I spent the last week dealing with a family crisis, and the week consisted of a series of anxious moments punctuating periods of nothing to do but wait. And think.
Since I was among family for the week and away from work, naturally I thought about work a lot when I wasn’t addressing family concerns. And in the process of thinking about work, I thought about the choices I’ve made in my life, not least of which was my choice of the work I would do.
During high school, I thought about pursuing a number of different paths: for a very brief time I considered becoming a mathematician (that lasted about 15 seconds, actually, but I did love the beauty and symmetry of solving mathematical problems) and then I thought about studying archaeology at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. That was scotched when (a). I realized I didn’t have the money to do it, and (b). I revealed my interest to my father, who asked, “how is that going to support you?” Good points, both. So I thought some more and realized that my true love was for libraries, for the opportunities they offered for learning about, and for organizing, the knowledge in the world.
So if I had it to do over again in the time-frame in which I grew up, I’d make the same choice. But if I had it to do over again in the present day, I think I’d like to study anthropology, with an eye to putting it into practice in libraries. I’ve certainly enjoyed studying and learning at the feet of the master of library ethnography, Nancy Fried Foster. And I have come to be a true believer in centering the library around the needs of the researcher.
I think it’s extraordinarily important to combine anthropological methods and processes with library planning and redevelopment, perhaps more now than at any time in the past, because it seems that libraries are currently being redefined in an ad hoc manner, rather than in a well-planned, logical way. Technology is the overriding reason for that—and libraries have benefited enormously from the advent of technological improvements. Consider, though, the library as the place from which all accumulated knowledge flows (yes, I do know that knowledge originates from myriad sources, but libraries continue to be the main institutional gatherers of that knowledge), and the place in which knowledge is organized for facile access by many. It makes the best sense to me to redevelop libraries by combining new technologies with an understanding of how researchers want and need to use that technology, as well as the larger body of all knowledge, in the context of reading, studying, learning, synthesizing, and creating. Simply throwing new technologies into the environment may bring about some improved access, or it may simply create a splash that makes it look like the library is doing something innovative.
A colleague with whom I spoke this weekend bemoaned the fact that so many library administrators seem to go to the same meeting and come back with the same idea to use some new technology, whether or not it makes sense for their researchers. I’ve embraced new technologies for many years—look at my track record for proof—but I think the wisest course is to employ those new technologies that serve the needs of our researchers best, rather than just bring in a technology for the sake of being trendy. I heartily endorse experimentation! At the same time, I recognize that there is only so much money to go around in any institution. All the more reason, therefore, to study what our researchers need to be able to get at, and in which formats and environments they need to use it, before sinking a boatload of money into projects that may or may not serve their needs well.
All of which brings us back to applying anthropological methods in planning library spaces, services, projects, and organization. When I was preparing for library school and the library profession, I got a degree in literature (it was a Bachelor of Science degree in literature, but that’s another story) because I thought that would serve me well as a librarian. And it has. Then, over the past ten to 20 years, I’ve thought that it would have served me better to have majored in computer science, since that was the area of greatest development in the profession. But now I’m inclined to think that we need a sub-specialty that studies researchers in terms of their needs in a reinvented world of knowledge and its access. Call it user experience or library ethnography or whatever you want—we need to train librarians to understand very well both libraries and the ways in which people want to use them. So if I had it to do over again today, I’d study anthropology to prepare myself to work in libraries.
How about you? What might you do, if you had it to do over again? I’ve love to hear.
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