Eli Neiburger, known for the “Libraries are Screwed” presentation at the Library Journal eBook Summit, is stirring the pot once more by calling for the replacement of reference with IT people. From Library Journal:
"We need big servers and the geeks to take care of them," Neiburger said. "What are we going to cut to be able to hire a geek? We are going to cut reference staff. Reference is dead," he said.
Despite the fact that a trained librarian can bring value to a reference interaction, the patron today, acclimated to Google searches, does not feel that way, and librarians cannot change their mind, Neiburger said.
For what it’s worth, I totally get where Eli is coming from. He’s touted a move towards libraries owning their digital content rather than licensing it. For eBooks, it means going to the authors themselves and making a deal with them to get their works for the library to distribute. To this end, you need the data infrastructure (various hardware purchases and a patron-friendly interface) to make it work; for that, you need to have a robust IT squad. And if library budgets are presently zero sum, that money will need to come from somewhere. In eliminating the reference library staff (and replacing them with paraprofessionals), the savings generated can fund the digital infrastructure.
If I’m understanding Eli correctly, this future vision of the library would be one that has a paraprofessional front (circulation and reference) with any remaining librarians in the back (administration, cataloging, and IT).
To be honest, my biggest concern is taking librarians and removing them from contact with the public. This whole “let’s move librarians off public desks” seems like a step backwards for user experience by overly focusing on digital content to the detriment of face-to-face service. Personally, I think librarians struggle with assessing what their patrons want as it is and this would create an unnecessary aloofness to overcome. I believe there is value to having a librarian in the public spaces, even if they are relegated to handling actual reference/research questions. While discovery online is not at the library website (perhaps something having library geeks could work on), discovery in-person is still a viable service and one that I believe librarians should still have a hand in.
Also, I don’t think this kind of arrangement scales very well. I can see how it would work for larger libraries, but I’m having a hard time imagining it for smaller staffed public libraries (and, as an aside, nigh impossible for school libraries). I think with some help from commenters that we might be able to guess at the minimum level of staffing and funding where Eli’s IT move would be viable. My hunch is that it could create it’s own “digital content divide” where some libraries can afford to staff and fund a robust digital infrastructure while others would simply be relegated to current vendor offerings. (Now, if you introduce consortium arrangements to fund regional IT staff and hardware, we’re talking a whole new ballgame.)
I’d like to highlight some of the comments made on Friendfeed that the article presents a false dichotomy; that you can have reference or IT but you can’t both. Why not? Perhaps it is a better question about MLS graduate programs; could they create a program where a person can speak geek and reference? Or geek and cataloging? Or geek and administration? Should these programs be focused on making hybrids?
I think there is geek in the future, but I’m not completely sold on it being the only way to go.