By Sarah M. Pritchard
Reprinted with permission from Library Issues: Briefings for Faculty and Administrators, Ann Arbor, Mich.: Mountainside Publishing Company), v.15, no. 5, May 1995, pp. 3-4.
[The 1995 publication date might raise your eyebrow--but I challenge you to tell me why I should scrap this piece! jv]
What is going to happen to the librarian as the day of the "virtual library" and the "library without walls" approaches? Will librarians become obsolete, unneeded in a world of online interconnectivity, full-text, and hyperlinks? Have they already turned into "information managers" or knowledge engineers?" Too many academics dismissively typecast the library profession by its current tools and procedures rather than seeing the value of its conceptual skills and analytical services.
Whether librarians "wither," as has been forecast now for almost two decades, is yet to be seen. I believe that, on the contrary, librarians will bloom. Their knowledge will be relevant no matter where the information comes from or who the user is.
The future of information is unfolding rapidly before our eyes, a dazzling multimedia array that changes as fast as I can write, and that promises to leave miles of bookstacks abandoned and crumbling in their own dust. We imagine that the new resources arrive miraculously organized and complete. Simply plug into the network and librarians will be relegated to preservers of the past. Yet remember that in some of the best science fiction stories and shows, information archives and specialists are still there.
What is it that characterizes the library profession? There are common theoretical and methodological frameworks, whether librarians work in children's, public, small college, medical, research university, or corporate libraries. Or they may work as consultants or publishers or database trainers. At heart, librarianship is the study of recorded communication in all forms; it is independent of place or package; and it focuses on the understanding of content, structure, and services, not just tools and processes. Librarians are colleagues in the research, teaching and strategic enterprise, whatever the parent institution or client base.
Librarians pursue four general categories of knowledge:
- the nature of public and scholarly communication and information formats;
- the management of information systems and enterprises;
- the delivery of educational and customer services; and
- the economic and political environment within which information is created and sought.
Librarians study the evolution of information and communication in different fields and specialties; the major themes and canons, the criteria for quality, the social and professional contexts of information and creative communication, and the way these structures are shaped and shared. Information formats will coexist, be they manuscripts, printed books, disks, or something else. As formats proliferate and adapt to particular subjects or uses, the challenge is to locate them efficiently, evaluate and select among them, and synthesize their contents to meet a given need.
Not only must librarians understand the sources, they must have a sense of the seekers. Librarians try to map the needs of users onto the patterns of available information. They look at the behavior of different user groups. Although librarians may serve children or engineers or senators separately, what the profession grasps as a whole is the multiplicity of ways people get and use information.
Librarians manage complex systems, technological, financial and bureaucratic. They track the publishing, computing, and related industries and how these affect the cost, format, and delivery of information. They negotiate contracts for services, materials, and equipment, and establish consortial agreements that open campus access to a wide range of traditional and innovative resources. Once librarians get the sources, they design and apply "access mechanisms" to them. This may include cataloging and indexing-or database coding, hypertext markup language, and gophers. Even in the electronic environment, librarians still need to help find and describe the many resources, and to develop the equivalent of roadmaps, indexes, and subject guides that direct users flexibly and accurately.
As libraries have become extensively automated, librarians are actively improving these tools. They are increasingly the designers of interconnected menus, the "look" and contents of campus information systems, the subject groupings, online instructions and user-friendly language, and the unseen links among documents and databases that enable individuals to navigate in this new world.
As managers of both people and processes, librarians are systems analysts, evaluating myriad tasks, technologies, and staff, mobilizing a patchwork of scarce resources to meet shifting demands, facilities, and priorities. Some days, I deal with so many personnel and physical plant issues and so few books, I feel as if I could be running a hotel! Management and design skills will always be crucial, even if in the future we won't be so constrained by leaky roofs and stuck elevators.
The goal of selecting and organizing materials is always to get them into the hands of users. Over the past several years, we have seen a trend in the academic library to shift librarians into public services as technical operations become streamlined. Teaching and consultative skills are essential for effective information services, whether librarians are working with one person or a class of sixty. We try to teach critical thinking skills and the ability to analyze the comparative scope and quality of research resources. "Information literacy" is a competency needed by all.
Librarians bring to their work an array of conceptual understandings about information, logical and intuitive insights that identify, combine, and link resources both directly (for example, in reference service) and indirectly (in creating catalogs and systems.) As subject specialists, librarians are positioned to identify emerging fields through observing new terminology, interdisciplinary publishing, and forms of scholarship that don't fit into traditional categories.
The librarian is a valued member of a research team, a skilled colleague who tailors organizational schemes, advises users on file management, and customizes information services. Eventually, librarians might be assigned to individual academic departments or might operate as a collaborative unit, somewhere apart from the actual storage and processing of materials.
Library and information services are a central component of our social institutions of education and communication. In this context, librarians have tried to address economic, social, and technology policies that affect such services. The most difficult and high-profile involvement of librarians in the external arena is related to information policy; intellectual freedom, copyright, access, privacy, and the regulation of print and electronic media. These will be a fact of life, regardless of the mechanism of communication. How will librarians help to guarantee the ability of all people to participate in public discourse and services, if those are only delivered via computer? How will they ensure access to practical and educational information as the roles shift among the many players in the commercial, government, and not-for-profit sectors?
Librarianship blends the disciplines of communication studies and information science with the sociology of knowledge, education, public policy, and management. What librarians bring to their communities--be they faculty, students, scientists, policy-makers, or ordinary citizens--is a dynamic understanding of the transmission and organization of knowledge and creative expression. Librarians are professionals who build on existing information and prepare for as-yet unknown future forms of communication, engaging as partners to enable the ongoing collection and exchange of ideas.