Interpreters as Well as Gatherers the Librarian of Tomorrow ... Today

By Hunt, Patrick J. | Special Libraries, Summer 1995 | Go to article overview

Interpreters as Well as Gatherers the Librarian of Tomorrow ... Today


Hunt, Patrick J., Special Libraries


"The future belongs to neither the conduit or content players but those who control the filtering, searching, and sense-making tools we will rely on to navigate through the expanses of cyberspace."

Paul Saffo, "It's the Context, Stupid" in WIRED

". . . to this complex relationship is added the responsibility of the librarian to maximize the flow of communication across the barriers of time, space, language, and patterns of thought . . ."

Jesse H. Shera, "The Librarian and the Machine" (originally published June 15, 1961) in Library Journal

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way-in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only."

Charles Dickens, opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities, bk. 1, ch. 1 (1859).

The prospect of practicing librarianship in 1995, and beyond, seems to very much resemble the Dickensian predicament/opportunity of the worst of times actually being the best of times. On the one hand, library budgets are being squeezed, many libraries are faced with staff cuts, downsizing, and even closure; more and more of the world's knowledge is increasingly available digitally (all the while relentlessly being added to); clients' needs are becoming ever more complex, requiring a higher level of quality service; and the very role of the librarian is in flux. Meanwhile, whirlwind technological, economic, and social transformation recreates businesses, organizations, governments, and entire cultures. As a result, we are witnessing a reshaping of the workplace, neatly represented as six trends by Walter Keichel III in Fortune magazine, including:

* Companies becoming smaller, employing fewer people;

* Hierarchical organization charts giving way to networks of specialists;

* Technicians replacing manufacturing operatives;

* Horizontal division of labor replacing vertical division of labor;

* A paradigm of business shifts from making product to providing service; and

* A redefinition of work to include constant learning, high-order thinking, and less nine-to-five work.(1)

We can add to this list the concept of the virtual workplace, entailing the ability to work from anywhere and suffer no loss of connectivity, a trend of particular relevance for libraries.

Of course, there is another hand representing tremendous opportunity. Our modern condition, characterized by the transformation from industrial-based economies to information societies, has made information itself a kind of currency; indeed, some see it as the currency. Now, especially since the advent of digitization, the transformation of raw data into information, and then knowledge, is determined by a whole new set of factors which traditional librarianship has not yet fully grasped and is ill-equipped to handle.

The changes which are forcing a re-examination of traditional notions of librarianship are concurrently reshaping much of the world economy, and by implication our societies themselves. According to writer John Perry Barlow, this radial change ". . . comes at a time when the human mind is replacing sunlight and mineral deposits as the new source of wealth."(2) Robert Reich, in his book, The Work of Nations, elaborates: "We are living through a transformation that will rearrange the politics and the economics of the coming century. There will be no national products or technologies, no national corporations, no national industries. …

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