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Apr 18, 2004: Has Librarianship Survived?

So, it's late on a Sunday night, I'm tired, and I'm wondering...

Ten years ago, when I was last involved in the library world, it seemed that librarians got no respect. The doctoral program I was about to flee--at the University of Michigan School of Information--was in the process of tearing out its own LIS (Librarianship and Information Science) core, a nasty act of self-disembowelment if there ever was one. Sadly, UM's actions were mirrored at many other former library schools around the US, which climbed over each other to essentially become HCI programs with a gloss of business and engineering stuff.

Meanwhile, libraries in just about every sector--public, academic, and even corporate--were undergoing budget cuts, told to do more with less. Salaries and self-esteem were never especially high in the grand old profession, and things seemed to be only getting worse.

The only ray of hope? The growth of Internet content; LIS skills should have been pretty important in an age of both information explosion and ROT: the transformation of formerly useful content to a Redundant, Outdated, or Trivial state.

I remember hearing a newly-minted dean of a remade LIS program offhandedly mention what he called the "L word" in a cheerfully ominous manner. Did he mean that Libraries were headed for the dust bin, or Librarianship itself was about to take a great big face plant into the muddy sod of history? I like to think that even if rooms full of books are no longer the most important sources of information, at least the principles of Librarianship are growing in importance, value, and respect.

So, back to wondering: is the LIS profession saved? I'd love to hear from you folks who work in traditional library settings, as well as any odd observers of the field. If it has, what saved it? The Internet? The Web? The information explosion? Search suddenly becoming cool? Or--egads, can you believe it: metadata becoming cool? Was it the Shifted Librarian? Harriet Klausner, retired librarian and #1 Amazon book reviewer? Or Nancy Pearl, the Librarian Action Figure?

Ok, off to bed...

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Comment: Edward Vielmetti (Apr 19, 2004)

Hey Lou -

Certainly libraries have survived, if you are lucky enough to live in a town like ours that has budget enough to build new buildings, so many people interested in being on the library board that the election will be contested (6 for 4 spots), and record circulation.

What transformed the library for me was two things: having a 3 yr old who loves story time, and having a "card catalog" that lets me put holds on books from my computer. Being with Saul gets me to the building regularly, and the online reserves makes sure that I always have something new to read when I go there.

Ed

Comment: Lou (Apr 19, 2004)

Ann Arbor is truly fortunate in this regard, but I'm not sure about many other communities.

I wonder about librarianship as a profession. One measure might be the hiring of people with traditional LIS skills in academia; after the gutting of traditional LIS faculties, has there been a bounceback in academic hiring and course offerings?

Of course, I could have a look at Library Journal's annual salary survey results. But even if salaries are up, I wonder if the total number of librarians has diminished.

And it'd be interesting to learn, if at all possible, how much LIS people and principles have permeated in new sectors and jobs over the past decade. Have a significant number of LIS professionals been hired for new job types like, say, those weird information architects? And have those LIS people and principles changed traditional jobs?

Comment: Liv (Apr 19, 2004)

Folks have been discussing this recently on http://lists.topica.com/lists/techielibrarian/

Comment: Michael (Apr 20, 2004)

I understand why people feel the desire to distance themselves from the L word. There must still be a perception with some people that libraries are merely about moving around books and not about providing access to information in whatever form. Services provided for electronic information are quite invisible, but essential to making information findable. Often, customers that seek information services for taxonomy, database design, etc. understand its importance only after they realize that information retrieval systems expertise is what is lacking in their IT implementations.

I see public libraries and public librarians as more important than ever. They provide indiscriminate access to the knowledge found in books and the Internet and the importance of experienced, ethical reference help cannot be overlooked in this regard. Libraries remain one of the great equalizers when it comes to bringing knowledge to people who may not have the opportunities and access many of us enjoy. Considered on this level, I find public libraries to be one of the more important services government provides.

Comment: scrabble (Apr 20, 2004)

I think libraries still have an important place in todays community. When you actually need good reliable information the internet simply cannot match.

Comment: Pat Ensor (Apr 20, 2004)

Hey, Lou, I was interested to see this -- so much so, it moved me to reply. I and all the librarians I see are surviving, and thriving! I've been a librarian for 23 years now, and the last 5 years have been the most exciting and rewarding of my whole professional career. Librarianship's values combination of open inquiry, accessible information (in whatever format best suits the inquirer), and service to information seekers remains valuable and unique. Because the world of information is so much more present to people's minds, they have an even greater appreciation of those who offer help with actually finding what they need.

Key parts of this, though, for librarians -- and what we continue to have trouble with -- include eliciting people's needs and working to fill them, both reactively and proactively (as opposed to saying "this is what we will provide; trust us, it fills your needs.") But those of us who are open to working in this way have long, invaluable experience with working with users -- we can apply the same principles of locating information, organizing it, and making it accessible that we always have -- it's just that we now have so many wonderful new tools to do it with. I still encounter new people entering this field who want to fill the unique functions librarians do, and I think that will continue into the future, although not so many people may enter the field because they "like books."

On NPR this morning, I was listening to a piece where universities and industry people were bemoaning the loss of student interest in computer science, now that people were realizing they could no longer dream of "making, like, 8 billion dollars" and were hearing that "all" the tech jobs are moving overseas. It reminded me -- all this stuff is a cycle. When people feel they can pick and choose jobs and aren't sure what they want to do, they go to what they think will make money. When they're uncertain they can get a job and aren't sure what they want to do, they go towards what seems like a surer bet. When the circumstances change, the statistics change -- if someone really looks up in a few years and says, we don't have enough computer people, we better pay them more, then people will go into that field, and it starts all over. When people DO know what they want to do, they do it, and some of them still like to do the things that librarians do. If society still values what we do, we continue (and part of our job is to make sure they know what we can do for them); if it doesn't, then we need to do something else. But for me, anyway, it has continued to just get better and better!

Thanks for provoking my thought!

Comment: Jonathan Nil (Apr 21, 2004)

I am a current computer programmer (with a BA in Computer Science) who is about to enter library school for an MLIS, in the fall. For the reasons many of the previous commenters have mentioned. (Except I _do_ love books, and physical libraries. I also love the idea of a profession based on the ethical values and skills others have eloquently stated above).

When I mention my future plans in social contexts---I am astounded at how often someone else in the conversation is also applying to an MLIS program, in an MLIS program, knows someone else who is applying or in a program or just graduated. Almost always. I don't know if there will be good jobs for us all, but in my anecdotal experience interest in becoming a librarian is currently _huge_.

Comment: Jozef (Apr 21, 2004)

Trust me, Harriet Klausner rocks...

Comment: Louise (Apr 22, 2004)

As a fellow refugee from UM-SILS (Hi Lou, howya been? Long time, no see), I clung to my belief that librarians' value would be understood once the 'average joe' (please, no reference to the reality show) found that he HAD to use the Net for something, right now. I knew when I finished in 1995 that it was coming, and I knew that the vast majority of the public were unprepared. I went into Public libraries for just this reason. These are the front lines, the precipice perhaps?, of the digital divide. In my cushy, affluent, suburban library, the precipice comes with seat cushions and a guard rail, but that doesn't mean we're not needed to keep the forgotten few from falling into the chasm.

And even for those who have easily, thoughtlessly crossed the divide, we can be of use for that next step. I have no doubt your average college freshman can navigate (in some clumsy fashion) today's Web and get at least *some* of what they need. The hard part, as Pat I think pointed out, is convincing them to look beyond what Google finds them to the more enriched and enriching content available to them. This is our strength as a profession.

I loved Jonathan's comment about our professional ethics and skills. This, too, is part of what attracted me to librarianship, and a large part of what keeps me here. I know I make a difference: every time I show a grandmother how to email her grandkids (okay, that's my sappy example, but it still chokes me up) or convince a student that using our array of databases might make their report better than what they found on Geocities, or help someone find, apply for and accept a job (an increasingly common use of the library) or simply point someone to a great, new Web resource I've found (or created), I know I've done something *concrete* in line with my 'professional ethics'.

So back to your original question: is LIS saved? For now, yes. But unless we not only re-invent ourselves, but also FIGHT for our profession we'll lose focus and become irrelevant (again?). Suddenly we have a recognized platform from which to make changes not only to individual libraries or librarians, but to the general public's lives. Standing up and saying "Look, this is what we do, what we've *been doing* for you, and this is why it's of value to you!" is NOT out of line with being professionals. It's survival. It's also in line with our ethics, argue as one might. What good is all our hard work, if no one uses or appreciates it (and funds more of it)?

Sorry, soapbox time, but you get the point.

An interesting side point: just before I headed off to library school, Nicholson Baker wrote his infamous "libraries are dead" article. I can't tell you how many well-meaning folks gave me that article. I chose to ignore them. Thank heavens.

Thanks for the brain-zinger, Lou!

Comment: Mary DeCecco (May 2, 2004)

I have real doubts about the furture of public
libraries and librarians. There is a strong trend
of de-valuing the MLS; a senior administrator said recently in a meeting that she thought everyone who works in the library should be called a librarian. Circulation is still good,
but there is so little reference work to do-people come in for picture books, best-sellers and videos. We don't even get basic investment questions anymore. When I was in library school a
big question was "will end-user searching be the
end of reference?" I wonder if the answer is yes?

Comment: Prentiss Riddle (Aug 3, 2004)

Very interesting thread. It makes me wonder: does this question have different answers for public librarianship vs. academic librarianship?

Comment: ebbak (Jan 8, 2005)

i stumbled across this posting as i try to navigate the new internet. using terms like taxonomy and ontology, i find that all i ned to know i learned at library school (syracuse '75)_

Comment: ebbak (Jan 8, 2005)

i stumbled across this posting as i try to navigate the new internet. using terms like taxonomy and ontology, i find that all i ned to know i learned at library school (syracuse '75)_

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