Hard Questions

November 12, 2009 at 4:13 pm

I came across this post from Scott McLeod (not to be confused with Scott McCloud) about the future of libraries, books, reading and more. It’s focused on school libraries, but he asks a lot of good questions that are relevant to public libraries, too, particularly questions 5 through 8:

5.  When books, magazines, newspapers, reference materials, music, movies, and other traditional library content all go electronic and online – deliverable on demand – what does that mean for the future of the physical spaces known as “libraries?” Mike Eisenberg said to me that we already should be taking yellow caution tape and blocking off the entire non-fiction and reference sections of our libraries. As content becomes digital and no longer needs to be stored on a shelf, with what do we replace that now-unused floor space: couches, tables, and cozy chairs? computer stations? meeting space? And if we head in these directions, what will distinguish libraries from other institutions such as coffee shops, community centers, and Internet cafes?
6.  Our information landscape is more complex than ever before. We still need people who know how to effectively navigate these intricate electronic environments and who can teach others to do so. But does that mean we still need “librarians” who work in “libraries?” Or will their jobs morph into something else?
7.  How much of a librarian’s current job could be done by someone in a different location (for example, someone in India who answers questions via telephone or synchronous chat) or by computer software and/or an electronic kiosk? I don’t know the answer to this question – and I suspect that it will vary by librarian – but I do know that many individuals in other industries have been quite dismayed to find that large portions of their supposedly-indispensable jobs can be outsourced or replaced by software (which, of course, means that fewer people are needed locally to do whatever work requires the face-to-face presence of a live human being).
8.  Can a librarian recommend books better than online user communities and/or database-driven book recommendation engines? For example, can a librarian’s ability to recommend reading of interest surpass that of a database like Amazon’s that aggregates purchasing behavior or a dedicated user community that is passionate about (and maybe rates/reviews) science fiction books, and then do so for romance, political history, manga, self-help, and every other possible niche of literature too?

These are some of the things that prey upon my thoughts . I suspect that the library world is going to reach a “change or die” crisis point more quickly than many of us would like to believe, and I sometimes wonder if even rapid change will be enough to save libraries as we know them. I think we need to take a hard look at our profession and think about how we need to position ourselves in the short-term if we want to have any hope of long-term viability.

Incidentally, I’ve started playing with Google Wave, and I started a Wave on this topic in order to get some discussion going while learning the features of Google Wave. If you’ve got a Wave account and want to join the discussion, let me know and I can add you.


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