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Zero Humans Needed

A Kind Reader wrote in some despair about the future of libraries, apparently after finding out about companies serving libraries that provide, in Kind Reader’s words, “One Machine to Do it all, Zero Humans needed.”

The question is, should this person go to school to be a librarian, which would imply that the future will require human beings as librarians with human patrons to interact with, or should the person give up the dream and just become an IT professional working in the background keeping the machines running.

There’s always panicky talk about the future of libraries. I saw a reference to some meeting recently asking something like, will libraries be around in five years?

That’s a pretty silly question, but I assume it was supposed to make people think about something or other, although I’m not sure what. It’s pretty easy to answer, too. Yes, they will be. Five years isn’t a very long time.

But if you were younger and thinking about starting a career in librarianship, basing your love for the profession on what you’ve experienced in libraries your entire life, is it a profession you would join if you had a choice?

Also, let’s assume you’re the sort of person who has a choice, unlike some people who end up librarians because there’s not much else they can do. Do you become a librarian?

I hate to say it, but I’m kind of doubtful if I would. When the Librarian 3000 sentient robot is invented in 2032, librarians will become unnecessary. That’s sounds like a long time in the future, but it’s only 18 years, leaving young people starting in the profession today in their mid-40s facing total obsolescence.

On the other hand, the drive to make libraries into things other than libraries might help some. If libraries are community centers, they’ll probably still need humans working in them, just not librarians.

Given the aging Baby Boomers and the shrinking social safety net, libraries might transition into impromptu eldercare facilities, for example. Those places require a lot of people to do the work. Most of it isn’t pleasant or interesting work, but it’s a job, just not one most people would choose if they had better options.

Thus, it might seem the techie route is the way to go. Someone will have to dust and program the Librarian 3000. But if you like the idea of working with people, that might not be a good idea.

Nothing against the IT crowd out there, but a lot of them aren’t exactly people persons. Sitting alone in a darkened room staring at computer monitors all day isn’t a chore for a lot of them. It’s a perk of the job.

So if you like libraries because they let you work with the public in some sort of librarian capacity, the future might be pretty dark, and becoming a librarian might not be the right choice for a lifelong career.

Then again, maybe there are no lifelong careers anymore, so why not.

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Comments

  1. Amanda says:

    I work in an academic library, and I do not see the academic library becoming completely computerized or obsolete in my lifetime. There is still high demand for library instruction, ongoing assessment of electronic and print collections, institutional repositories, etc. I think that when we have these discussions about the future of libraries, we need to distinguish that not all libraries have the same operations, needs, and patrons. Would I go into public librarianship right now? No, probably not. But academic librarianship? Yes, I’d probably still enter that field.

  2. Andrew says:

    It all depends on what kind of work you want to do. The circulation person who scans the books as they come in and routes everything to the appropriate department should probably be worried. The trained professional who does selection, instruction, etc.? Maybe not so much in the immediate future.

    The problem is the old supply and demand issue. There are a lot of people out there graduating and competing for a limited number of those positions, and I have a feeling the market is only going to get tighter. Considering the amount of time and money you have to invest in grad school for a limited number of jobs that don’t pay all that great I’m not sure it’s worth the trouble.

    I tell anyone who asks to avoid the MLS like the plague.

  3. The Librarian With No Name says:

    I’ll believe that automation is going to destroy libraries when one person in ten can figure out how to sign up for a public computer the first time around. There are plenty of tech-savvy people who use libraries, but the digital divide alone should keep public libraries humming for decades to come. Plus, we’re a publicly-funded institution that gives most people fuzzy feelings even if they haven’t stepped into a library since middle school. I figure that should give us at least a generation of decent funding even if we become truly irrelevant. And as Amanda points out, academic and special libraries are in even less danger.

    So a generation or two down the line, getting an MLIS will probably still be one of the easiest ways into the lower middle class for motivated and geographically flexible people. Currently, I’d certainly recommend an MLIS over an art history degree or something similarly unemployable. I might even recommend it over a law degree, unless you’ve got the connections to guarantee employment. $200,000 in student debt is not something you want to tackle with a part time Starbucks gig.

    But if the choice is between becoming a librarian and becoming a CPA or IT worker or engineer, I can’t really advocate for librarianship. Heck, if my kid was trying to decide between going into libraries and going into a decent bonded trade, I’d tell them to become a plumber or electrician and save the books for their off hours.

  4. Elisabeth says:

    I don’t think that even public librarians will become obsolete. Librarians aren’t just custodians of books, but information professionals. People still need information and, let’s face it, the internet only goes so far and much of it is inaccurate and non-authoritative. The classic dusty librarian in sensible shoes will change, becoming someone doing chat sessions or sending electronic messages to patrons as well as interacting with a walk-in public. There is no substitute for the reference interview, since most patrons really don’t know what they need to answer their questions. If you haven’t clarified your question, typing it into a computer algorithm just wastes time. By being generalists in an increasingly specialized world, librarians fill the gap.

    So, we get back to the old Library School question, “What is a librarian for?” S/He is there to mediate between the asker and the answer. As the technology becomes more advanced, so will the librarian’s skills. However, we won’t necessarily work in ‘librariies’ per se. Instead we’ll be at database companies, available to train customers. We’ll be working as analysts for information aggragators or yes, the NSA. We’ll be doing competitive intelligence for large companies. And we’ll still be doing lap-sit story hours for children in public libraries. As a librarian, I have done all of these (except for the NSA). Really. Anyway, it all encompasses a librarian’s career. We’re not dead yet, and we won’t be. We’ll just change with the times.

  5. Midwest SciTech Librarian says:

    I seem to remember those types of articles back in the 1990′s when I was starting out in the library field, as well as the end of the book. When the last book gets printed and cataloged by the last librarian, then I’ll take them at their word.

  6. LolWhatever says:

    Good grief. These folks who are thinking this are obviously the old ones that sat in their jobs so much to expiration that that’s all there is to them. Any librarian who literally believes these run-away rumors, I call them foolish. Retire already and free up the job-pool if your that naive and nervous.

    There is nothing wrong with technology. Infact, technology is being integrated into the top libraries across the nation. The problem comes from the old generation who’s still holding onto the old ways. The old generation that doesn’t understand modern society with cell-phones and laptops, and the ones who are afraid of technical advancements. Kindles cannot and won’t replace hard-cover books. What kindles can do however is provide a digital version of a book. But that also depends on the publishing company if they WANT that digital copy or not. So you will always, always have that hard-copy needed. For folks who spent so many years in college, you’d be think the intellect would be higher. Apparently it’s reduced down to unsightly fears. Where are your ‘facts’ librarians? Your the ones who are suppose to be the all-mighty guro’s of facts and statistics, so where are your facts and statistics for this? Since when have important documentation ever been replaced with a ‘digital’ version?

    Six years of customer-service degree-type job isn’t something I’d invest in nowadays. Anyone can be their own ‘certified’ digger, just use legitimate sources like a .gov or a .org that isn’t bias in nature (which isn’t exactly easy to find). The only thing that cannot be replaced in libraries is obliviously the public services, the book,s and of course, that human interaction. People will still be using libraries, I will tell you why. Because the resources and the draw of ‘community’ is there. When A person comes to a library they don’t get charge for anything, they can use the books, get involved in the programs, and have the ability to lounge around and enjoy the services or atmosphere.

    It’s the other libraries who are more interested in micro-managing their staff and ordering more ‘materials’ that have it wrong. Duhah.

    It’s like a company that runs on automated robots that answer telephone calls for them. No company does this, or they wouldn’t be a company for long. There must, and has to be, a human person on the other end to interpret things when the computer goes wrong. Obliviously there will be librarians, they just won’t be the over-glorified customer service reps like they were before.

    There are some librarians that do their jobs and are professional, and there are others who waste tax payers money and should be booted out the profession.

    • Girlbrarian says:

      “you’d be think the intellect would be higher.” Yes, and you’d be think you’d know how to spell you’re. What a trainwreck of a response.

    • spencer says:

      Look out, we’ve got the typo police over here!

    • Tom says:

      It’s more than just a typo. The comment is full of grammatical errors. It is barely comprehensible.

  7. spencer says:

    Good technology replaces some jobs. It’s true. It’s not a bad thing if it makes for a better customer experience. It also eliminates some job duties. This is a great thing. Tech takes away that which can be taken away, leaving us to give help to those who NEED help (or want help). It lets us do our jobs better. That being said, I couldn’t recommend someone get an MLS right now unless they are already competent and driven looking for a position of leadership.

  8. anonymous says:

    Let them automate whatever they can. It frees up intelligent people from having to do dumb, boring or repetitive things. If automated checkout really spells the end of libraries and librarianship, we’re long overdue to let it go.

    • Hmm… that attitude is going to get us in trouble, I think. We need to be mindful of not only the primary task, but also of what goes on in the process. I’m not sure about the rest of you, but I am in a small school library. Circulation and reader’s advisory are one in the same. Some in my school district regard the circ desk disdainfully- they think that is the only thing some of us do, which is silly, of course. But to say that it has no value and that a machine could do it- I’m not saying it isn’t going to happen, because it is. I’m just saying that we need to be mindful of what will be lost when it does, and prepare to compensate for that in other ways.

    • SPENCER says:

      I don’t think you understand. automating the circ desk won’t make that reader’s advisory go away. It will allow you to give more and better reader’s advisory to those who need/want it. The checking out isn’t the value- it’s the interaction. the interaction could happen anywhere.

  9. Never underestimate our ability as humans to trade the good and effective for the expedient. Librarians are indeed fighting a battle for the good – for their role as mediators in an information world poorly understood by users who think they’ve done good if they can find cool things with Google. The information professional knows how much better our patrons can be at connecting with the information they really need. There is a digital divide, but I’m much more concerned with the information facility divide. Without librarians, it isn’t very likely that our patrons will do anything but stew in their existing dearth of information skills. What a dumb world that would be.

    • SPENCER says:

      William,

      I think you overrate the impact of librarians- and undervalue the intelligence of the rest of humanity.

  10. Elisabeth says:

    Oh no, Spencer, William is right. It isn’t a matter of intelligence but of education. I work with law students at a first tier law school. At least half of them got their undergraduate degrees without ever darkening the door of a library. They don’t know how to search for information, how to evaluate the authority of a website and have no idea what to do with a database, or even what one is. Not all information is available electronically and they’re lost when presented with a simple encyclopedia, much less any type of index. And these are the best and the brightest! Translate that to the general public and you know that librarians are needed!

    A standard keyword search is ineffective if you don’t know the right key words to type in! Many areas of knowledge have their own jargon and if you don’t know it, you’re less likely to get anything useful. Librarians also know the titles of leading reference works on general subjects in their field to help a patron dig deeper; that’s what library school is all about.

    No, it isn’t about stupidity, but training. That’s why library science requires a masters degree!

  11. Timothy Ferguson says:

    A lot of knowledge work is going to get automated. The people above suggesting that muscle-work will be automated, but that selection and training will not are mistaken. In my library, some selection is already outsourced to the vendor, and at the vendor doesn’t have a heap of people pouring over books. They use algorithms based on subject keywords, sales figures and reported circulation rates. Sure, there’s still someone to inform the machines that a particular book won a particular award, but even that’s automated and cascades. Our DVDs and Cds and graphic novels are selewcted in similar ways.

    Once a service reaches a particular scale, the idea that a group of people get to sit around all day looking at the lovely books and deciding if they fit a collection hole is impractical. Collection librarians don’t do selections, they manage the parameters manage used by vendors, and quickly scan the books for quality problems.

    The bigger point is: no matter what knowledge industry you choose instead, it, too is going to face a wave of automation. Librarians will last longer than many other professions because ourt wages are comparatively low, and our industry is comparatively small, and so the higher-profit centres of automation will be elsewhere, in medicine and law.

  12. LibrarIan says:

    Why stop at automating everything? Why not automate our very existence so that we live forever through avatars linked to the Web? Then we could have those avatars automate things so they don’t have to do anything either.

  13. Peter Ward says:

    This whole idea that librarians will become obsolete is really overstated. Yeah, I’m very old school in so much as I think our core purpose is to raise the general intelligence of the community we serve. That in itself will keep us around for a very long time. We live in a world in which the lowest common denominator rules. If you don’t believe me, just checkout “reality” television. Somebody has to be around to show folks that there is more to life than the daily doings of Kim and Kanye.

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