May 26, 2018

Stuck in the Past | Office Hours

“I like books.” This is one answer to the introductory question I ask when meeting a class for the first time: “What brings you to librarianship?” The answers vary just as LIS students do, whether they’re recent college graduates or those returning to school for a second career in libraries. The “books” answer begs the question, “Do you mean the content or the container?” Students starting graduate school who want to work in libraries with stacks filled with books may be aiming for the wrong ­profession.

Archives and rare books collections will always need librarians to curate and preserve, but the shift within public and academic libraries of late may mean a very different set of duties not revolving entirely around the containers so many of us love.

At a recent dinner with three academic library directors, all detailed plans to move more and more of their book and print journal collections to storage facilities to make additional space for students to study and collaborate.

The book–library connection isn’t limited to wannabe librarians; it’s the public’s view, as well. OCLC’s recent study Perceptions of Libraries, 2010 reports that the number of people who associate the word library with books has risen to 75 percent—up from 69 percent in 2005. As Borders stores close around the country and ereader popularity soars, we need to focus on what comes next in the evolution of our services.

Finding things
Another answer I get to my question is, “I like to find things,” implying this future librarian sees herself at a reference desk pointing people toward the very best information for their needs. While some of us focus on authority or the “best information,” OCLC has reported in 2005 and 2010 that people turn to search engines first, not the anxious reference librarian standing by in the library. The most recent report states that zero percent of people surveyed began their information search at a library ­website.

Yet, in many libraries, those web re­design committee meetings just keep chugging along, producing the same types of websites operating from the same false assumptions. (For more on this, read Aaron Schmidt’s “Resist That Redesign,” [The User Experience, LJ 3/1/11;]).

The researchers also found that “ask an expert” sites have grown substantially. In 2005, only 15 percent of respondents said they used such sites; in 2010, 43 percent. Meanwhile, “ask a librarian” services have remained flat. This is another one of those difficult truths: people do not think of the library first when they need information no matter how much we may enjoy the thrill of the hunt for the best, most complete answer. However, the new report notes that 83 percent of people who have used a librarian for search assistance perceive added value. The number jumps to 88 percent among those identifying as economically impacted.

Doing things
Instead of finding things, how about doing things? How about creating localized collections of our most unique stuff and, more importantly, helping our library users to do the same? Watching the Harper­Collins/Overdrive ebook license limitation kerfuffle leads me to imagine a future where libraries gather, produce, and curate content in ways only beginning to be explored that bypass the traditional author to publisher to library to reader model we’ve worked with for ­decades.

Reflecting on OCLC’s numbers for people who turn to library websites first when seeking information means we need to get reference librarians out of libraries and into the places where they might best help people—both in physical space and virtually. Who’s to say we can’t embed ourselves in the expert sites too? Check out the “Slam the Boards” initiatives by Arlington Heights Memorial Library’s Bill Pardue (a 2011 LJ Mover & Shaker) and other librarians to see this in play at answer sites.

It’s not out of the question to imagine these service models based on community enrichment and building connections. We need a course in library school devoted to teaching people to build spaces both physical and virtual for constituents to come together. We need to prioritize marketing and branding these spaces and services consistently. Doing so will help us in creating, maintaining, and evaluating the Information Commons. The Commons, a vital part of what our spaces can be, is strengthened by each person who makes use of it. The Digital Media Lab at Skokie Public Library, IL, is a perfect example of space devoted to content creation for users. Take a look at “My Family’s History” to see what’s possible (

There’s a cadre of LIS students coming up who would jump at the chance for jobs in digital media labs or the Information Commons. Before that can happen, however, library leadership must move beyond the lending/reference model to a broader view of what’s possible in a community-based space focused on helping people.

What’s one of the best answers I’ve ever gotten to my question? “I want to change people’s lives.”

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Michael Stephens About Michael Stephens

Michael Stephens ( is Associate Professor at the School of Information, San Jose State University, CA