Thanks to Marydee for inviting me to talk, and to everyone who came!
Do libraries have a future?
I’ve been asked to give a new professional’s perspective on the future of libraries of all types, and to ask the hard questions, and I can think of none harder. Not ‘what will libraries look like in 10, 20, 50, 100 years?’. Not ‘Will public libraries end up based in academic libraries? Or pubs? Or supermarkets?’ Not ‘Will future librarians also need to be programmers? Teachers? Game designers?’ but: will libraries and librarians survive?
I think we all have a visceral reaction to this question. The thought of a world without libraries is, quite frankly, pretty darn scary. It would seem to leave a vacuum at the heart of society – but it’s something we may have to face. And we may have to face the even worse situation – that no-one else notices or cares.
Reading the comments on recent news stories on public libraries, for instance, you could well think that a large proportion of the British public has no use for either libraries or librarians. Apparently we could all be replaced by some charity shop volunteers armed with a Kindle…
We talk about the fine and noble history of libraries, stretching back to Alexandria, but finer and nobler institutions have crumbled into dust long ago. Love, respect, and need alone are not enough to save them – or us.
You may be aware of the recent discussion on LinkedIn, started by Mark Field, and entitled ‘the fragmentation death of the information profession’
It’s a long and in-depth discussion, that I may not be able to do justice to here, but it’s primarily concerned with the lack of an over-arching professional body which is well able to represent the interests of all UK information professionals.
As the information profession becomes more diverse – specialised – fragmented, it naturally become more difficult for one body to be representative of all. But this diversity is, of course, not a bad thing in itself. Quite the opposite – it signifies a freshness and enhancement of the profession. And, if you want to get all Darwinian about it, diverse information professional skill pool means there is more chance of some of us surviving, of finding the right skills to ensure our continued relevance.
An oft-commented upon symbol of this diversity – and occasionally cause for complaint – is that not many people actually have ‘librarian’ in their job title any more. Quick straw poll – is there anyone here who does?
And it’s not just all about job titles . Actual job content is wildly variant too. This is reflected in the findings of the CILIP defining our professional future report, which showed that the most commonly used skills in the UK information landscape are non-specialist skills, that is: Interpersonal skills, Customer service skills, ICT skills, and General management skills. These are skills which are likely to be present in most info prof job roles, whether titled’ librarian’ or not. Traditional ‘librarian’ skills of cataloguing and classification come way down the list, at 47 and 46% respectively.
Of course, this was a CILIP report, and may not, therefore, be indicative of all information professionals in the UK. One of the main points of the fragmentation discussion is just that – that CILIP as it is cannot possibly represent the interest of all info pros. And this isn’t intended as a criticism of CILIP, but as an acknowledgement that the changing nature of the profession – indeed, of the world – is making that impossible for any one organisation.
There is some discussion on the list of how a new generation of professional associations might work, including suggestions of fluid ‘supergroups’ and ‘defragmentation’ – which is something we should apparently be doing to our profession as well as our hard drives.
I found ‘supergroups’ notion intriguing – the idea of self-selecting groups that can constitute themselves according to what they want to accomplish. What I found surprising, however, was the fact that no-one in the discussion explicitly acknowledged that this is already happening. It’s happening right there in the discussion, as disparate professionals are coming together to discuss problems and issues that are common to all.
I’m fortunate to be involved with another couple of these self-selecting, self-forming groups. The first is LISNPN – the LIS new professionals’ network. Set up by Ned Potter, this is a virtual space where hundreds of new – and not-so-new! – information professionals are gathering to talk, to collaborate, to share ideas and experiences. The network is independent – it’s not affiliated with any of the prof organisations, it’s run by new professionals, for new professionals. It’s not sector-specific, it’s not country-specific. Most of the users are from the UK, but on one random page of users I also saw members from the US, Canada, Germany, Serbia, the Netherlands, Finland and Nigeria, highlighting the truly international nature of some of the issues facing information professionals.
LISNPN has recently graduated from a purely virtual network to involving some face-to-face events. Theses have been social events so far, organised by members. There’s been no approval to get, no committee to go through, no worries over the target audience – just an idea of ‘wouldn’t it be nice to meet-up for a drink and a chat? Let’s do it! Everyone welcome!’.
Does this sound like a profession that’s fragmenting? To me it sounds like a profession that is embracing its differences, and finding its commonalities.
I must point out that I’m speaking here as a new professional. This is the profession I – and many others – have entered. We’ve never known anything but what is going on now, the profession as it is at the moment – the golden past has, for us, never existed. And we’re still enthusiastic! Isn’t that encouraging?
What I’m seeing at the moment – in new and established professionals – is a profession seeking to understand itself. As we face challenges, we’re trying to face them by finding out who we are.
This seeking to understand is demonstrated by library day in the life, where information professionals tweet/write blog posts about what exactly they do all day. one of the ideas of this is to get the understanding of what librarians do into the mainstream – outside the echo chamber, as we’d say in the UK. (the echo chamber is this idea that librarians only talk to other librarians. I like the term because it implies reflection, refraction, and distortion. I imagine the echo chamber looking like a fives court – not a square, empty room like a squash court, but one with unexpected hazards and crannies)
But even if library day in the life doesn’t break out of the echo chamber, is only read by other professionals, it’s still very important. why? because it helps the profession understand itself. No one can have jobs in every sector – although I know some try! – but we all need an understanding and appreciation of what people in other sectors and other environments do.
The Library routes project is another good example of this. Information professionals share their stories of how they got into the profession – where they came from, and what route they took in – their roots and their routes.
Again, this opens the profession’s mind about itself. It can be easy to get stuck in a rut where you assume that all librarians had the same sort of career path as you: UG degree, grad traineeship, library school. But this kind of thinking is an insult to the diversity of the profession.
One of the things I’ve loved about librarianship from my earliest days is the multiplicity of opportunities, of stories. If I may paraphrase: ‘there are 8 million stories in this naked profession: yours could be one of them’
‘Stories’ leads me nicely to a story I’d like to tell you. Recently, a group of information professionals, most of whom had never met each other, came together. Linked by social media and drawn together by a common purpose, they worked together without fear, favour or hope of reward, for something they believed in. This group consisted of information professionals from a variety of sectors – academic, public, FE, independent consultants, information literacy, library students – people at all stages of their careers.
This group was galvanised by the negative coverage of public libraries in the UK, and by the threat of closures under the government’s austerity regime. They decided that there needed to be a voice – a unifying voice for the number of voices who were crying out against these proposed closures and cuts.
So, in the space of 2 weeks they mapped out a campaign, built a website, and went to work gathering support.
Support from all across the sector. Support from CILIP and SLA Europe and Unison – and many others. Support that said: yes. This is an important thing. This is something the profession needs, that society needs. This is something that, despite out other differences, we can agree on, and work together to achieve.
That group is one which I hope you’ve heard of: Voices for the Library. I’m privileged to be a part of Voices for the Library, and I’m proud to be part of the profession that supports that. A profession who can unite like this to make a difference should view the future as a challenge, not a threat.
But what sort of challenge will it be? We’re always hearing about ‘use the difficulty’, and as a profession I think we’re very good at spotting the opportunities created by change. But are we translating this to our view of the profession as a whole? Have we really reconciled ourselves to the fact that, in our brave new digital world, nothing is sacred. Nothing is inviolate.
I read a quote recently from the architect behind Birmingham’s planned new central library, who said that ‘libraries are the new secular cathedrals’. Well, whenever anyone mentions cathedrals, I think of the following story.
Alan Coren tells of how he met Peter Palumbo in the late 80s, shortly before Palumbo became chairman of the Arts Council. He recalls how he bent Palumbo’s ear over dinner about the ‘cultural fabric of the nation’. He says ‘it is the one phrase I recall from that night’s exchanges, and each time he loosed it I rose snapping to the fly, ticking off the threat to that fabric, ie, to theatre, film, music, books, painting – and, by stilton time, to glove-puppetry and synchronized origami’. Imagine then, Coren’s chagrin when, months later, he discovers that Palumbo’s interpretation of ‘cultural fabric’ was a literal one: cathedrals. Coren again: ‘and what irks me … is that, even for the literalist, cathedrals should top the list when our cultural fabric is under charitable review. Someone will always look after cathedrals’.
With this in mind, I cannot, in good conscience agree that libraries are the new secular cathedrals. Instead, I propose a different analogy: libraries are the new secular abbeys and we may be facing our dissolution.
Where are Britain’s abbeys now? In ruins, yes – that’s the most obvious and the most visible legacy. But they’re also everywhere – embedded, if you will, in the cultural fabric of the nation. Abbey stone is in buildings the length and breadth of the country. Abbey treasures are in museums and galleries. Abbey grounds host hospitals and sports fields. Some of what they held precious has been lost. Most of it has been dispersed. But some of it survives. And how much more of it could have survived if the monks had been able to oversee its dispersal and re-use?
So as our secular information society starts to tear apart libraries, starts to rebel against the cost and argue that what they provide is available elsewhere, starts to disperse our services and holdings, our staff, our treasures, what do we do? We could resist. We could fight. We could say ‘no! these things are precious!’. And, in doing so, we could (hopefully metaphorically), die.
Or we could take charge of the dissolution. We could understand that we are in the best position to decide what is most valuable, and to ensure that it stays a vital part of society – that it is embedded just as surely and deeply as the old abbey stones. We already have embedded librarians in many special libraries – are embedded libraries our next evolution?
So, I’m supposed to be asking the difficult questions, and I haven’t asked one for a while.
If your library was on fire, what would you save?
Now, this is a metaphorical fire in a metaphorical library, and, as such, it will burn ideas and principles as quickly as books. Internet back-ups are no protection from it. Lots Of Copies will no longer Keep Stuff Safe. This is a fire that is hot enough, fierce enough, fast enough to ensure that nothing survives.
What will we save from the flames? We have an opportunity here to decide the future of libraries and librarianship – and I mean all libraries. It may only be public and school libraries that are specifically under threat in the UK at the moment, but I think we can all agree that it is a very dangerous precedent. Katy Wrathall, who some of you may know is standing for election to CILIP council, paraphrased it very well: ‘First they came for the school librarians, and I did not speak up, because I was not a school librarian…’
I have to add here an example of why this is so pressing, one that was brought to my attention today. Today, at another library conference, a well-known library campaigner who is not a librarian is giving a speech in which they are setting out their vision for the future of libraries. In this, they define libraries as ‘buildings with things to read’.
Is this your vision of libraries? Can we allow this vision to define our future?
There is widespread recognition of the fact that libraries and the information profession are on the edge of a fundamental change. We can’t stop that change, but what we can do is lead it, shape it. Be the architects of our own destruction, in order to ensure that that which we do that is vital to the needs of society is not lost. Shape our own rebirth, so we can be guides to the future.