Sunday, 25 May 2008

Librarians without libraries

CERLIM's conference series "Libraries Without Walls" has for a number of years looked at the distributed provision of library services. This is usually understood as librarians reaching beyond the confines of the book-filled buildings with which they will forever be associated.
But could one ever be a librarian without actually being involved in running a library at all?

For academic libraries, at least, an ever-increasing proportion of our resources is online; while our printed books are still well-used, they are no longer the main reason why people visit us. The main attraction is now the IT facilities - for even in institutions where IT and library functions are managed separately, the library with its long-established pattern of extended or even 24 hour opening is an ideal place to situate a large number of networked PCs.

The IT facilities, along with re-branding as "learning centres" and an associated relaxation of user behaviour policies (providing facilities for group work, eating, drinking etc.) have ensured that academic libraries continue to experience heavy footfall - which can be no bad thing in securing funding from their institutional managers (although one wonders whether custom will tail off with the rise of laptop ownership and ubiquitous access to wi-fi).

However, the problem of changing the focus of the building is that it can also change our professional role in unexpected ways. Librarians may be expected to provide support for IT services over which they have no ownership and in which they have limited experience. They may also find that their time is being taken up more by the inevitable logistical issues to do with the management of a complex public space than with their core professional activities.

I had a conversation with a colleague recently where he was saying that he was proud of the fact that our learning centre was so busy at a time when others were struggling.
I was not so sure; yes we were busy, but how many of the people present were using our value-added services: our books, our paid-for e-journals and databases; or the expertise of our subject librarians? I suspect that most were there to use the IT facilities, some to socialize, some to eat and drink... yes it's good for librarians to be busy, but if what we're busy doing is not librarianship then our profession is still in jeopardy, even if our jobs are not.

Are librarians necessarily the best people to staff "learning centres"?
Or would our energies be better spent elsewhere - selecting, describing, disseminating and preserving information as ever, but not necessarily doing so via a building full of books?

Can you imagine serving your users as a librarian without a physical library?