a troubling weakness in the abilities of medical professionals to plumb the mounting amounts of information available to them primarily because they aren’t familiar with the ways to extract that information from databases designed to collect such specialized content and in some cases don’t even know these databases are there for them.  This realization has led to:

“growing awareness of the need to have an “information-processing approach to medicine baked into the core education of doctoral and medical students.” Otherwise, Kohane says, “we’re condemning them to perpetual partial ignorance.”

Embedding information searching abilities and knowledge of databases right into the core content of the field reflects a change in librarianship that Harvard is seeing in another areas as well.   Librarian and law professor John Palfrey “scrapped the entire organizational structure”  of the Law Library.  All the librarians turned in their resignations for new roles and the library started over, embedding librarians within the law school, some teaching research alongside professors, some developing new technologies to sort and organize legal data, etc.

Palfrey, who once headed up Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society comments:

“The role of the librarian is much greater in this digital era than it has ever been before.” (italics mine)     Good lawyers need to be good at information processing, and Palfrey found in research for his book Born Digital that students today are not very good at using complex legal databases. “They try to use the same natural-language search techniques” they learned from using Google, he says, rather than thinking about research as “a series of structured queries.

It’s not that we don’t need libraries or librarians,” he continues, “it’s that what we need them for is slightly different. We need them to be guides in this increasingly complex world of information and we need them to convey skills that most kids actually aren’t getting at early ages in their education. I think librarians need to get in front of this mob and call it a parade, to actually help shape it.”

The executive director of knowledge and libraries at Harvard Business School, Mary Kennedy “sees libraries as belonging to a partnership of shared services that support professors and students.”  “We’re all part of the same partnership and we have to figure out how to work better together.”

During a Twitter discussion a few days ago, two of my education colleagues suggested a model of librarianship(and tech coordinator-ship) that were more embedded.

A model

This concept of embedding librarianship within departments is intriguing at best, but problematic from a pragmatic standpoint.  Because as Buffy Hamilton wisely illustrates in her blog post, If It’s Broken, Let’s Fix It, it’s hard to scale the kind of involvement with students it would require across all instructional areas.  

There are schools that have emulated a more workable model, however, like New Trier in the Chicago area.   New Trier has a bank of 8.2 FTE librarians(for over 4000 students at 2 campuses), who are embedded in various departments at the high school, explains librarian Judy Gressel.  Each librarian is considered faculty-librarian and develops “a liason relationship” to a particular department and attends department meetings, facilitating collaboration and working closely with teachers.

Now whether or not that is feasible funding wise for other schools, it is a best practices example of how more embedded librarianship could look at the high school level–where the teacher role and curriculum advisor role of the librarian is of primary importance.

These are issues all of us in the profession are having to consider deeply.  The question isn’t is our profession dying–the question is–what works, and how do we leverage what we do and what we know in the best interest of our students’ education and future information needs?

A conversation worth continuing to have….

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