Obsolete librarians

Something’s been bugging me since the ALA show, and I think I finally have my finger on what it is.

The itch from Chicago returned while discussing with Ivy whether librarians have an obligation or even a role in teaching people how to spot scams in email, job ads, etc. She notes that librarians teach & promote information literacy in other areas but not really in that one, and no one else seems to do much about it either. Those risks seem quite obvious to a lot of us, but clearly some people struggle to recognize the threats lurking in the scammers’ patter. She also wonders whether that’s a role librarians could create for themselves to stay relevant as they allow other organizations to do the work of organizing and documenting information that the librarians themselves properly *should* be doing.

She has a point there, to be sure, and so do the many other presenters who brought up the same point in the more techie sessions I attended at ALA. The panels seem to like to wind up their slide decks with dire warnings about all the other organizations taking over metadata management and doing a better job of it than libraries are. The profession is at risk of obsolescence, and these for-profit interlopers don’t bring the benign, neutral perspective to the job that librarians value so much. The librarians had all better get with the program or Google and everybody else with a server will be shoving them into the bread line.

Some of that is valid, and some of it is puffery. The truth is, with the exception of Google, those other would-be information managers really don’t want the librarians’ jobs. The large majority want tools for capturing and retrieving information within their specific topic-related scopes, and they’re not going to worry much about anything outside those boundaries. The librarians claim ALL the infoturf, of course, and they worry about silos and barriers to access that others don’t care so much about or even prefer. But these other information managers have strong motiviations to innovate and develop stuff within their self-defined boundaries.

What’s wrong with that? The librarians aren’t going to get around to cataloging all those bits of data in all those many disciplines anytime soon, and they can’t expect the need to just sit there waiting for budget to hire on some fresh new graduates. What they CAN do is find ways to interconnect and reach across the separately developed, single-purpose systems to find resources that wouldn’t have come to their attention in the normal cataloging workflow. That remains a LARGE and growing job, and librarians are the only ones (again, except for Google) that even want to do it. In a way, the proliferation of online information resources is actually job security for librarians more than a threat.

One panelist dramatically lamented Netflix’s DVD delivery service and berated the audience for not wanting to play that game alongside the for-profit company. But is that *really* the best project a library could scope out as part of their limited development budget for next year? Or should they be looking for ways to incorporate Netflix results into the lists they deliver when patrons search or browse? Oh, wait. Libraries are about free access, and information wants to be free and all that. Information can have what it wants when creating it is without cost and when some motivation other than profit becomes strong enough to raise it to the top of someone’s prioritized list. Until then, the cost will have to be covered somehow, and the taxpayers in the library district don’t seem that eager to write the check. So let the motivations that are out there, altruism and curiosity among them to be sure, push innovation along, and the librarians can busy themselves creating ways to find the stuff.

And btw, I may have to set up a separate blog or something to hold musings in this direction, rather than mixing them in with vacation reports and lists of Drinks I Have Known. One more item for the to-do list, maybe.


Originally published on arttartare.net