Who are we and what are we doing?

I’ve had so many good conversations in the past week or so… it’s going to take me a while to digest them all. Thinking about it, the best I can do is take them one at a time, so today I’m starting with a biggie: Who are we and what are we doing? Somewhat surprisingly, I’ve had that conversation from a couple of different angles lately, so I’ll start with the one that’s easiest to wrap my mind around: in which “we” is the library. This came up in “Fieldtrips to the Future” offered by the Faculty Development Institute at Virginia Tech, and hosted by Gardner Campbell.


Clearly, and for a long time, libraries were about acquiring information, preserving it, organizing it, and making it accessible. Information was scarce, and it was a difficult endeavor to make sense of the pile of information an organization could acquire. The environment is one of information scarcity. Clearly we no longer live in this world, but it’s a difficult thing to fully recognize, even to those of us who barely remember a scarce information world. Professional worldviews that you spend years building are hard to change. One of my favorite slidedecks I’ve used was built around explaining this transition to a group of faculty:

Production & Scholarly Channels

So once it was clear we were in a world of information abundance, the next question was what do libraries do? Someone recently pointed to one of my old posts considering if librarians should be content creators.

(Interestingly, I don’t agree with the entire post as written, but I do think there’s space to adapt our role to be more in the vein of capture or creation regarding learning objects and/or collaborating with others who are creating… so maybe it was on to something, if not quite a bulls eye.)

Anyway, around that point in time I thought one of the library’s functions could be helping patrons think about where to put the message or object they’re creating. Maybe it’s open access. Maybe it’s a self-published book. Maybe this message could be more effectively conveyed in video. Maybe that video would have more weight on vimeo than youtube. You know, that type of thing.

And that’s clearly not us. A few folks in some libraries have expertise in this vein, but it’s not a core competency of the field, and isn’t necessarily something that the field would embrace. (That’s not to say individual libraries wouldn’t… just that this is one of those ideas that would be specific to local community needs.)


So now, at this point, the theme seems to be creation. I like that a lot. I think that’s a good fit. We provide many of the tools people need to create. We also provide physical, and in some cases virtual, space to collaborate. Many academic libraries have technology and people who can at least provide basic technology support for the tools we offer. And if this is our focus, perhaps we should have more discussions about what it is we need to do to do this well. Should we be thinking more about collaborative space and furniture? The tools we provide (from whiteboards to computers)? The role of librarians in a collaborative environment? Researching the types of collaboration going on in the university? (Disclosure: I’m very fortunate to be in an environment that is considering this line of thinking.)


And at this point it’s the general line of thinking you’ve seen here before, and in a dozen other library blogs. The thing that Gardner brought up that turned this from a general thought to a blog post was that he’s been affiliated with a library that actively worked to raise the visibility of scholarship on campus. And I think any academic librarian has to some extent through lectures, posters, or faculty book displays. But what about a more radical approach? What if we, as Gardner pointed out, had displays all over campus showing the work that was actively done in the library? What if we made it easy to show others what people are working on in the library? In their offices using library materials? Or, as Brian pointed out, how do we help students show others what they’re working on when they want to let others know. You know: see and be seen, alerting others that there is a study group for a big class they can join in, or calling for someone to help if they have experience in the subject. And, interesting to me, how do we help people share in this way that doesn’t just contribute to the overall feeling of noise in the information environment? While preserving privacy? How do we structure it so that the people who need it can see it?

More questions to come in coming days, I’m sure.