My brother (I would insert a link here if he had his own blog) asked me a while back to post something about the new librarianship. I usually don’t take requests, my reaction normally being “get your own blog” (sensing a theme here bro?), so I begged off saying that I couldn’t write coherently about my own profession.
That’s not entirely untrue. Librarianship is undergoing a massive change as the world begins to feel the full impact of the information revolution. I’m at as much of a loss to describe it as anyone. Honestly, I don’t think anyone in the profession has quite realized yet just how big a deal this revolution is going to be. Hell, I don’t think anyone in any profession has quite realized how big this is. Information has never been more readily available, and it has never been easier to let everyone in the world know what you think about any given topic. We’ve barely scratched the surface of what technology can now allow us to do.
To really understand what has happened to libraries, we need to go back a few years. In the days before information was this readily available, libraries were the Internet. When you needed any sort of information, pretty much the only place you could get it was at your local library. And to serve that need libraries built massive reference collections and trained their staff to be serious and studious. Libraries were sacred halls of study and learning, where everyone went to satisfy their curiosity and thirst for knowledge.
But then the world began to change. Information could be found in any one of a number of places. Libraries were no longer the only game in town. When your own bedroom can be your hall of learning, suddenly the whole “sacred” thing falls by the wayside. We always knew that by the time people came to us they had already asked everyone they knew; but now in addition to asking everyone they know, they’ve also gone to bookstores, watched the TV, and surfed the net. Now they’ve most likely gotten their answer before they have to turn to us.
But libraries didn’t give up their high seat. We had come to rely on the public’s good will so much that we didn’t realize that they weren’t coming to us for the same things anymore. They still liked us, but they didn’t need us the way they used to. The problem is that we knew that they did need us. Someone once described the Internet as the world’s greatest library with the books all piled on the floor. Librarians looked at this mess and said “we know what to do with all this! We can help! We know how to work search engines! We know how to evaluate sources!” Any decent librarian can get better results out of Google than Joe Normal. But Google seemed to work well enough, so no one was listening.
So now we find ourselves in the position of knowing that we can help, but not being able to convince anyone that we can. What do we do about this? We can’t just jump up and down and say “Listen to me, dammit!” They’re not listening, and they won’t. We need to show them that they need us. This has led a lot of old-school librarians to think that libraries are on the decline. They see the public turning to the Internet, and they see libraries building coffee shops and collecting DVDs and they think that we’ve thrown in the towel. But that’s not the point of changing how we present ourselves. That’s not why we adopt a retail model of customer service. We do it to make ourselves seen.
What we need to do is not assume that we are the preferred source for information (which we are not), but rather position ourselves so that when people are seeking information we are there. The fundamental difference between traditional library service and library service now is not about lessening the value of our professional expertise in the face of customer demands, nor is it about sacrificing our expertise in the name of meeting the customer where they are. It is rather about proactively placing ourselves where the customer already is so that when the customer needs information we are an assumed source rather than a last ditch.
Thus efforts to place the library online and to rearrange our spaces so as to be more appealing and become the “3rd place” are not playing to the lowest common denominator. They are an effort to bring customers to us so that when they need us we are already there. Even something as fundamental as collection development becomes part of this, as customers will not want to be in a place with ugly or outdated collections. By keeping our collections clean and up-to-date we are creating an environment that customers want to be in so that they do think of us first.
But the approach must be 100% integrated. If every aspect of our presence isn’t aiming at that one goal of putting ourselves right under the customers’ noses, the entire enterprise will fail. So collections, web presence, physical space, and customer service must all create a coherent experience that will place us in the customer’s mind as the preferred source for any information need over other options already available. We also need to remove barriers to using our service, since other sources are so simple to use.
So when I’m out on the floor, my goal is to connect with people. I don’t care why they’re in the library. I don’t care what they’re checking out. All I know is that they’ve decided to come see me. If I can build a relationship with that person, then when they need information they won’t turn on the local news. They won’t listen to their Uncle Merv who just got out of lockup. They’ll think “I’m gonna go ask that tall dude at the library. He’ll know what I need.” And I’ll help them find exactly what they’re looking for.
Librarians aren’t the gatekeepers of the Information Age as some have named us. We’re the guides. We keep the paths open, clear, and well-marked. We’ll visit new territory first and mark the way. We will provide a friendly and safe place to explore from where anyone can find help. We will show people how to get the most out of the most exciting time in human history.
And that is why I’m a librarian.