February 17, 2018

Two Kinds of Revolution | Peer to Peer Review

Librarians always seem to believe they’re living through revolutionary times, and perhaps they are. “The mantra of twenty-first century librarianship is and must be: change, change, and more change,” a recent blog post tells us, implying that such emphasis on change was unheard of until recently. According to a Library Journal article from 1985, “Managing Change: Technology and the Profession,” “for most people who have entered the library field since the early 1970s, change is the accepted norm.”

No doubt if Heraclitus had been a librarian, he would have said we never step into the same library twice. The world of libraries, like the world in general, is constantly in flux. Change occurs whether we plan for it, make it our mantra, or sit idly by.

But let us assume revolutionary change has been the norm in libraries for the last few decades. It’s actually pretty easy to point to historical moments of significant change, analyze their motives, and see how things turned out. We have at least two technological revolutions in libraries that are now distant enough for us to gain some historical perspective: the “microform revolution” of the 1930s and the library automation movement of the 1970s and 1980s.

The “microform revolution in libraries” (so called from a 1980 book of that title) was more filled with hope than we might think. Not just librarians were excited, either. H.G. Wells wrote in the 1930s about “microscopic libraries of record, in which a photograph of every important book and document in the world will be stowed away and made easily available for the inspection of the student.”

For a few decades, libraries had massive amounts of material microphotographed, from crumbling newspapers to journal runs to historical books. There was even talk of publishing original scholarly books in microform only, because the cost of a “print run” of microfilm was significantly smaller than paper, so fewer books would have to be created to recoup costs, thus ensuring publication of even the most esoteric scholarly titles.

In fact, cost was one of the major driving factors of library microforms, especially costs of storage and the distribution of microform sets around libraries. It’s cheaper to store old newspapers on microfilm than fill up warehouses. Preservation was also a motivation, as microfilm was expected to last a long time under the proper conditions, which we now know it does. But a lot of the early talk about microforms was about saving money.

When library users were mentioned at all, the general acknowledgement was that they hated using microfilm, and it’s easy to see why. Compared to paper, microfilm is clunky and slow to navigate. From a contemporary user’s perspective, the best thing about microfilm is that it preserved some documents long enough for them to be digitized and made available online.

The library automation movement was also concerned with costs, the increase of efficiency, and other typical library-centered goals. Library users were not forgotten, though. John Berry, writing in LJ about the first Library and Information Technology Association (LITA) conference in 1982, remarked, “To establish a point of reference ‘always requires a choice and a decision.’ The best news from LITA was that the point of reference for library change will have to be the library user.”

Not all users were pleased at first, which is understandable. The early years of library automation created the structures we still use today, but interfaces were primitive. In a 1987 LJ column called “Bring Back My Catalog to Me,” library patron Lee C. Churchill explains why she hates the single book-finding efficiency of the “computerized catalog.”

In the purplest of purple prose, she writes, “How well I remember delight at following a cross reference trail through brambles to a grown-over formal garden where bloomed a single, perfect rose, the heart-stirring book. It really was like that for a good many of us. We lived for the inviting byway.”

If this is the same person, Churchill isn’t with us anymore, but if she were, she might find all the trails and brambles she could ever want in the hyperlinked subject headings, full-text keyword searches, and other OPAC amenities that developed after 1987. Unlike the use of microfilm, library users tend to prefer the discovery apparatuses into which the early library automation movement evolved. Regardless of other early motivations, library automation turned out to make the user experience better than ever.

Thus, we have at least two models of revolution: the cost-driven revolution and the user-driven revolution. Both were, in a way, successful. Both, perhaps, even necessary in their time. But one leads to users discovering library resources and the other leads to groans when users find out they have to use microfilm.

These two kinds of revolution give us lenses for viewing contemporary changes in libraries. Are they driven merely by cost-saving necessity, or will library users also benefit?

We can question any trend in academic libraries or higher education, from patron-driven acquisition (PDA) to massive open online courses (MOOCs). This isn’t to slight PDA or MOOCs. They might succeed, or they might not. They might be revolutionary moments or brief fads. However, for every new trend or fad in libraries, we should question our motivations. Are we mostly cost-driven or mostly user-driven? And if we’re mostly cost-driven in the short term, will that harm us all in the long run?

Wayne Bivens-Tatum About Wayne Bivens-Tatum

Wayne Bivens-Tatum (rbivens@princeton.edu) is the Philosophy and Religion Librarian at Princeton University and an adjunct instructor at the University of Illinois Graduate School of Library and Information Science. He blogs at Academic Librarian.

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