Breaking the Barriers of Time and Space: The Dawning of the Great Age of Librarians*
Plutchak, T. Scott, Journal of the Medical Library Association
Purpose: This lecture, reflecting on future roles, posits the potential dawning of a "great age of librarians," if librarians make the conceptual shift of focusing on their own skills and activities rather than on their libraries.
Discussion: In the digital age, physical libraries are becoming less relevant to the communities that they serve. Librarians, however, are more necessary than ever in helping members of their communities navigate the increasingly complex information space. To meet their social responsibilities requires that librarians seek new roles and recognize that their most important activities will take place outside of the physical library.
Conclusion: A great age of librarians is possible, but not guaranteed. We are at the very beginning of the development of a digital culture that parallels the print culture that has been dominant for five hundred years. Innovative and creative librarians have the potential to shape the development of that culture in ways that will truly serve the needs of their communities.
I want to start by quoting Andrew Pettegree, who points out that the dawn of the age of print was a tough time for libraries. He says,
The university libraries in Oxford and Cambridge fell into disuse. In Oxford the process of destruction was complete by January 1556, when the university made arrangements to sell off the library furniture.
By making ownership of books so much more common, print diminished the lustre of the Renaissance library. . . With possession of texts spreading through society it required a connoisseur or scholar to appreciate the special magnificence of the greatest collections. The mere accumulation of texts was no longer enough to impress a casual visitor and the library receded as a focus for conspicuous princely wealth. Many of the great fifteenth- and sixteenth-century collections did not survive.
The library as a cultural institution struggled to adapt to the new age of print. 
Of course, the library as a cultural institution did adapt, leading eventually to what I think of as the "Great Age of Libraries," lasting for perhaps 115 years or so, beginning in the late 19th century. This was an age of immense collection building, a scientific approach to the management of those collections, and an increasing focus on the role of the librarian in ensuring broad and equitable access to the knowledge contained in those collections. In 1556, the future of libraries might have looked bleak, but 400 years later, the best of them were grand and wonderful institutions, indeed.
You might think that I offer this comparison to provide some comfort, to argue against the doom and gloom that we have been hearing for many years. Some of you may have seen last January, in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the "Academic Library Autopsy Report, 2050," which aroused a flurry of defensive comments from librarians and others eager to rebut the notion that the academic library was in mortal danger . There are many other examples.
But actually, I am not here to provide that kind of comfort. In its impact on libraries, the shift to a digital world is far more profound than the shift from manuscript books to printed books. I agree with those who argue that libraries are becoming less relevant to the members of the communities that we serve.
I understand that this is deeply upsetting to librarians. In 2005, I gave a plenary talk at the "Charleston Conference" that touched on some of the themes that I intend to address today. I titled it "The End of Libraries." When I received the preprogram I was surprised, and somewhat amused, to find that my title had been changed to the grammatically awkward, "The End of Libraries as We Know It." The starkness of my actual title was apparently just a little too much to deal with.
The fact, though, is that I do not find this thought terribly distressing. To …
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Publication information: Article title: Breaking the Barriers of Time and Space: The Dawning of the Great Age of Librarians*. Contributors: Plutchak, T. Scott - Author. Journal title: Journal of the Medical Library Association. Volume: 100. Issue: 1 Publication date: January 2012. Page number: 10+. © Medical Library Association Apr 2008. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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