by Louise Morrison (@ljmorr)
The library world is changing, there’s no doubt about that. The way we organise, seek and retrieve information has changed massively over the last 10 years and more dramatic changes will follow.
Threatened budget cuts have led to worrying times for library workers. But these are exciting times too! Advances in technology mean we can reach users in previously unimagined ways and provide amazing new services.
So, in celebration of National Libraries Day, here are 5 key reasons why we really need librarians and Information Professionals in the Internet age…
1) Online doesn’t always == free
“Why do we need libraries? You can get everything online now can’t you?”
Well, in some ways this is true. The last few years have seen a huge increase in the availability of e-books, e-journals, online newspapers and reference sources – items that would previously have necessitated a trip to the library or book shop to consult or purchase the print version.
But, it’s a common misconception that online means free. Many newspapers have introduced pay walls while it is well known that academic libraries spend an enormous proportion of their budgets on e-journals.
If we get rid of libraries, people will still be able to get books and journals online, sure, but they’ll have to pay for them. Libraries have always been about ensuring access to information and learning for all, not only the rich and I think it’s vital we don’t forget this.
2) Open Access is gaining in importance.
As more and more journals are published online, the traditional printing, binding and distribution costs have decreased. Yet academic libraries still pay extremely high prices for e-journals that are written and reviewed (for free) by academic staff. A growing number of researchers are objecting to this status quo and many funders are demanding that research should be made freely available to the general public. The recent academic outcry towards Elsevier’s publication policies shows the surge in support for the Open Access campaign.
Libraries have always been at the forefront of the Open Access movement. Many academic libraries have set up Institutional Repositories to archive staff publications while librarians and Information Professionals have campaigned for changes in publication policies. These skills are now more relevant than ever. It seems inevitable that the academic publishing landscape will change in coming years and Institutional Repositories and the staff behind them could have a vital role to play in storing and disseminating research.
3) The Digital Divide is growing
The gap between the Information Rich and the Information Poor is increasing. While the availability of information online is growing, many people still have no Internet access or lack the skills to use it. There is a real danger of this group of people being left behind and libraries have a vital role to play in providing free Internet access and information skills training to anyone who needs it.
4) The quality of information you find on the Internet can vary
Anyone can do a Google search but not everyone understands how to distinguish between reliable and unreliable sources of information. Just because something is published on the Internet, it doesn’t mean it’s true. A prime example is medical information where a simple search of common symptoms brings back a range of, generally alarming, prognoses, many of which have little medical credibility. A librarian’s job has always been about assessing the quality of information provided to users and I think these skills should be transferred to the online world.
5) It’s vital that we preserve our digital heritage
Libraries play an essential role in preserving human knowledge for future generations. For many years, legal deposit libraries like the British Library and the National Library of Scotland have been quietly storing copies of all publications issued in these countries while archives and Special Collections departments have preserved a variety of rare publications and ephemera. As a result of this vital work, we have an invaluable record of accumulated knowledge and can form an accurate picture of life in times gone by.
These policies have served us well but as more and more publishing moves from print to online, future-thinking libraries have adapted to accommodate this. UK legal deposit libraries now have digital deposit policies while the Library of Congress has taken on the massive task of archiving the entire public contents of Twitter. We have the potential to pass on an incredibly detailed picture of life in the 21st century to future generations but only if someone takes charge of preserving the vast amount of information created. Librarians’ skills in assessing how best to ensure the survival of knowledge are now more essential than they ever have been.
Librarians needed now more than ever
Far from being rendered obsolete by the pace of technology, I think the librarian’s skill set is now more relevant and necessary than ever before. Instead of fearing the changes that new technologies will bring I think we need to embrace this brave new world and lead the way with our expertise and enthusiasm.
I would love to hear what you think about these issues, please comment!
More MmITS posts about the future of libraries.