As I look at the many areas in which libraries are working, thriving, and expanding (see “Where Are We Headed? An Unscientific Survey,” Not Dead Yet, October 15, 2015), the question occurs to me: Do we need to consider not doing some things so that we can do those things our researchers need us to do?
So I figured it’s time for another wholly unscientific, tiny-scale survey: this time, to hear from colleagues what their thoughts are about what we should, and can, discontinue doing in libraries. I sent a one-question micro-survey to 75 colleagues in public, academic, and special libraries, as well as some faculty in library and information schools. The question was:
“Libraries are taking on new and exciting roles and services, many of these the result of user needs engendered by new technologies and changes in the ways, formats, and scope of research in the 21st century. As we take on these new roles and services, of what do we need to let go?”
I got a lot of responses (63 of the 75 people canvassed) that addressed a number of issues and expressed a range of opinions. Here’s a sampling of some actual (anonymized) responses:
“Right now we’re planning to experiment with letting go of a full reference desk schedule and replace it with a combination of fewer scheduled hours and more liaison department outreach and research consultations by appointment. Another thing we’ve tried to do (with mixed success) is replace lots of random instruction sessions in a given department with a series of more in-depth sessions within a course required for the major. In both cases it’s not so much dropping something as replacing it with a more focused effort to work more closely with departments.”
“From an information school perspective I can tell you that one of the things which is falling by the wayside is cataloging. ‘Metadata’ is just so much sexier… There are some teaching staff changes coming, though, so I am hoping some of the still-needed-in-the-real-world-but-considered-outdated-in-oh-so-hip-i-school courses—such as cataloging—will get a boost from some incoming teachers. It’s an interesting times in information schools. What students want more of in library school is interaction with actual librarians, in all their classes. They are trying so hard to make the connections between theory and practice.”
“We have already given up reference staff sitting at a reference desk and answering the general questions that are the most frequently asked there. Instead we ask people to make appointments to come in or to simply walk into our offices. To help make this work we have required that any new access services staff have a minimum of three months of training before they can be the lone person at the front desk. That training includes imparting the basic search skills on the commonly used medical databases but also includes training in the sensitivity to understand what they don’t know and to pass those questions they don’t feel comfortable answering on to the appropriate reference staff member.”
“We need to let go of waiting for someone to come to us for reference service while we sit at a desk designated for that purpose. The reference desk, an artifact of the print-dependent world, has outlived its usefulness. That is not to say that a library should not continue to make F2F service available; it just doesn’t need to be at a designated reference desk staffed by a professional. Those professionals should be applying their expertise through consultations, chat, video tutorials, teaching, outreach, and more. If a library hasn’t drastically reduced its print reference collection, it is an overdue responsibility. Many of those shelves are occupying space that could be put to better uses. Get over the perfect MARC record… If the OCLC record provides adequate information in our discovery systems for users to find what they are looking for, just load the record and move on!”
“From my perspective in reference, we are finding that we are increasingly becoming administrators and managers of virtual networks. In this capacity, our primary service is broad access and communication rather than getting people to this specific book or journal. In other words, traditional bibliography is much less a part of what we do on a daily basis in public service. The academic workflow has shifted more into virtual spaces, and the provision of library service has moved into these areas as well. Not that bibliography or specific collections are not important in student success, it’s that they’re becoming more ‘value added’ instead of primary. Many librarians in my age range are finding this hard to reconcile, particularly for those that are trained deeply in bibliography. Getting librarians of a certain generation to go the places ‘where students live’ is a challenge. This may be something that just reflects a generational shift as more people coming up in the profession see themselves more as technicians as opposed to bibliographers and scholars.”
For the most part (55 of the 63 responses received), folks said there was nothing we can, or should, give up. That we need to continue doing what we have been doing just as much as doing the new processes and services that we’re taking on. The point being that we need to give up some ways of doing these things and find more effective ways to do them.
My colleague Dave Tyckoson, associate dean of the Henry Madden Library, California State University–Fresno, noted that the question got him thinking and he replied at length. His response synthesizes many of the answers I received, so I have quoted from it extensively. He says:
“Over the years we have stopped doing things such as filing catalog cards, revising looseleaf services, and mailing articles through interlibrary loan, but those are all pretty minor activities. And each one has been replaced with something that is the equivalent process done in a better way online. But all of those activities are just tinkering with our processes. To answer your question, I chose to look at the bigger picture of what libraries do and how that is evolving.
The way that I define libraries, we have four primary functions that we do to support our community. We have done [them] for a long time and I believe that we will continue for the foreseeable future.
- Collecting and preserving information. No matter what the information is, what format it takes, where it comes from, or what language it is in, libraries continue to build collections of interest to their communities.
- Organizing information. What began as simple (yet effective) author lists of books now includes MARC records, FRBR, RDA, and metadata. How we organize information has changed significantly, but I see no time in the future when librarians will stop organizing the information in their collections.
- Assisting users. Whether we call it reference or research or just plain help, librarians provide personal service to make sure that each person finds the information that meets his or her needs. Whether it is an individual or a group; through face-to-face, telephone, email, or chat assistance; finding a single document or researching a broad subject area; librarians are there to help. This is the service that personalizes the library for members of the community. As long as libraries serve communities, people in those communities will want help—and librarians will be there to provide it.
- Promoting information unique to the community. This is the newest function of libraries, having begun in earnest only in the last two decades. This area also reflects a change in what is valued in the collections that libraries build. In olden times, when information was relatively scarce and hard to find, the library was often the single source for information for the community. In today’s world, where information is abundant and instantly available, it is the unique information in the collection that has the greatest value. Librarians are the ones digitizing these resources and making them available to the rest of the world. Commercially published books, journals, videos, and music can easily be replaced, but this local information cannot. This role is not only not going away, it is becoming increasingly important.
I do not see any of [these] as something that we will stop doing. We will continue to build collections, we will continue to organize collections and develop access tools for them, we will continue to help people seeking information, and we will increasingly digitize and promote local information. How we do those things will vary over time, but that we do them will not. We will probably purchase less published information and spend less time cataloging it, but we will increase our efforts in helping people find and use it and will definitely do more to digitize and promote local information. Tomorrow’s tools will look as different from the ones we use today as the iPad is from the card catalog. But tools are not what is really important.”
Well said, Dave. I realize that what you, and others, are saying is that we are doing the same kind of work, but doing it differently and using more efficient tools and processes (pretty much what R. Buckminster Fuller termed ephemeralization), doing more with less through the use of technology. This has certainly been happening throughout my library career, and I continue to believe that the single most important characteristic in a librarian’s makeup is the willingness and ability to change ways of doing things for the better, rather than keeping a process because it’s “the way we’ve always done it.” When I look around at the people I respect most in our profession, willingness to change is one trait they all have.
My thanks to all the colleagues who responded. I would love to hear others weigh in through a comment below.