The once and future librarian

I had the pleasure of participating in a Faculty symposium on the future of academic research libraries hosted at McGill University today. The event was live-streamed, and the video is now availablewill be available from McGill Library soon – I’ll add the link here when it is up. I encourage you to watch the full video, because the other talks and the question and answer session was terrific.

Below is the text from my portion:

It is an honor to be here and to be included in this panel of really smart insightful people who care deeply about the future of higher education and the future of academic research libraries.

I have to be honest though, it is not really very good timing for me. The thing is, earlier this week we buried my brother-in-law, Alfredo “Freddy” Cordero Jr. — A sweet kind soul, whose life was both harder and shorter than it should have been.

And I wondered whether I should mention something so personal in a talk like this, but I’m a long-time feminist who believes that the personal is political is professional … and back again.

So this weekend, while I was writing this talk, my wife was writing a eulogy for her brother.

And that certainly felt like a very strange and uncomfortable juxtaposition, until I realized the extent to which our grief and grieving served to crystallize just how important and precious the past can be, and likewise how fragile and uncertain the future.

That certainly feels like a good perspective to keep in mind as we talk about the future of research libraries.

And if you’ll indulge me one more connection – Freddy grew up in Bridgeport Connecticut, which is the largest and also one of the poorest cities in Connecticut.

The Bridgeport Public Library plays a vital role in the lives of Bridgeport’s residents, and its motto is “A gathering place for the entire community”, and its mission statement includes the assertion that “we believe that libraries can change people’s lives and are a cornerstone of our democracy”.

I think all libraries (public and academic research libraries) can and should aim for the same impact —
to be an inclusive gathering place, to change lives, and to advance democracy.

In the case of academic libraries, we are and should always be a safe, multi-disciplinary, information-rich gathering place for members of our communities.

We do and should always aspire to have transformative impact – on students of course, but also on faculty – by providing expertise, tools, resources, and services that inspire new kinds of research questions and that serve as catalysts for experiments in new forms of pedagogy.

And we do and should always take seriously our role in producing informed citizens who participate in their own governance through the democratic process.

There are lots of ways to think about the future of libraries, and plenty of questions to tackle within that topic:

  • what will the right mix of print and digital resources be in 5 years, in 10 years? (the correct answers to that one are “I don’t know” and “it depends”)
  • what should a physical library look like as more and more resources are available and used in digital rather than physical format?
  • what’s the next big technical breakthrough that will transform how people discover and access information?

These are all great questions that highlight important ways to think about the future of libraries. And I’m glad my colleagues on this panel are going to address most of them.

The topic I’m going to talk about is the kinds of expertise that will be needed in the great research libraries of the future.

And I want to suggest that the expertise that will ensure that the future academic library continues to be a central part of the research and teaching life of a university is similar to the expertise librarians already bring to the table – we just might need more of it.

Now, I have to take a short and I suppose slightly dangerous detour to define what I mean by librarian.

Urban Dictionary definition of Librarian

Urban Dictionary definition of Librarian

It is tempting to use this urban dictionary definition of Librarian, but let me at least add to that definition.

I want to talk about the human capital inherent in library organizations – the distinct expertise, skills, perspectives, and values that people who work in libraries contribute to the academy. And I use the term Librarian to describe those people – the people who work in the library organization and contribute to the core missions of the library.

To refer to a broad range of people who work in a library as librarians – regardless of their job title or credentials – is actually fairly controversial, so let me be clear about one thing. I use the term in this more inclusive way not to devalue the library degree or those who hold it in any way at all — I use it rather to value the range of degrees, skills, talents and experiences needed to make information accessible for current and future scholars.

And I do this because I chose to believe that professional respect is not a limited resource; and I believe a more expansive understanding of who a librarian is and what academic librarians do to advance research and teaching is critical to a robust future for libraries and for higher education.

OK – back to this idea of the once and future librarian – my bottom line is that the future of libraries depends on librarians – a diverse, highly skilled, values-driven set of people who collaborate across and within institutions to support, create, and inspire the very best of current and future scholarship and teaching — And who do so with from a distinct and important perspective.

Let me talk a little about my own journey into librarianship as a way of highlighting some of the ways I had to learn to think differently as a librarian — ways of thinking that make librarians key to not just collecting, preserving, and providing access to scholarship, but to producing and shaping it as well.

I moved to Stanford in the late 1990s, after 3 years on the faculty at West Point, to pursue a PhD in sociology, with the sort of vague intention of pursuing a regular faculty position when I finished.

But Stanford and Palo Alto are expensive places to live, so I immediately got a part-time job working in the library and I worked in the libraries throughout my graduate career.

By the time I finished my PhD I was recruited into a full-time position in the libraries as the social sciences librarian, and for me that turn made sense. I realized I could have greater impact on scholarship & on the future of higher education and scholarly communication thru a career in libraries than I could have as an individual scholar.

As I made the transition from preparing for a career as an individual scholar to a career in librarianship, I found that being an academic librarian require a change in perspective.

My academic background was and is very useful; but being an effective librarian has required more than subject matter expertise, it has required a change in perspective.

New perspective as librarian

New perspective as librarian

In the most general sense, I would say that the librarians I have worked with operate at a different level of analysis than do most individual faculty members. So, for example, as a PhD student, you are expected to become an expert in a discipline, with a solid grasp of the seminal works and main journals of your field.

As a librarian, I needed to think in much more multi-disciplinary ways. And as I built and maintained collections in several disciplines, I couldn’t afford to select for individual authors — I had to learn the publishing landscape for each discipline so I would know which publishers were strong in what fields; who published quality journals at reasonable prices, and who published monographs in fields that were most active at my university.

I learned how important metadata is … to just about everything libraries do. And I started thinking less about specific books and articles and more about the scholarly communication ecosystem as a whole – and how it was changing and should change to support new modes of scholarship and to allow for open access to the scholarly record. And, I had to start taking a much longer view of both the past and the future.

It is this distinct set of perspectives that means librarians have been working on and thinking about issues like open access, metadata, data privacy, and digital preservation for much longer than most in the academy .. and certainly for longer and with more rigor than most outside the academy.

This was never more evident that when Google Vice President Vint Cerf made big news by talking about how worried he is that the digital documents and images we are all creating now will disappear as software and hardware becomes obsolete. When news about Vint Cerf’s fear of a digital dark ages reached the library community, our collective reaction was best summarized by Dorothea Salo – one of librarianship’s most insightful voices.

Salo took to twitter to explain that librarians had been thinking about digital preservation for a long time already — and that Cerf needn’t worry because we had already built digital repositories, and workflows, and access systems for preserving digital artifacts.

We teach personal digital archiving classes, we create standards, and we have built the capacity to not just store, but to truly archive – for the long-term – the digital artifacts of our culture and of scholarship. That’s our job and its the kind of thinking and work that is a distinct strength of librarians. We think about the long-term future of the past, so that scholars and students can use it in the present.

At many universities, libraries and librarians have been supporting digital humanities research, GIS and data visualization, technology-enhanced pedagogy, and sound data management practices for a very long time. Today’s librarians have expertise, skills, and perspectives that are absolutely critical to the changing research and teaching needs of today’s faculty and students. And any vision for the future of research libraries needs to include ways to highlight and maximize the contributions of library experts to research and teaching.

Since it is free, I will leave you with some specific advice:

One major challenge for most academic libraries I know is a lack of awareness of the expertise that libraries and librarians have to offer. Every library survey I have seen – from multiple universities – shows that over 80% of faculty and students at any given university are very satisfied with their libraries and their librarians.

That’s great of course; but those same surveys (plus plenty of anecdotal evidence) reveal that high percentages of faculty and students are likewise unaware of the full range of services and expertise their libraries and librarians have to offer.

So my first bit of advice is that you should ensure that your vision for the future of research/academic libraries prominently features librarians – both symbolically and literally. Design spaces and services that showcase the full range of expertise of your librarians.

And no, I don’t simply mean ensure that the reference desk is visible from the entrance. If you want a truly great library, you have to design spaces that emphasize that librarians have expertise in a huge range of areas vital to scholarship and teaching – from data and metadata, to digital preservation, to publishing, to online learning, to software development, text-mining, project management, and yes even reference.

Ensure your library is designed to make library experts visible and accessible to scholars and students. Include in your designs plenty of information and technology rich environments for faculty and students to collaborate with library experts.

My second bit of advice is that you recognize that the best future we can imagine (for higher education or for libraries) is likely to come from more diverse and inclusive conversations than the ones we usually have.

And I mean more diverse along all the usual axes of diversity that we think of – race, class, gender, sexuality; and some that we sometimes forget – conversations that include a range of neurodiversity, and that include people with different physical abilities and disabilities.

And when we are having local conversations – about the future of our own academic institutions and our own libraries; we still need to be very deliberate about including as many voices as possible.

For example, if we really want to understand how students use library spaces; and what’s missing from library spaces that students find frustrating; I think we would do well to talk to the library support staff who work the late evening shifts.

If we want to understand how our print collections really get used – and here i’m talking about the full range of uses, not just what gets officially checked out —we ought to talk to the library staff who re-shelve the books and keep the stacks maintained and in order.

But of course, my whole point is that the future of libraries is about much more than finding the right balance between print and digital; or designing the right kinds of study and collaborative spaces for students — those are important parts of it; but I challenge you to imagine a future library where every scholar and every student has the maximum opportunity to work with experts in the library who bring unique skills and knowledge that could jumpstart new research and transform learning.

I said at the beginning that the future is incredibly fragile, uncertain and nearly unpredictable. But the one thing that I am certain of about the future is that it will be better through radically inclusive collaboration.

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