Yesterday was a very reassuring day. I had 4 important, carefully argued and presented comments, all of which deserve a full post. Here is Gaynor Backhouse, writing for JISC as a future watcher. (BTW I think libraries should look closely to JISC as a key part of the future – they have a strong message).
You’ll need to read Gaynor’s piece to understand the title. I’ll emphasize that fantasy – or virtual – worlds are part of the future of information. The culture is deeply ingrained into so much of our practice and has informed the emerging generation of tools and communities. Yes, we need heroes … and there is always “Conan the librarian”.
Gaynor Backhouse says:
I don’t know if this is of any use for your talk in Oxford, but the JISC Libraries of the Future campaign has just published this piece (http://librariesofthefuture.jiscinvolve.org/2009/03/25/holding-out-for-a-hero-technology-the-future-and-the-renaissance-of-the-university-librarian/) that they commissioned from me earlier this year. I don’t tweet, but happy to discuss if you think there’s anything interesting there.
One of the good things about working for JISC is that you often find yourself in interesting, but unexpected, places. In 2006 I found myself at a JISC Open Access conference in Oxford and as I have an abiding passion for libraries I inveigled my way into a group of librarians who were all talking about the changes facing their sector. At the time, TechWatch had just published a report on Radio Frequency Identification (RFID), and one of the surprising conclusions was that libraries’ position as early adopters of RFID put librarians in a unique position to have a positive impact on the long-term development of the technology. More than this, the report argued that this influence could extend beyond efforts to develop interoperability and data standards, to address more general issues that are ‘in the public good’, such as privacy. So at the time of the conference I was brimming with enthusiasm for what I saw as a kind of renaissance for the role and significance of the librarian.
Unfortunately, I was in a minority of one. The general consensus seemed to be that, by and large, librarians conform to what has become almost a personality stereotype: kind, gentle custodians of books. Certainly not the type to want to assume the billowing mantle of public sector superhero. This surprised and worried me. It surprised me because I had thought that the increasing importance of the role of technology would have shaken things up a little and challenged the more traditional view of roles; it worried me because if it were true, then the future would be a difficult place for librarians to continue to demonstrate the value of their professional skills.
PMR: This is exactly what I was hoping for when I asked for revolutionaries. It would have been difficult to take this idea forward, but then most good and productive ideas are difficult. It’s excetly the sort of thing that JISC is looking for in its rapid innovation stream. See if it works. If it doesn’t it hasn’t cost much in the grand scheme of things – a week’s pension for Fred the Shred. Academia has such a central position in today’s knowledge economy but only if we have entrepreneurs. The good news is that you can get things off the ground with just a handful of people and a few laptops – as our ex-postdocs at Timetrics are doing.
Now if, at this point, the urge to retreat to the safety of the stacks overwhelms you, I would ask you to hang back, just a while longer. Being the agent of change, albeit a powerful position to be in and perhaps an unwanted responsibility, could have its advantages. Whilst it means that you have to take control and set the agenda, perhaps more importantly, for people with orderly minds, it means you get to do the job properly. In the library of the future this could be a key differentiator. Why, after all, should Google have a monopoly on organising the world’s information? But in order to flourish in an increasingly techno-political world it will be necessary for libraries and librarians to not so much defend a corner as come out fighting. Perhaps, like Rupert Giles, it might even be necessary to spill a little demon blood.
PMR: Exactly what I had wanted – I have only part of the message – the rest needs to come from you.