Does Technology Define Librarians' Roles?
balas, janet I., Computers in Libraries
As I contemplated this issue's theme Our Evolving Roles, I found myself wondering if our roles as librarians were really and truly changing. Without question our daily tasks have changed as we have found ourselves updating databases instead of filing cards in drawers, but do we define ourselves by the details of what we do each day? Libraries, the places where most of us go to work, have also changed, with computers occupying large amounts of space previously reserved for books, but do we define ourselves by the places where we do our work? The tools we use have changed as we work with computers and printers instead of catalog cards and stamp pads, but do we define ourselves by the tools we use? The real question is: Has technology changed our roles as librarians, or has it just given us better tools?
Serious discussions about the role of the librarian in the future are often conducted during continuing education workshops or panel discussions at professional conferences. Such a subject might also come up for debate at a strategic planning session or even during a friendly dinner among library colleagues. Of course, if you aren't able to attend the larger conferences on a regular basis then you are probably discussing the issue only with colleagues who have similar backgrounds and experience. A broader perspective can be both interesting and thought provoking, so I went online (as I often do) in search of the answer to my question--are our roles as librarians really changing?
My first stop was ALA's site for its"@ your library" campaign. The site features a section titled Be a Librarian, and I thought it would be interesting to see how our professional organization portrays our work to potential librarians. My first impression was that the site was emphasizing technology in order to overcome our rather staid public image. It boldly proclaimed that "the ultimate search engine is your librarian." The profiles of five "21st Century" librarians appeared to continue this emphasis by profiling Dave Brier, the systems librarian at the University of Hawaii, and John Day, the university librarian at Gallaudet University who was described as a "PC fixer." Although the profiles noted their abilities to handle technology, they stressed that these librarians' most important traits are their wide range of interests and dynamic energy directed at developing exciting and innovative programs and services for patrons.
The site said that librarians are professionals who serve in many roles, including ambassadors to the community, teachers, linguists, and information specialists. The site also featured personal stories from some of New Jersey's librarians, access to an article by Olivia Crosby that appeared in the winter 2000-01 issue of Occupational Outlook Quarterly Online, and information on education and employment opportunities in our profession.
The ALA site emphasized that the professional librarian has a definite place in the 21st century. Another site that explores this topic in more depth is the Librarians in the 21st Century site from Syracuse University School of Information Studies. Graduate students from the spring 2000 semester created this site as an online resource that explores the nature of librarianship at the start of a new century, looking both at the present and at the future directions of the profession. The site is now being maintained and expanded by the fall 2000 class. The Who We Are section explores career options, including the familiar divisions into academic, corporate, legal, medical, and public library service. Additional career tracks the site includes are archivists, government document librarians, information architects, K-12 librarians, and information brokers. The page devoted to each career option presents an overview and description of this career track, including the typical responsibilities of the position, educat ional requirements, and a description of the working environment and the populations served. Trends in the specialty are also discussed and a Webliography of additional resources is presented for further research.
Trends and issues that affect the profession as a whole are presented in the Where We're Going section, which explores issues that most librarians find themselves facing, including censorship, digital libraries, e-books and electronic publishing, the Internet and libraries, Internet filtering, and outsourcing. A discussion of the role of information systems manager, or systems librarian, is particularly interesting.
Colleagues in a Community
So far we've been looking at sites that are designed to "sell" the profession to prospective librarians, but often the real world isn't exactly like the glowing advertisements. Newly minted librarians may find themselves wondering how to reconcile their training with the actual practice of the profession. NewBreed Librarian, a bimonthly Web-based publication sponsored by the Oregon Library Association and the University of Oregon Library System, reaches out to those new to librarianship. Each issue contains a feature article, an interview with a person who contributes to the work done by librarians, columns featuring advice, TechTalk about techie stuff, and letters from readers. In the People section, NewBreed focuses on librarians who, through their vision, are advancing the profession and, with the Networks section, the site encourages a sense of community and cooperation. Archives of past issues dating back to the publication's inception in February 2001 are available. Perhaps the best way to understand N ewBreed's purpose is to read the self-conducted interview with Juanita Benedicto and Colleen Bell, who refer to themselves as the publication's crew.
New librarians looking for an opportunity to discuss their experiences can also participate in a listserv created for just this purpose. NEWLIB-L is owned and maintained by Susan Scheiber, head of acquisitions and serials at RAND, a think tank devoted to improving policy and decision making through research and analysis. While the listserv is designed primarily for new librarians, those contemplating entering the profession and experienced librarians willing to mentor newcomers are also welcome.
Those of us with many years of professional experience have both witnessed and participated in (either enthusiastically or grudgingly) the march of technology into the library. Unlike prospective and new librarians, who are learning about the profession as it is practiced now, those with more experience are grappling with the changes brought about by the adoption of technology and perhaps questioning whether their field will continue to exist in the future. The LibraryHQ.com site, which describes itself as a Web-based portal for the library profession, offers a starting point for people reflecting on their careers through an extensive resources page of links to information for library professionals. The section on library science as a career offers links to a profile of the job that appeared in The Princeton Review, a discussion of the modern M.L.S. degree and how it is being used by recent graduates, and a link to an article that asks librarians to consider if they would choose their profession over again. Resources on librarianship are listed among the links in the section devoted to professional sites, and includes links to such sites as the UNESCO Libraries Portal, Librarians and Library Science from the About.com site, and the Suite101 site, Librarians and Information Science, run by Gillian Davis.
Looking Toward the Future
While I don't believe that any of us would like to have "librarian" defined as "someone who works in libraries," the future of the profession will be affected by the way libraries evolve over time. The new publication Library Futures Quarterly (LFQ), along with its companion Web site, explores the future of public libraries. Issues of this newsletter feature in-depth special reports on trends affecting the future of the library, contributions from progressive librarians and other professionals, news of developments in the information field, and future tools and tutorials including its own Library Futures Rating System and Library Futures Foresight System. You can download a sample issue from the Web site, and there are tables of contents from previous issues beginning with their premier issue in November 2000. The Web Specials section of the site offers its Library Foresight System, a selection of free reports and articles, an Ask the Library Futurist feature for questions and answers, the LFQ Soapbox, which offers commentary on trends and events, and a recommended reading list of print and electronic resources. A free electronic newsletter, Library Futures Express, is available as a companion publication to the print newsletter and plans are to have 10 to 20 issues distributed during the course of a year. Visitors to the site may contribute their ideas and opinions through the Idea Bank, the Polls/Talkback feature, or through the questionnaire section. Complete information on subscriptions to both the electronic and print newsletters is available online.
Another Web site that challenges librarians to consider the direction of their profession in light of societal changes is the home page of Philip E. Agre, associate professor of Information Studies at the University of California--Los Angeles. This simple page, devoid of fancy design or eye-catching graphics, offers links to his writings on information studies, libraries, and librarianship. I urge librarians to read his article titled "The End of Information and the Future of Libraries." It is not an article to be quickly skimmed, but is instead a thoughtful discourse that proposes a completely different role for librarians and deserves a thorough, considered reading--as do his other writings.
Putting New Tools to Work
The question I posed at the beginning of this column, "Has technology changed our roles as librarians, or has it just given us better tools?" is not an easy one to answer, and perhaps the response I give today will change with new technological advances. There is, of course, no way to deny that technology has already had a profound effect on our profession, just as it has had on our lives outside the library. Nearly every job description I read on the LibraryHQ.com site listed computer skills as a requirement. I would argue that while computer skills are necessary, our basic roles have remained the same: to preserve culture and to help people find the information they need. Technology has enhanced our abilities to fulfill these roles because it has provided us with much better tools--and we're not afraid to use them. This may be the biggest change in our profession--that even though we preserve the past, we don't live in the past, and we no longer hesitate to take advantage of the newest technologies. It is a n exciting time to be a librarian, but it is not for the faint of heart because the traditional roles now require more complex skills to preserve, analyze, and organize information.
Janet L. Balas is library information systems specialist at Monroeville (Pennsylvania) Public Library.…
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Publication information: Article title: Does Technology Define Librarians' Roles?. Contributors: balas, janet I. - Author. Magazine title: Computers in Libraries. Volume: 21. Issue: 10 Publication date: November-December 2001. Page number: 58. © 2008 Information Today, Inc. COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group.
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