Lunch with Lynda (2/3): Librarians in the 21st Century

So continuing on the lunchtime themes from yesterday, we also had a good talk about what librarians are and could be. Again, this is a topic that I’ve been ruminating on for a while, and Lynda always sheds good light on things like this.

Here’s the basic idea:

Over time, librarians have evolved from being servants who did what people asked to being service-focused and trying to anticipate the needs of our users and best meet them. I think one potential path the profession could take is to transition from a general trend of being service-focused to being more of a collaborator.

I believe in this very strongly. In an ever increasing information environment, the ability to navigate it, to use it to its full capacity, and to even know what types of information are available (“what?” you can imagine some faculty saying, “you can search phrases across an entire corpus of books?”) is growing more complex but also more important. In an information environment that is changing so rapidly, it makes sense to include an information expert on any team.

Further, once a work has been completed, it’s increasingly complicated to think about publishing it. There are traditional routes, which simplify things if tenure is a possibility. But what about ideas that aren’t quite ready for “real” publication? What about people who are philosophically aligned with open access? What about people who have tenure and care more about getting the most people to read the work possible rather than getting it published in the most prestigious journal? Again, librarians are particularly well suited to contribute to the discussion in this space. (That being said, I realize it’s a bit controversial at this point as to what a scholarly communication librarian’s role is in this space. It’s possible, though to imagine evolving into an advisory model.)

We’re also pretty useful in the classroom. Embedded librarians can add an entirely new level of depth to a class. Even if not embedded, librarians can help faculty identify really useful works to support their class. These can be publicly available, through the library, or even rare books and archival material that students might never even imagine looking for on their own. Librarians can help collaborate on assignments. We have lots of good tips for how to make an assignment that’s difficult to plagiarize, and we definitely can help faculty plan the library research part of the assignment to fit with the collections students have access to. And if we don’t have the collections the faculty member wants, through discussions and collaborations we can often identify what they do need and get the source for future use.

Librarians also tend to be pretty good at groking new information technologies and thinking about how they can be useful for collaboration, sharing information, teaching, and other standard academic practices. Seven years ago, if you wanted to know about blogs, you could ask a librarian (when much of the country still wasn’t entirely sure what blogs were…or at least were snickering at the name if it was mentioned). The same went with wikis, Twitter, Facebook for business purposes, etc etc etc.

I feel so strongly about this concept that I love it when I get a chance to speak on the topic:

I am of this mind because of my personal situation. My library dean has done wonderful things for the university and this library and one of those is positioning us to be leaders on campus. We’re still clearly service focused (as our mission states), but many people on campus think of us as partners and collaborators rather than just a service provider. Beyond that, our former provost also stated publicly–a number of times–that we are partners and collaborators on campus. So I’ve grown up as a professional in an environment where we’re solidly in the collaborator space.

I realize that is actually a bit of a luxury. That some libraries are solidly in the service-focused space, and that some libraries might have people stuck in the servant space. And I won’t say that the collaborator space is the easiest space to be either. It’s certainly more self-directed, but it can also be a lot of work. Especially when maintaining a high level of service-focused work as well. But, as I so often hear and also agree with, when you have increased rewards, you often have increased responsibility, and that is certainly the case in the collaborator space.

When I speak on this topic, I often hear from people that the idea is nice and certainly important as we try to redefine what a library is, but how in the world do you transition a library? That is the big question. I think in the case of my institution, it was a matter of incredibly high service for a sustained period of time and gradually introducing areas where we could really lead. (We were the first on campus to offer blogs and wikis for example.) I think it probably depends a lot on individual campus culture, administrations, and library priorities as well. In fact, I think there are a number of blog posts and research projects to be done on this very topic. (But at a minimum, I’d suggest the Value of Academic Libraries Report to get started.)

Whew! So that’s idea two. Hopefully I’ll get idea three blogged by the beginning of next week!

5 thoughts on “Lunch with Lynda (2/3): Librarians in the 21st Century

  1. Being one of those aforementioned scholarly communication librarians, I currently think of my role as that of a consultant. When people want to know something, they come to me. If they don’t, they stay away. However, I’d really like to see that evolve into more of an advisory role. I realize that for some, consultant and advisor might seem to be interchangeable terms for the same person. But for me, the former is about service, and the latter–where I want to be–is about trust. People in our lives, be they professional or personal, to whom we turn for advise or discussion or brainstorming are usually people we trust. At times, we turn to our advisors simply to sound something out, not because we are seeking an answer. That is the type of relationship I wish to cultivate with our faculty. That our interactions can be philosophical or theoretical, not merely practical (i.e., to have both “how might we better foster fair use?” *and* “is this use fair?” conversations).

  2. I love this, Molly! I like “trust” as a distinction between consultant and advisor, as well as the service aspect. That’s a good point. I think that there might be some similarities between advisor and collaborator as well. In the service model we were one thing. In the collaborator/advisor model, we’re something else (and both of those roles require both trust and a belief that the library partner knows what they’re talking about).

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