The future of librarianship

I just had this discussion with my Index Data colleagues, and though the conclusion was worth writing up here. My boss, Sebastian Hammer, asked “So what is librarianship about in the 201Xs ?”

I gave three answers: one smart-alec, one practical, and one philosophical.

1. It’s up to librarians to find something for librarianship to be about.

2. Books on paper are dead or dying, or at least becoming a minority interest like veteran aircraft. But librarianship was only ever coincidentally about books. It’s really about information. 201X librarianship has to be about making ways for people to find and access the information they need.

3. In the long term, librarianship is doomed, because we are moving all the while towards having computers solve the problems that it addresses for us. The problem of finding information is being solved by search engines such as Google and by communities such as Reddit. The problem of actually getting hold of that information is being solved by the existence of e-books, by the quick growth of open access, and by piracy. The role of librarians is to do those parts of information-finding that computers can’t yet do; but computers are doing increasingly more, so the job is necessarily shrinking.

And I am OK with that. The bottom line is that libraries arose as a way to solve the problem that getting hold of information is hard. Now that the problem is going away, the solution will, too. That’s sad for individual librarians, who will need to find new jobs. But it’s good for librarianship. Because in the end, what it means is that libraries have won.

16 responses to “The future of librarianship

  1. A couple thoughts, in response:

    IF you go back to what Robert Heinlein called “the crisis of the librarian”

    The greatest crisis facing us is not Russia, not the Atom bomb, not corruption in government, no encroaching hunger, not the morals of young. It is a crisis in the *organization* and *accessibility* of human knowledge. We own an enormous “encyclopedia”–which isn’t even arranged alphabetically. Our “file cards” are spilled on the floor, nor were they ever in order. The answers we want may be buried somewhere in the heap, but it might take a lifetime to locate two already known facts, place them side by side and derive a third fact, the one we urgently need.Call it the Crisis of the Librarian.We need a new “specialist” who is not a specialist, but a synthesist.

    It does seem like the combination of making information available on the web and search engines have solved this problem for most day-to-day purposes. Even if you can’t find a piece of information quickly you can can probably get a sense of who you would have to contact to continue the search beyond publicly available information.

    There are definitely people who think that the most important role of libraries these days is to make the information online available to people who don’t have internet access and to train people how to use existing search tools to find what they want — that’s a job which will still be relevant for at least the next 40 years.

    It makes sense that it is important to have libraries as institutions, separate from schools, which help people access information.

    I’m not sure what happens to library science programs — I think that will change a lot in the next 20 years.

    You could make the case that, within academia the need for synthesists who can connect information across disciplines continues to grow. It also seems likely that those synthesists will be people trained in a specialized field, not people trained in library science.

    But, that said, it makes sense that we will still need to train people in formal schema for cataloging information and library science programs could do that. I know a couple of people who have relatively recent library science degrees, I should ask them what they think the programs will look like.

  2. Unfortunately, I suspect that people with recent Library Science degrees might be least equipped to see the landscape clearly — because they are too invested. Of course, they know much more than I do about what’s going on, but it’s going to be hard for them to back off enough to see the whole picture.

    The danger for librarians is they ask themselves (and each other) “How can we do better at what we’re doing?”. The question they ought to be asking is “What should we be doing instead?”

    I agree that there will always be a role for knowledge synthesists. It’s not clear to me that those people are going to come from the ranks of librarians, though. I’d have thought they’d be more likely to be specialists in some area who then expand into a second and maybe third area. I don’t know, though — maybe there will always be a role for generalists.

  3. Agree: long term librarianship, as we know it, is doomed.

    But I hope at least that the places that we now call libraries will never go away. Because we could always stand to have some sort of physical location where people can publicly access info, search for a job, etc that’s staffed by people who are able to help that person when they get stuck.

    Most of the functions that we currently associate with librarians will still not be gone either though. But I think those might best be re-assigned to a job that’s a cross between a museum curator and a standard books-on-shelf librarian.

    When I try to envision a future where truly *everything* that has ever happened is *all* available online, it just never seems likely to me. There will always be someone who needs some records that still haven’t quite made it into a digital form yet. And for that, there’ll need to be a way they can have that information retrieved for them.

    Furry cows moo and decompress.

  4. In the past, the problem was the scarcity of easily-accessible information, and it may still be so, but it is conceivable that too much information (especially too much irrelevant/tangential/junk information) may become the bigger problem in the future. If this is the case, we will need to replace keyword search with semantic search (and we would like to have it anyway). This is not simply the next step in search, it is a fundamentally different and much harder problem.

    Machine learning has made a lot of progress lately, but I wonder if it resembles computer chess in the sense that it looks impressive through exploiting brute-force techniques that do not resemble human thinking. If these machine-learning techniques give the results we want, it doesn’t matter whether or not they resemble human thinking, but this analogy to chess gives me pause to wonder if they will fall short.

    None of this suggests what librarians might do in the future.

  5. Start a truly useful search engine?

    I find Google increasingly bad at returning informative results, largely because that is not where any of the money is – its often orthogonal to advertising.

    And that is where I think the Xanadu model might have worked better – money flows towards useful content, even as it is shared – which is a great positive reinforcement loop.
    But it was a technical pipe dream.

    But I think that evolution of the search engine has been crippled by Google.

    (Then again, most searches are not for information. And the Stack Overflow platform suggests something that works a lot better).

  6. But I think that evolution of the search engine has been crippled by Google.

    That seems a very harsh assessment of a company that gained its current dominance precisely because their search engine was such a huge leap forward from those previously available.

    A fairer assessment might be that Google’s search engine represents a local maximum; that to significantly improve on it, someone will need to a take a radically different approach, and it’s hard to get there from here. But I’m not too worried about that: if and when someone does come up with something dramatically better, the world will find it and switch.

  7. It’s a local maximum that has severely hindered the ability to get past it. Not even for technical reasons, but for mindshare. How often does any of us actually ping one of the alternate search engines (think Wolfram Alpha, not Bing/Yahoo)?

    I find that I’m most frustrated with Google when I’m searching for `information’ opposed to `data.’

  8. Yeah — the same huge mindshare that AltaVista had over all its would-be competitiors. Only then Google came along and was obviously, demonstrably better, and every started to use it instead. When something that’s obviously, demonstrably better than Google comes along, we’ll start to use that.

  9. I fear the loss of real books… but see it as a real possibility. As a result, i end up buying waaaay too many books at my used bookstore(s) and archive them myself after entering them into LibraryThing (how else can i avoid duplicates? My memory isn’t that good).

    I also fear the loss of libraries, since I’ve always enjoyed them, but change is very much in the air… I fear I may outlive the library-as-physical-location…

    No answers from me, just lamentations.

  10. I’m not sure why you’d lament the loss of “real books”. Haven’t books always been about the words they contain?

  11. Mike: “Haven’t books always been about the words they contain?”

    Apparently not (though I’m pretty sure this is not what JohnH meant!)

    Other good things about real books: no DRM and no potential for one-click censorship by authoritarian regimes.

  12. For what it’s worth, none of the books on my Kindle have DRM either. Digital format is a necessary but insufficient precondition for the imposition of DRM.

  13. I don’t agree with the notion that librarianship is doomed. the approach in the article is a bit biased as it not taking into consideration the roles of the 21st librarianship. it seems as if their notion is inclined towards giving out information but alas, as the information landscape is evolving, so is our job as librarians. we are now assuming new roles in a digital society that is driven by technology. their assumption that computers are shrinking the role of librarians is an unfounded myth as we are now dealing with “born digital” information/data objects that are being used by “digital natives”. As a result, the role of the librarian is now more challenging as they have to embrace all the innovations and tailor make services in a way that best fits the information seeking behaviours of users. as Internet traffic is exponentially increasing, there is a need for enough signage,traffic control systems, and enhanced information highways. all this is the task of the librarian. where we were cataloguing, we are now involved in tagging and assigning metadata, where we were giving out books, we are now coming up with research toolkits that include things like subject gateways…. a lot can be said, so I strongly. Having or buying an automatic vehicle does not change road rules. with web 2.0 and the semantic web, the librarian is tops in influencing the right information seeking behaviour, the relevant search skills, critical thinking as well as legal and ethical use of information….. I would go on and on…but let me stop here….

  14. Thanks, Aston. It seems that you and I are in agreement as regards my first and second answers, and that it’s only the third that you don’t buy. I suppose only time will tell how much of librarians’ role in finding and synthesising information can be taken over by computers. But my hunch is that it will be a lot — enough to kill librarianship — simply because Moore’s Law means computers are going to get exponentially better at this stuff while librarians can only get linearly better.

    The role of the librarian is now more challenging as they have to embrace all the innovations and tailor make services in a way that best fits the information seeking behaviours of users.

    I have no argument with that analysis. The question is why you think we won’t, in ten or twenty years, have programs that do all that more quickly, cheaply and effectively than humans can?

  15. I think we will be required to do more tasks behind the scenes. I t not all about handing out information but it also includes aspects to do with making that information discoverable. A lot is being done with regards to digital libraries and repositories. I guess you have been victim to the information explosion and information overload phenomena; where you use ordinary or specialised search engines but you don’t get desired results; when you get to sift through a lot of information before you get to something that is relevant to your needs and scope. It is such a scenario that requires a seasoned librarian who understands the generation and storage of information and knows how to make it discoverable on the WWW. The next generation of librarians is going to be more technical, with IT skills as well as strong Knowledge management skills. they will be be more of information scientists/consultants specialising in data mining and data curation as the formats are changing owing to technological developments. I don’t know how the western situation is, I might be misinformed but this is my take and perspective
    In Zimbabwe we are feeling the heat of the ever changing information landscape with the buzz words in librarianship being “born digital”, “digital natives” , Open Access etc…so before me I am seeing an evolution not an extinction, where we are co workers with these machine we so love.

  16. Well, Aston I think you’re right that there will always be some need for information professionals; and their job will always be to do whatever it is that we haven’t got computers to do for us. But I see the size of that profession being much smaller than librarianship as we know it today (or knew it ten or twenty years ago), simply because every time we discover something that computers can’t do, thousands of very smart people take that as a challenge and figure out a way to make them do it.

    My perspective on the information revolution is an interestingly multi-facteted one. On one hand, my day-job is programming information systems, mostly for libraries, so I see how both the technology and the industry are evolving. On the other hand, I am an academic researcher in my spare time (in palaeontology), so I also see how the actual information needs of serious researchers are met. And I have to admit I use Google literally a hundred times more often than I use any library site. That’s not the pattern of usage I expected, but it’s what I find myself doing.

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