Thursday, 19 November 2009

The bookless library

Mark MacEachern has been speculating on what happens after libraries stop buying physical books. "Some libraries will cease and desist sooner than others", he writes. "Medical libraries, for instance, will cut back before Humanities libraries. But at some point 99% of all book purchases will be electronic. To be read online and on mobile devices – on devices that, I suppose, libraries will start lending out en masse. The other 1% will comprise rare books and other print curios. To be read in ill lit rooms by people wearing smoking jackets."

Which leads us to the next question: What will librarians be doing in this new environment?

In some ways, there mightn’t be much change. Librarians will still be milling about, helping those who need help, doing things that librarians in libraries typically do (i.e., sit in meetings, form committees to do stuff). But there won’t be as many of them. Not that there’ll be fewer librarians overall – just fewer in the library. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if librarians begin to live outside the library. In departmental offices. In more accessible locations, where partnerships and collaborations can more conveniently happen. I hold weekly office hours in one of my liaison departments and I’ve experienced the advantages of proximity firsthand. As more and more students attend university remotely, the less and less meaningful the centralized and well-defined librarian role becomes. Perhaps we’ll maintain a floating existence with amorphous responsibilities, moving from information need to information need, from the physicals to the digitals, without being tied to a specific library. Perhaps we’re already doing this.

There’s been much talk of the profession’s future over the years (and over the last few days), and the only thing that’s certain is that librarians will be doing completely different things in completely different environments. And, that's the extent of my oracular abilities.

1 comment:

Tony Hirst said...

I think the Open University Library could well be a pathfinder here?

Traditionally, the OU Library found it hard to service undergrads - being a distance education organisation, borrowing books from the OU Library never really was an option. However, with the increasing availability of electronic resources, the OU Library is now in a position to become a student focussed Library.

My reading of it may be wrong, but the recent loss of a staffed front desk in the OU Library could be seen to suggest that maybe their focus is turning away from the physical and more towards the virtual population...?

As to whether they are looking towards providing other services? Well, it was Library staff that did much of the writing on TU120 Beyond Google, the OU's current entry level undergrad infoskills course...