Originally posted on Ken Haycock’s Library Leadership Blog on Monday, 04 June 2012
Twenty years ago, I attended the National Summit on Information Policy, held in Ottawa. The world was on the brink of radical change – something that would later be called the World Wide Web was starting to happen. Those were heady days as technology leaders, forward thinkers and librarians from across the country to discuss what this would mean.
How early was this conference? Try googling this summit and you find precious little information about it. That’s hard to imagine in today’s wired, interconnected, social media savvy world.
Of all the formal discussions, presentations and radical ideas, the one thing that sticks with me was the statement made by a technology industry leader regarding the topic of libraries and librarians in this new hypertext digital world. He said “When they invented the car, they shot all the horses.”
That was the last thing a relatively new librarian like myself wanted to hear! I was after confirmation that I had made the right career choice – not a prediction that libraries would become as relevant as stables or blacksmith shops.
Since then, however, librarians have proved they’re made of tougher stuff than that. Our libraries rapidly evolved to embrace the Internet, guide people onto the digital pathway, explore unimaginable sources of information and provide free access – just as libraries had done with books, records and videos.
Now, we’re facing another era of great change – and not just with technology, but society. Perhaps it’s reflective of how technology has changed our world so dramatically – the global connectedness, the feeling that we have free and easy access to all information, and the focus on social collaborative space as a way of life.
Are the new challenges that libraries face the equivalent to the death-of-horses metaphor, the dawn of the Internet? Will our old tricks of evolutionary change and adaptability ensure the survival of libraries? Do we want libraries to do more than survive? Is this the time to rethink and re-engineer libraries?
We’ve rested on library laurels for a long time. We’ve come to believe that libraries are revered and protected public institutions. After all, public libraries always place in the top three of essential municipal services (along with fire and police). And despite rumours to the contrary, book circulation is still the core of library collection use.
Libraries are busier than ever. Municipalities are still investing in libraries as beautiful public spaces. Will this continue? Will our public continue to support and fight for libraries?
Library perceptions are changing rapidly. The biggest question I hear now is: “why do we still need libraries?”.
To answer that, consider the statement made twenty years ago – the one about shooting the horses. The speaker knew we were on the edge of unprecedented change, but he wasn’t correct in comparing librarians with horses.
Horses, cars, trains and airplanes are tools. Used to get goods and people from one spot to another. They served a purpose: transportation.
Libraries are about connecting people with information. The tools we use to get information have changed, and will likely change again and again throughout our careers. The public’s need for information is increasing every year. We need to convert that horse and buggy metaphor to a model that takes into account our new reality.
Are we prolonging the inevitable? Or are we ensuring the most vibrant future possible?
Holding true to our mandate, it’s time to question our assumptions about how libraries do the work of connecting people with information. It’s time to think more broadly about our roles, to reach beyond our borders, to look at our work in a wider, social context. We need to chart new alternatives and directions for libraries. In short, it’s time to think like a pioneer again.
The question is not whether we need libraries. But rather, how will libraries evolve to meet the changing needs?