12 suggestions for how Librarians can build the future

Typed and scraped

Bethan Ruddock has already commented on this blog and is typical of the relatively few who are prepared to debate the future of libraries in public. It is always very encouraging to see young people speaking their mind – it takes courage. There have been a number on this blog – and in my ambit – Broniba (Jennifer Daniel), Sara Wingate-Gray (the travelling poetry library) and others I met at City University who want to change the world and not accept it as it is. Here’s Bethan – she urges librarians to get out and talk to others. I have resurrected some suggestions for what could be done together..

A newly minted librarian, Bethan joined Mimas in 2008 when she started working with Copac to incorporate specialist libraries. …

Bethan is actively involved in the SLA (Special Libraries Association), and in 2010 has been selected by the SLA committee as a Rising Star of the association, an award that recognises newer members of the association who have made significant contributions.


bethan ruddock says:

May 27, 2010 at 6:49 pm  (Edit)

Peter, I agree with you. I think many librarians – myself included – are often wary about taking their professional engagement and opinions outside the profession. This may be due, in some part, to a certain self-deprecation about the profession: there’s a movement in libraries and information provision which says that the user doesn’t care about what we do or where the information comes from, they just care about getting the information they need. For a lot of users I think this is essentially correct. But we shouldn’t take this to mean that we shouldn’t engage with those users who are interested, and we certainly shouldn’t assume that it means that no-one outside the profession cares about what we do. When we face issues – as we frequently do – that affect other groups, we should use our expertise to be advocates. As you suggest, there are a number of methods by which we can do this.

There is no point in us complaining of powerlessness and saying that no-one listens to librarians/information professionals unless we are actually talking to them.

(I’m hoping that my profession will forgive me for these sweeping generalisations, especially as I have included myself among the number that needs to improve. For a number of outstanding examples of what librarians should be doing, see the Library Journals Movers and Shakers (http://stage.libraryjournal.com/MS2010), especially the advocates.)

Yes – librarians are not powerless. Librarians are human beings who outside the library are indistinguishable from the rest of us.

When I talked at Internet Librarian last year (http://www.ustream.tv/recorded/2362193 ) I thought that rather than simply try to motivate change I would give some concrete suggestions. So I came up with 12 ways that librarians could help to change the world probably without going to jail or probably without getting sacked, and maybe even advancing their own position. I thought them up in a train journey – not sure whether they will stand the test of time and I might comment later. Here you get a snippet.

The library can be at a gateway of power and creativity in the electronic world. Be excited about the possibilities. Steve Coast has changed the modern world of maps – by himself and with only 250,000 other unpaid volunteers. Anyone could have done that. The library should be a great place to bounce ideas around.

For some librarians like Sara it’s fun. I introduced Sara to Rufus because of open Shakespeare and she’s got caught up with the Open Knowledge Foundation and put huge effort into it. Anyone can do that.

So the zeroth suggestion is have fun. Think excitedly. Nothing is impossible. Here they are from Nov 2009. The order is random.

Actions that every librar(y|ian) can do

  • Citizen Librarian .

    Engage volunteers to help with the library. There are zillions of things that the Internet generation could do. If they can catalogue Galaxies they can catalogue other information. Relax control and increase your community


    The academy creates information. That belongs to the academy and its members, not to third parties. So theses, manuscripts, etc. are under our control. If the whole world decided to do this the third parties would be powerless. Start with the non-controversial stuff. Then move to fuzzy areas and ask for forgiveness not permission. You might start to get academics involved.


  • Text-mine everything

    Show how important the content that we have is. It’s ours. Text-mine the theses. And data-mine them. Start to expose what we have, not hide it away. People will help

  • put 2nd year students in charge of developing educational technology and resources

    Since the library in 3 years time will be on a students device and not in a building get them involved. Ask them how to run their information. Because if you don’y Google and Prentice-hall will do it and cut libraries out

  • Actively participate in obtaining science grants

    Academics survive through grants. If you can help an academic get a grant, then they’ll support you to do it again. Much grant-writing (I go through it regularly) is not discipline-dependent but benefits from good style and knowing the intricacies of the funder. No reason why you can’t do this – I’d certainly appreciate it.

  • Actively participate in the scientific publication process

    Same motivation. Help a scientist get more papers out and you will be appreciated.

  • Close the science library building and move to departments

    There is no need for science libraries – they may be nice quiet places to work but there’s nothing special in their design or management. Human librarians should wear white coats and sit next to scientists and becomes authors on their papers.

  • Hand over all purchasing to national rotweiler Purchasing officer

    There is no point in librarians trying to negotiate with the trained salesforce of publishers. They are trained to win. Hand it over nationally. I believe the Brazilians do.

  • Set up a new type of University Press

    One of the biggest missed opportunities of the century. The Universities could have set up new ways of academic publishing. The costs are now much lower. It may not be too late. In five years it will be when Google or its successor runs academic information systems

  • develop their own metrics system (ARGGH!)

    I hate metrics, but if we are going to have them, they could easily be run by the library. All the information flows through the library – why should ISI do this. You’d get open metrics of more believable quality.

  • Publicly campaign for openness

    You can do this. Think of something every day that should be Open. Then think about how you can make it so. Join the Open Knowledge Foundation. There’s nothing in the Panton Principles that you couldn’t have done. Nothing in OKF’s Bibliographica. Or CKAN or …

    Engage with mySociety. Encourage web democracy…

  • Make the library an addictive game

    Some of the great innovations rely on game-based addiction. Nothing wrong with that. Make it fun to use the library – whatever it morphs into. Make it gently competitive. Make it rewarding in the Internet sense.


And get out of the library and come at talk to us. If you have read this blog, you can work out where I’ll be at lunchtime.


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8 Responses to 12 suggestions for how Librarians can build the future

  1. Here in Birmingham, there seems to be chasms of understanding between the people who are planning the new central library, the rest of the local library profession and just about everyone else. In my spare time, I run The Birmingham Salon to promote local debate on a wide range of issues, and in September am planning a debate in conjunction with CILIP West Midlands to bring together these perspectives. The idea has been very well received by librarians of my acquaintance on Twitter, who are genuinely keen to get an understanding of how the public feels about the library plans. I first got wind that there was a really serious problem here when one of my colleagues, who is a librarian, pronounced herself to be incredulous about a local campaign to stop the shutdown of the existing central library. And yet many people I know outside libraries support that campaign, and btw, Peter, are very angry at the idea of it being run by volunteers. We all make assumptions…

  2. Peter, 12 really nice recommendations. I have been very amazed in the past 10 years that libraries are not actively picking up the duty of running scientific databases… if anything, these databases is where scientific knowledge is stored. And I do not think they can hide behind providing licenses to the one or two commercial databases.

  3. Pål M. Lykkja says:

    But what can librarian do if the real problems goes very deep into the academic behavior and structure like Stephen Ramsay suggest in his comment to Dan Cohens blogpost about academics attitude? They talk about metring and open access, but I think it translates to academic “openness” in general. Here is an excerpt:
    “But in the end, the clear moral good of having open access (and the probable dissolution of the UP system) may mean that we have to read and evaluate each other’s stuff. And that may mean that the mechanics of our entire review system has to change. It may actually mean that “peer review,” as such, disappears in its present form.”

  4. Ed Chamberlain says:

    This is a great list, but the fact is that for many people working in libraries, a lot of what is required to do this is simply not yet in their skillset. Many people are unsure what text-mining exactly is! (I’ve recently resigned my qualification from CILIP, the main professional body for librarians in the UK, citing its lack of direction over skills for information workers as one of the reasons, – http://communities.cilip.org.uk/forums/t/11967.aspx)
    Many Librarians, myself included would also say that they don’t have time to widen their activities into these spheres. That would then boil down to question of priorities, although many would risk the wrath of misunderstanding of their management.
    Centralised UK purchasing for licensed content and services would be great. Its slowly happening with JISC collections. The model envisaged in the SCONUL Shared Services report would take this a step further:
    My understanding is that HEFCE are not currently pursuing this idea, but I hope the concept stays afloat.
    Managing scientific databases is to my mind a laudible goal for libraries, the UL in Cambridge is currently engaged in a JISC funded project with Glasgow to investigate this:
    Science Librarians working in the lab is also a fantastic idea. This already happens in many areas of clinical medicine and mirrors how information officers work in Law firms (although they wear suits, not white coats).

  5. Henry Rzepa says:

    One of the list states Close the science library building and move to departments. This of course is exactly the opposite of what has happened at my institute. I suppose (tongue-in-cheek) I could add a 13th suggestion, which has been adopted here, and which may be connected with the peripheral closures:
    Open food outlets! The queues for food in our library are amongst the longest and hence most popular on campus! I gather the food area is a firm must on tours of the library for external visitors!
    And rather more seriously, our library does arrange good training courses for for complex software, such as bibliographic management suites, and new databases such as Reaxys.

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  7. Ed Chamberlain says:

    An interesting article from John Hopkins, where plans are in place to create a fully distributed medical library with embedded Librarians in research centres.

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