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University Librarians: Glorified admin officers or partners in research and teaching?

When I was living at home in the 1970/80’s my father, who is an engineer, was a fellow of the Institution of  Engineers Australia (which I think now is called Engineers Australia) and I used to glance at the newsletter that we would receive every month.  As you would imagine the topics were fairly dry.  Mining projects, structural developments etc.  There was an argument however that cropped up once in a while and did interest me, which was the perception in the Australian community of what an engineer was and whether they should call themselves engineers at all.

This was because, unlike continental Europe, in English speaking countries an Engineer was in the old days someone  starting up, regulating, repairing, and shutting down equipment. They monitored meters and gauges.  They got their hands dirty by using hand and power tools to perform repairs and maintenance.   So when someone described themselves as an ‘engineer’ many people immediately imagined not someone who studied advanced mathematics and applied physics for four years and able to design a bridge that didn’t fall down, but someone in a boiler suit and a wrench making sure pipes were not leaking.

The fact is that jobs either peter out (like telephonists) or they morph into something else in response to changes in society and technology.  Engineers were hands on fixers of things in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s but as the complexity of technology and machinery increased, so was the job of someone with the skills to design these things.  And the description of an ‘engineer’ shifted from being a hands on skilled tradesperson to someone who worked in offices making calculations and designing projects.

I find a parallel in my job as a librarian, and sometimes I find it a struggle amongst some of the people I need to assist in my job to shift their perception of what is my role.

In the old days the job of a librarian was organising information in the print form, books and journals.  Selecting, purchasing, classifying and cataloging.   Circulating, preserving, and weeding.  Of course also allowing a space where people could read and study in piece, which inevitably lead to the stereotype of the sexless shushing librarian.

From http://www.mcphee.com/laf/

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However with the digital age this role has diminished.  Some stated that the idea of a ‘Library’ was finished.  People didn’t need to go to a library anymore because they could get everything they wanted on the internet.  I remember that a library I was working at whist studying for my library degree closed after I left by a new CEO that thought precisely that.

The problem with this idea though is that it is a bit like driving.  Anyone can sit behind a wheel and press a pedal.  But to be effective and safe a driver needs to learn about speed, rules and how to get to a destination.  The advent of the internet has in fact made the role of a librarian even more important (even if some want to change the name to something like ‘Information Managers’   – remember the engineer debate?).  An article written quite a long time ago titled Technology is changing role of librarian into that of a teacher
which was written in a librarian blog, outlines this:

While I was President of the American Library Association in 1999-2000, I began to see another big change taking place in the library. More and more, librarians were becoming teachers. It was less about the book, less about the media and more about helping library users find information. Many factors are contributing to this change. One is that much of the work of acquiring and processing and circulating books and other materials has been automated. Another is that the world of information has gotten much more complex with the introduction of the Internet, the World Wide Web and all sorts of electronic information. Today the critical need for librarians is to serve as interpreters and guides to the vast array of information that exists.

Kathy Walsh, Dean of University Libraries at National-Louis University saw the librarian’s role in the age of Google was to help users answer the complex questions of life. “Most people don’t need much help anymore with the “who and what” questions. Now it’s the “how and why” questions that bring people to the library. A lot of what our librarians do is to help users formulate and clarify their questions.”

In an academic library helping students searching information electronically is very important.  They may have been able to Google and get information at High School, but this often won’t cut it at University level where sources must be authentic, sometime peer reviewed and scrupulously referenced.  Once I  did a  session with a lecturer to university students that had an assignment on coal.  He mentioned that often he got back text that sounded like some sort of PR for coal.  With further investigation he found that students goggled and took information from coal promotion sites which is not acceptable in assignments at tertiary level.  Librarians now are charged with the responsibility of guiding users through the mire of information that is available through the internet.

I see that to be relevant I need to be more proactive and change the focus of my tasks.  As you may have read in my previous post, the small library I was running closed and now I am located in a big library, where I don’t need to perform tasks such as circulating material or binding volumes but can now concentrate on liaising with academic staff.  A major part of  job is described as being partners in research (such as offer assistance in making research grant applications) and partners in teaching  (such as helping their students in being information literate).  The question is whether as new liaison librarians we are seen as interlopers crashing a party we were not invited to, despite being there to help.  I have noticed that amongst the ‘older’ set of academics, the perception of librarians performing the task of selecting, purchasing, classifying and cataloging circulating, preserving, and weeding print material is firmly embedded in their minds, as engineers as boilermakers was in the populace in the 60’s and 70’s.  The idea that we could help them in showing their students how to maximise the effectiveness of searching of material, how to write a paper which is properly referenced etc. doesn’t come into their minds.  You have to constantly remind them, and then sometimes you feel a bit like the boy that repeatedly asks the pretty girl out and she accepts just because of your insistence.  Some come to the library with photocopies for students to photocopy themselves or to read and you repeatedly, gently remind them that if they asked me months earlier I could have organised for those articles to be digitised, so that students could access them easily through electronically.   But because they have done this since 1973 they continue to do so, not having realised that the skills and role of the librarian have now changed.  Another proof of this is when I was talking to some visiting academics and I introduced myself as the librarian.  “I haven’t used a library for years” came the reply.  “I search through databases online”.  When I inquired further I discovered that was in fact their library that provided the tools  for them to be able to research and find material.  The fact is that they were using the library.  Just because they physically didn’t need to enter a building didn’t mean that they were availing themselves of the skills and knowledge of a librarian.

There is hope however from the younger academic.  Often when I offer my assistance and help their students about how to use library resources they are quite surprised about what I offer.  They say things like ‘I didn’t know there was so much information’ or ‘I learned things myself about how to use library resources that I didn’t know either’.  The fact is that unlike the engineers, where the old perception has now almost all gone, we librarians are still in the boiler suit phase.  It will take some time for the reality to catch up.

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Twitter – Helen Razer’s view.

Helen Razer, a Melbourne writer and broadcaster has examined the internet as a communication tool for some times. In fact the first time I heard the term ‘blog’ was from her during one of her programs on 774 Melbourne a few years ago, and she has written this perceptive piece on Twitter. As it is not online I reproduce it here for your reading.

More virtual communication, less real interaction

The Canberra Times

19 August 2009

Apparently, emerging media are transforming the world for the better. Apparently, it is our obligation, not just our right, to communicate broadly on digital networks. The more we speak to an audience, it is held, the more things improve. Twitter is a device upheld as evidence of our progress. In recent weeks, no doubt, you’ve heard of the compact online tool. The application, which behaves very much like a digital whiteboard, came to the attention of the world during the contested Iranian election in June. Messages ostensibly from Tehran spoke out in protest against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Across the globe, compassionate hordes saluted the electronic message service as a valuable source of news. And it wasn’t just starry- eyed geeks hailing Twitter as a font of signal intelligence. An institution no less august than the US State Department requested that Twitter’s maintenance be delayed to allow Iranians to ”tweet”.

In the weeks following the tweeted elections many spoke of an emerging digital democracy. It was claimed that Iranian dissidents had successfully used the device to dodge military action and to convene against a government regarded by much of the West as despotic. This was the ”Twitter Revolution”. This, according to many web pundits, was positive proof that everyday citizens could transform the world in the blink of a cursor. Then, a few facts emerged to spoil the party. Just as citizens of the internet were congratulating themselves on a job for democracy well done, US publication Businessweek reported that less than 100 Twitter accounts were active in Iran in June. It seemed that some of the messages may not have been genuine. And those few legitimate tweets from Tehran were, in any case, drowned in the tidal wave of sympathy that crashed in

from the West. In short, all we learned was that a lot of Westerners thought of Ahmadinejad as the devil. If Twitter provided anything at all, it was a surrogate for Saddam. Seduced by the frenzy, I, along with millions of others, opened an account. It seemed that a refusal to tweet virtually signified the refusal to breathe. ”As a media professional, it is your duty to tweet,” I was told by a journalist over tapas. She began to explain how space, time and justice had been conquered by Twitter but was distracted by the bleeping of her iPhone. Given that no one has entire conversations anymore, I was determined to find out for myself how Twitter had shifted power to the people. I read and received tweets. Most of what I read was harmless but uninspired. Much of what I wrote was poorly spelled. I kept waiting for the signal intelligence to emerge. I learned a good deal about Delta Goodrem’s frock on Australian Idol, the dining habits of my friends and where I might purchase lewd T-shirts. I did not, however, experience a moment in which I felt like a keenly informed guardian of democracy.

Last week, one of the grander moments on Twitter was enacted by the partner of the company’s chief executive. It began on Monday. ”Dear Twitter, My water broke,” wrote Sara Williams. She then went on to time her contractions via an iPhone application. A few minutes later, she reported that her contractions had become painful. Then we were told about her location in the hospital. Then, she offered, ”Epidural, yes please.” This, incidentally, was not the final message before the infant geek’s arrival.

A few hours later, the proud new mother commented that her Twitter founder husband had changed the baby’s diaper. In a post-Twitter world, something has changed. I would not call this change ”revolution”. There are two noteworthy shifts to a world that documents itself endlessly. The first is the dwindling of what we once knew as news. Captivated by personal stories of birth, dining and Delta Goodrem’s frock, we have lost our foothold in a hierarchy of information. The little things with which we are assailed begin to mean as much, or more, than stories of civic importance. More significant, even, than the loss of news is the loss of intimacy. While a new life is cause for personal celebration, it is not, perhaps, matter for discussion by the 16,000 people who received Sara’s news. Nonetheless, the audience for Sara’s short and strange intimacy grows.

And so, our own intimate strangeness grows. In 2004, the American General Social Survey demonstrated that the personal networks once maintained by people have dwindled. One in four US citizens, it was reported, have no one with which to discuss important life issues. Twenty years ago, this was not the case.

Many Australian sociologists are of the view that our culture is behaving similarly. While we maintain strange intimacy with people half a world away, the intimacy in our real lives ebbs. Distracted by the bleeping of an iPhone or the sparkle of a frock, we shun real company in favour of the virtual. ”Speechless in so many ways,” Sara Williams wrote earlier this week of her experience as a new mother. As we tweet, text and update our Facebook status I wonder that we too, even while occupied in multi- media chatter, are becoming speechless.

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