The Evolution of Libraries: Ack! Change is hard.


flickr photo shared by Tom Simpson under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC-ND ) license

This week the internet is going mad for the revival of Bloom County, which reminds me that the more things change, the more they stay the same. People like the familiar and they love nostalgia. I would be a hypocrite if I didn’t acknowledge it given my record collecting habits. But that’s an aesthetic preference, which is not the same thing as library operations.

I’ve been thinking about what it means to be a library and librarian a lot lately given some of my discussions about weeding, the future of the profession, and whether or not you need to be a librarian as the University Librarian.

For me I guess it comes down to the fundamental question – what’s a library? Its collections or its services?

For a lot of people, collections define the library which is why weeding is so traumatic. This view also supposes all services are related to the physical collection. Librarians get their degrees to be expert keepers of the tomes. OK, it’s hyperbole but it definitely seems that way at times. They’re so married to preserving the status quo, which isn’t always a bad thing, that sometimes they’re so change averse it’s stifling. And sometimes change has to happen fast and change is messy, especially when reality forces it. (Like vastly shrunken budgets.)

For those who define libraries by their services, there might be a tendency to adopt the new shiny technologies and not be as concerned with the past, which can also be problematic. I fall into this camp though through a mix of pragmatism and optimism. For centuries our services focused around the physical collection. Hell, that was the service! It’s not the only thing now, and we have to expand our thinking to bring those services to other realms. This seems very painfully obvious to me, but it’s not.

When I have these discussions with some of my friends and colleagues I really worry I sound like Mr. Toad from The Wind in the Willows – always looking for the next great new thing and leaving a path of destruction in my wake. I also feel like sometimes I get reaction from those slow (and uneasy) to change that looks like Jerry Lewis in the picture about (riding Mr. Toads Wild Ride at Disneyland).

Going forward I’m trying to assume nothing but good intentions, but also question assumptions that I don’t understand. What’s wrong with this weeding project beyond the obvious getting rid of books? Why are librarians most qualified to run libraries? What value can librarians provide without a physical collection? These aren’t meant to be rhetorical questions, but entry points to conversations which should help foster understanding among the community. I didn’t say it would be easy.

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