Hurtling Towards Relevance

In the last few years, the navel gazing around the question of the library’s relevance in modern life makes an regular appearance. There isn’t anything in particular right now that made me think of the topic, but it crossed my mind towards the end of last week. In running errands last weekend, the thought occurred to me that the library isn’t pulling away from the information trends of contemporary society, but rather we are squarely in the path. It’s all in a matter of how you measure it.

In essence, I see it under the umbrella perspective as to how information is treated and managed. Copyright and intellectual property are the elephant in the room for the economic vitality of not only the United States, but the world. It’s a simple idea (the benefits of the creator versus the general public) that has become a deeply complicated global problem subject to the sway of money, politics, and power. It’s part of the emergence of the knowledge economy, one that is based on services that essentially collect, process, analyze, and package information. Manufacturing is never going to be what it once was in the United States, not when Chinese and Bangladeshi companies will do the same job cheaper. But the products of creativity and intellect are ones generally do not need geography, so rights and ownership are the hotly contested principles that should easily fall into the library realm. This is a chance for librarians to make the case on behalf of the public for laws and regulations that make sense in the digital world, both in rewarding the creator and in making their creation available as widely as possible.

This connects into the academic world with announcements such as the University of California faculty adopting an open access mandate. The elemental nature of this part and parcel to the librarian ideal of information access. The tide of Open Access (in its various incarnations) represents a breaking of the knowledge silos that keep knowledge within the confines of paywalls and embargos. It’s an exciting prospect in which researchers and academics have the possibility of getting new discoveries faster. It’s an opportunity for librarians to make new and better connections between research areas and data sets as well as the latest results.

There are other connections to make here, especially in the physical sense. Broadband access to rural locations are part of our information access ideals as well as essential in the aforementioned knowledge economy. This physical end of the digital divide plays a real role in the education and economics of the areas that are beyond the fiber lines. The triumphs of digital education are lost in the slower signal of the DSL or modem squeal. Libraries are common community focal points for those looking to reach the online world; this is our chance to push for them to meet this most basic of needs.

I’m certain there are others, but I think this illustrates my point. If we look to our old metrics for determining relevance, we are going to lose. But if we look at the issues that are pressing right now, we could not possibly be more relevant. A information professional in an information world; it really doesn’t get any more front-and-center than this. The only thing irrelevant here is doubt.

8 thoughts on “Hurtling Towards Relevance

  1. Last time I went to the Baltimoer Aquarium, one of the things that struck me was how well the aquarium has integrated conservation into its exhibits, its building, its mission. The dolphin show has a message about littering in the ocean; the shark exhibits have interactive games concerning bycatch and the evils of shark fin soup; there’s an entire exhibit about the relationship between jellyfish and human activity; and the cafeteria has locally-sourced food and biodegradable or reusable utensils and plates. It wasn’t always like this, of course. Twenty-five years ago none of this would have been included in the aquarium. It was a place to look at fish.

    And that brings us to libraries.

    For starters, signage
    in the stacks concerning banned books and censorship;
    QR codes with links to contact local, state, and national representatives on issues important to the library and its patrons;
    near computers and in computer labs, reminding patrons of the importance of net neutrality.
    Also, programs, events, and blog posts that address the importance of net neutrality, open access, and a copyright system that strikes a balance between rewarding creators and society writ large.

    The integration of conservation into the aquarium is natural, and organic, not tacked on. We need to do the same in libraries.

    (all this via

  2. Warning: this response may include some negative observations.

    Well, just one negative observation: we can still screw this up. The Open Access movement, as you astutely point out, brings with it a lot of opportunity for libraries to meet people’s information needs. However, there is no guarantee that this will happen. Should scholarly publishing magically turn to open access overnight, the biggest change will be the death of the library collection. Without the need to purchase content or manage licences and authentication, the library will have to fight to market itself as a necessary player on the new stage.

    While I believe we (academic libraries) add a lot of value to the information stream, the core fact that in an open access world, the traditional role of libraries as purchasing agents will be no more. Are we ready to give up that role and take on new ones?

    While there are a ton of people a lot smarter than I am working on a post-collections future for libraries, I’m not ready to say that the library profession, writ large, is going to be able to reinvent itself for the information abundance ecosystem.

    • Philosophically, I believe in the value of open access research, but I’m pretty sure that most universities would happily take the money libraries currently spend on electronic content and spend it elsewhere…not on libraries, or librarians…if all published research was freely available.

      Then again, given the control Elsevier, Wiley, etc. have over the scholarly publishing industry, I don’t think we have to worry about a 100% OA future anytime soon, UC’s welcome proclamation notwithstanding.

  3. Pingback: Around the Web: Non-librarian librarians, Lego librarians, Sweetheart librarians, Superhero librarians and more – Confessions of a Science Librarian

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