Libraries are About Inquiry not Service

Is this our highest aspiration as a profession?

I’ve recently been having conversations with colleagues about the place of Librarians and Libraries in academia. At the Greenhouse Studios we are testing, among other things,  new models of librarianship that put librarians and all collaborators on an equal footing.

In another conversation, I said that I thought librarians had painted themselves into a corner by insisting that their core function was “service”–however that might be defined. I took the position that service was a poor defining characteristic, since if we define our value primarily in the service we provide we define ourselves as servants.

Libraries have always been much more than service centers, and originated as preservers of culture. The first libraries were preservers of culture and knowledge in a time when written knowledge was scarce and not easily reproducible.

Libraries have been evolving for centuries (Wikimedia)

Books were literally chained to the shelves to protect them from theft. With the advent of the printing press and the mass production of books. Librarians became mediators in the search for information when the amount of knowledge became greater than the ability of one person to absorb or know. The mediator role increased as the amount of information increased, librarians created elaborate finding and inventory systems, and Librarians came to be seen by themselves as essential filters between the seemingly overwhelming amount of information available and the essentially clueless researcher.

This idea of librarian as information service provider then is a relatively recent development, and was suited to a time and place where information resources were growing at a pace faster than the technology to make sense of it, requiring a human mediator. But now that, in the words of Chris Bourg of MIT “machines can read all the books,” and suggestion algorithms can work faster and more accurately than a human, hanging the future of librarianship and libraries on the ability of a librarians to create LibGuides seems to me be an evolutionary dead end.  If the era of Librarian as information mediator has come to an end, what is next?

I suggest that we return to the notion of the library as a place of inquiry, with librarians as information professionals who understand how information interoperates, how it interrelates, and how the standards of persistence and discoverability drive and validate scholarship. Libraries are places where inquiry begins, progresses, and ends in scholarship. This is what makes libraries unique and necessary in academia. Without libraries, scholarship and academia are houses built on sand.

Libraries are centers of resources (whether or not you enter them physically), centers of inquiry, centers of the creation of knowledge, and centers of knowledge dissemination.  Service is something that we do to achieve that end, but it is not the end in itself.

Note: A portion of this post forms part of a forthcoming article by Holly Jeffcoat and I in UKSG Insights

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