library of the future – feedback I

I’m pleased to see there is considerable feedback today and to start with I’ll post Peter Morgan’s very thoughtful and useful comment in full. I’ll be seeing what I can distill out of it…

Hello Peter,

While as your sometime peripatetic librarian I can share your disappointment at the resounding silence from librarians, I don’t share your apparent surprise. I would interpret the silence, not as evidence that my fellow librarians don’t care or have nothing useful to contribute, but more simply as an indication that most librarians’ discussions of these issues – and the issues *are* discussed (maybe not enough, granted, but more than might be visible to you) – still typically take place outside the world of blogs and tweets, where only a minority of librarians are active in a medium that you use routinely. The trouble is that we tend to discuss them mainly with other librarians. Yes, it’s certainly legitimate to criticise librarians for not sharing the medium to better effect; but it doesn’t necessarily follow that we don’t care.

And is the world of, say, chemistry so very different? I recall an RSC informatics meeting a year or two back – you were a speaker – at which the chemistry bloggers present agreed that they belonged to a very select bunch of maybe a hundred worldwide, and were not representative of the more conservative chemistry research community as a whole.

Similarly, for every Peter Murray-Rust championing the cause of Open Access, Open Data, etc, we both know that there are many other chemists who appear reluctant to embrace such ideas but who have wish lists of their own. There are indeed librarians who venture out to explore scientists’ needs; but while some of us will have the good fortune to meet a PM-R, others will encounter less enlightened researchers. You can – and do – articulate very clearly what you want from a library, and so can your colleagues in the same lab, but you and they may have radically different agendas. This makes it hard to discern a clear consensus emerging even from the single discipline of chemistry, let alone from scientists en masse. How far is it reasonable or feasible for the peripatetic librarian to engage with each researcher and then prioritise the wish lists that emerge? Isn’t it at least as reasonable for the library to expect researchers to help the process along by trying to develop a consensus on what they require?

I see this as a real problem. It’s difficult for the library to justify the allocation of scarce resources to the development of a service customised to meet the needs of an articulate individual or small group (I’m thinking here of university libraries as I can’t speak for the smaller special libraries of the sort found in, for example, the pharma sector), and even more difficult to see how this could easily scale up across a whole science faculty. If the library does go for the customised approach it risks accusations that it’s ignoring the needs and wishes of a much larger community; and if instead it decides to develop more generic services for that wider community, then it may end up with a product that tries to be all things to all scientists and as result fails to satisfy anyone.

Then there’s the politics of university libraries. The library has to support a broad academic community across the whole university and can’t ignore its other user constituencies. Any significant and sustainable development of services to scientists will have to be resourced. If the resources have to be found from the existing budget, then other services and facilities may suffer. The library will have to judge how best to balance the needs of its different user groups, and its decisions can be influenced by lobbying from interested parties. If historians mount a vigorous defence of “their” library services and nothing is heard from scientists, it’s easy to see how the latter might suffer neglect as a result.

You’ve pointed out that scientists won’t approach the library and that the librarian has to make the approach. We have to break out of the vicious circle in which libraries don’t deliver what scientists want because they remain unclear as to what that might be, while scientists don’t see any point in telling the library what they want because they see themselves as victims of a history of neglect. I fully agree that librarians need to take a more proactive approach (and I know from personal experience how rewarding and stimulating the ensuing collaborations can be), but this alone is not enough. Part of the challenge facing librarians must be to reverse that situation, i.e. to create an environment in which scientists will instinctively and routinely make the initial approach when necessary, confident that the library will be receptive, able to supply librarians who can discuss and understand the scientists’ needs (simply giving us a list of more journals to which we should subscribe is *not* the answer), and willing to find resources that enable solutions to be delivered.

So my main, admittedly long-winded point, if you’ve managed to stick with me this far, is that the picture isn’t black & white. Much more effort is required from librarians, and your wake-up call will eventually percolate through to a wider library audience; but scientists also need to move towards us if we’re to bridge the gap. You made that move years ago, but you’ve left many of your fellow scientists a long way behind in your wake. How can we help them to catch up?

Can’t make it to Oxford on 2 April, I’m afraid – prior engagement – but I’ll download the proceedings.


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