The future of the academic library

I usually don’t write in my blog about my work.

Basically because I want to keep my work and hobbies separate and also because there is always a danger in talking about your employer publicly on the web, even if it is done in your own time.

However libraries, and their function is an interest of mine.  Not only because I am a librarian, but also because the function of the library, and the perception of it can be damn interesting.

The reason why I decided to break the rule of not talking about ‘work’ is because of an article by Geoff Hanmer in the Financial review titled: “Last hurrah for the traditional university library”. 

Of course as an University Librarian this sort of article deal directly with my work.  I was prepared for the usual “Libraries are redundant because people can get things online” argument.  But I didn’t find that in Hanmer’s article. What I think he’s saying is that the ‘traditional’ function of the University Library is not relevant anymore.  The problem with his argument was not dismissing the university library out of hand, but the fact that he was betrayed unawareness on how university libraries have already changed.  My impression as I was reading his article was of someone who studied architecture before 2000, and his ideas of how a library operates has been fixed at that time.

This is not uncommon even amongst some of the academics I deal with.  As academic librarians we can offer citation analysis of their research, we can work with them to ensure their students are literate in how to search and use the library resources most effectively, and more.  But some academics (especially those who have graduated quite a while ago) that have a rock solid idea that the library is a place where you peruse journals and borrow books, as it might have been the main function 30 years ago. Following this belief follows that libraries nowdays ‘are redundant’.  Is a common statement amongst some academics that say to me ‘I haven’t used the library for years’.  Meaning that they actually haven’t physically been into a library. But of course access all their information through databases in the comfort of their offices.  Just because they can get access to journals with a few clicks of a button doesn’t mean that they are not using ‘the library’.  They are using it but in a different form.

Peter Green uses a good analogy when he’s told that statement.

When I hear ‘I haven’t been to the library for years’ I feel like responding with ‘I haven’t been to the bank for years’ – but I use the bank all the time, I’m just not going into the physical branch. For an academic at a university the library comes to them, when and where they need it. Like the bank. And like the bank this virtual service doesn’t happen by magic, there is an industry of effort required to make a virtual space work.

It seems because we are used to get information from many ‘free’ sources like websites and Google, some make the assumption that all of it is like that.  It is not.  A journal online has to be subscribed to, indexed etc.  And while in the old days the user (or librarian) had to look into printed indexes to find articles relevant to a topic, the complexity of searching through a online database for journal on a topic can be mind boggling.  Try to enter something like ‘climate change’ in a database like Web of Science and you’ll probably get more than 50,000 returns.  A user may be skilled to find the needled in those haystacks, but a librarian could make the process much easier.

We didn’t have to wait long for the reaction of the library sector of the article.  The response that I thought was more to the point was from the Australian Library and Information Association which pointed out that libraries have been actively moving to electronic formats since the mid 70’s, when very few electrons were involved in anything resembling the ‘internet’.

The concept of the ‘demise of the library’ is a curious one.  I wonder whether some from other professionals get some vicarious pleasure forecasting the end of an industry.  Perhaps a self-appointed Cassandra like role makes some feel a bit superior, who knows.  Maybe there seems to be a dissonance between architects/planners and the role of the modern library.  Urban development consultant, Alan Davies, questioned the decision to spend money on a new library in the Green Square development. 

I have been a Johnny-come-lately when it comes to libraries, having stared being one in my mid 30’s.  But even in the 13 years since I’ve became a librarian it is amazing how things have changed.  Academic libraries are already changing rapidly from a repository of books and journals into a knowledge hub where librarians become involved in assisting students and staff in their learning, teaching and research, rather than simply organising information available in print.

And the change is continuing.  And the future can be seen in some libraries already.  Look at this video about the James B. Hunt Jr. Library at the North Carolina State University and you can get a glimpse of where we are going.

1 Comment

Filed under Musings

One response to “The future of the academic library

  1. Alex

    Agreed. My faculty librarian wrote the study guide for a new subject I am writing. I told her what resources I wanted and she found a range of books and other info for each category. She arranged it and made it useful. I could have done it. She did it well.

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