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A lay librarian’s thought on “Nothing is Future”

Wayne Bivens-Tatum, a Princeton librarian and the blogger of Academic Librarian, wrote a post “Nothing is the Future” a few days ago, which resulted in many comments including the very excellent one from Tim Spalding at LibraryThing.  In his comment in Thingology, Tim Spalding warns about a potential misreading of Bivens-Tatum’s post suggesting that people should use his essay as a way to “kick it up a notch” intellectually, get past the small stuff and confront the very real changes ahead.” Bivens-Tatum also posted a response, “Preaching and Persuading,” making it clear that that his target of criticism is not the adoption of any new technology in libraries per se but the manner in which new technologies have been adopted so far in libraries.

Here are some of the thoughts that came to my mind while reading these blog posts, which have gotten surprisingly long.

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In his article, “Academic Digital Libraries of the Future: An Environmental Scan,” Derek Law writes:

“We have reached a point where entrenched and traditional organizational settings give rise to organizational clashes, as new issues and content emerge which do not fit historical patterns. The bundling of functions has imperceptibly changed, but we have become so busy and adept at keeping the library efficient and well manage  that we have lacked the space to step back and observe it from a higher level. …… Libraries have fallen into the trap of substituting means for ends and have not considered what is in the interest of their parent universities. It is, then, the purpose of this paper to review and scan the landscape facing university libraries and to attempt to identify the key competencies or core areas of work that the profession needs to grasp as its key to the future.”

His statement is targeted for academic librareis, but the diagnosis may well resonate with any rank and file librarian at differnet types of libraries. The problem seems to be that overall our library world appears lost on what a library should be in the future.

I realize that it is hard to articulate this impression of mine, particularly when there is so much conversation about new technologies and trends that libraries have to consider and adapt thier services for. What I am trying to get at is that most of the conversation is about what’s new and how to catch up. The numerous things get swiftly classified under the “Have To” category from this conversation. But they don’t always seem to have a clear relevance to “Why” and “For what” let alone “How To.”

Today’s library world, which resembles almost the Warring States period of China a long long time ago, unnerves me sometimes because everything seems to be geared towards catching up with the latest trends. Yesterday wiki and blog, today Facebook and Twitter, tomorrow mobile websites, content, and devices. Libraries and librarians have been working hard and frantically.

But, now that we have done so, are we significantly better off? Have our efforts significantly changed the way our users and our parent institutions perceive us? Why this nagging suspicion that we all seem to share and worry about, i.e. libraries are still ill-prepared for whatever the future will bring about? Why doesn’t this doubt cease that we are running in parallel with our users and parent institutions rather than running together as a team?

Staying up-to-date for the future is of course great. But what are we staying up-to-date for? There is no shortage of what libraries may become in the future: a digital repository, a learning commons, a place for innovative user experience, an information hub, what have you. But how do we get there where these visions are from here and now? Where are our blueprints, not another list of to-dos seemingly dislocated from the vision?

This brings back a question I often think about.  What kind of an agent a library is in its parent organization as a whole? Is it a dynamic, creative, competent, and energetic enough agent that can lead a change it desires through its parent organization?  If libraries are not currently such agents, how do we begin to become so?  Changes at these two different levels -internal and external- seem to be intertwined.  If we can at least begin to form some answers about these issues, maybe we will finally be able to spend more time on working towards making actual changes to the future of libraries rather than talking about it. Just a thought of a lay librarian.