An old friend recently asked me the very reasonable question:
In the world of Internet indexing, what role is left to the librarians? If I can find everything from my PC at home, what happens to libraries themselves?
I was tempted to respond with a dissertation length treatise on the future of libraries, but it occurred to me that I really need to have a ready, elevator pitch answer for this question. What follows is too long for an elevator pitch, but is my attempt to summarize the different flavors of arguments about the future role of libraries/librarians.
It seems to me that visions of the future of libraries tend to center on 1 or more of these arguments:
- The “Not Everything is Free and/or Online (yet)” Argument
- The Preservation Argument
- The Special Argument
- The Libraries as Service Argument
This argument is centered on the facts that considerable amounts of content (scholarly and otherwise) is still being produced in print-only, most online scholarly content is available only through licensed sites (which are too expensive for individuals), and it will be a long time before all the old content gets digitized (if ever). Libraries will continue to be necessary to collect, preserve and provide access to the remaining print-only materials; and to provide institutional access to the online content that is behind pay-walls. In addition, there remains a decided preference for print reading among a sizable portion of the population. This argument may be of limited futility, as the tide of progress is towards more and more content being available online and free, and greater acceptance of digital reading.
This argument is exemplified by the Darien Statements’ assertion that “The purpose of the Library is to preserve the integrity of civilization.” Libraries will continue to be the institutions charged with preserving the written records of humankind, while also being entrusted to develop strategies for preserving born-digital content for the future.
According to this argument, access to “ordinary” content can be shared or provided on-demand, so libraries should concentrate on collecting, preserving and providing access to the “special” stuff. Individual libraries are needed to provide access to rare, specialized, perhaps local content of interest. This includes archives, manuscripts, and special collections in print and digital form. The Buckminster Fuller Archive at Stanford is my favorite example of the kind of hybrid archive that libraries do best.
The recent JISC video does a nice job of highlighting the library of the future as being service-centered. According to this view, libraries (and librarians) will continue to be needed because we will provide essential services to scholars (and others) in making sense of the new and complex world of information. Students will need more not less from librarians because of the increased amount of information and the decreased control over quality and authority. Librarians of the future will be expert knowledge navigators. Libraries will provide spaces for collaborative work, and will provide tools and services to scholars to help them organize the information they use, and to disseminate their work. In a world where both the consumption and the production of information is more complex than ever, libraries and libraries will provide services that help readers and writers navigate that world.
What have I missed? What are the other major categories of arguments for the future relevance of libraries and librarians? I realize my summary is heavily biased towards academic libraries. What are additional arguments about public libraries that I’ve missed?