Are Libraries becoming obsolete?

07Apr10

When I talk to colleagues in public or academic libraries, I’m often dismayed to hear how they’re struggling to hold onto their jobs. Academic libraries are having their budgets cut drastically to deal with university deficits. Granted, some public libraries are thriving, but others are wondering whether they will lose funding due to pressure on municipalities to hold the line on tax increases. While I also struggle with budget cuts that limit the amount I can spend on collection development, I am fortunate that my firm recognizes the value I personally bring to my position.

It’s not necessarily the same in academic libraries. According to a survey reported in Inside Higher Education, titled Eroding Library Role?, academic librarians are being sidestepped by faculty who do their own research via electronic access to databases and journals. I know from my experience working in an academic library that students view reference librarians (especially on weekends) as the person they go to to get the latest printer jam fixed.

Personally, I think the library field is the best job in the world, but it suffers from a severe lack of marketing. Librarians don’t just check out books or buy the latest best seller; we make critical choices based on what our clients need. We’re on the leading edge of technology, because we’re the first ones to see how valuable it is. Library circulation departments were one of the first to be automated – instead of fearing it would take jobs, librarians saw how it would allow them to do more of the critical-thinking type of work, as well as eliminate the mindless drudgery of manually counting how many times a particular book was checked out.

Where I think academic libraries have missed the boat, is the way they have gone to self-serve instead of personal service. As noted in the article, scientists have long bypassed the library for direct access to their databases, but now the humanities faculty are doing that as well. In my other positions, I was unhappy with how I was never “allowed” to do things for my patrons; I was to explain to them how to do it for themselves. I recognize that academic libraries don’t have the staff available to provide that level of service to everybody, however, if you don’t provide it to a selection of your clients, then you will find yourself deemed to be unnecessary.

I liken my current position to an embedded librarian. I get to provide individual and group training, I sit in on meetings so I know what my clients are working on, and I have an in-depth knowledge of my collection so I can provide recommendations for the appropriate commentary. My clients may not know every service I can provide for them, but they can all put a face to my name. And every so often, I get to act like a magician and pass along something that they didn’t even know they wanted.

See also Stephen Abram’s Value of Academic and College Libraries.

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One Response to “Are Libraries becoming obsolete?”

  1. 1 B Wong

    Basically it comes down to people and then communities valuing information and libraries as gathering places. In Boston the small storefront library cost $10,000 to operate for 12 weeks. That is substantial change once it is stretched into a full year. See the story about the Chinatown Storefront Library in Boston, http://go-to-hellman.blogspot.com/search?q=boston+public+library.

    As a former Vancouverite, I followed the development of the Olympics as a business. I don’t think many people know it cost an estimated $1.76 billion as operating budget and that did not included $580 million to build venues. That chunk of change has hurt the provincial coffers and services like the libraries are suffering. The people of British Columbia chose to have a big expensive party, and at the end of the day there is not enough money to keep the doors open at the public library.



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