Seth Godin's new blog bost, "The Future of the library" is exciting to me, firstly, because he's a pretty widely-read blogger talking about a subject that's dear to me, and secondly because he cracks open the lid on the whole question of what libraries and librarians can add to our experience of information.
I've just given a team presentation on how the space of academic libraries has changed over the years, reflecting changes in the mediation of information (especially academic information) and changes in both the pedagogical style of universities (more social, more collaborative and more interleaved with the social construction of meaning, leading -- hopefully, to a nuanced critical awareness of such structures). What these lead towards is the academic library as learning commons. So far so good. Libraries with the capability to do so have used the space they've saved out of former stacks to offer much greater availabililty of space, and have offered a far more social experience of information.
They do so in a real space, with real people. But some aspects of that are seemingly easier in the digital realm. I feel much freer to interrupt your chain of thought -- like liveblogging or carrying on a series of exploratory essays or something -- if you happen to invite comment in your online stream, than I do to poke you in the shoulder if you are in the next study carrel, should I happen to notice you are looking at something really interesting. But I think there is still something to be said for what libraries can uniquely offer, since they are a place where we come together to go through information and to learn. I don't know if we would become friends that way, where we interact online, whereas perhaps if I were able to do so in real life, in a place that supported the exploration of information in a common setting, we might. (I'm not sure if 'being friends' is quite what I mean. Perhaps I just mean to imply a longer-lasting exchange of views and all the social cues that help build meaning) I can't put my finger on what the difference is. I don't want to admit to some sort of essentialism of the human experience of learning, but wouldn't it be a loss if we didn't have some way to meet in real life? Almost every network tries to do so. It's what motivates everything from academic conferences to Flickrmeets. Just as there are conference centres that offer facilities for big groups to come together, what if we thought of libraries as something on the same lines, supporting access to information, and support for groups to share their experiences of it? I mean 'information' here in a wide sense - all that stuff that libraries get stuck into; local culture, reading groups, the lot. And what if we changed the culture of libraries, so that there was a place to be where, yes, you were going to study, but it was okay if someone interrupted you if they were interested in what you were doing? That might be quite cool.
Godin notes -
[Your kids] need a librarian more than ever (to figure out creative ways to find and use data). They need a library not at all.
Maybe there isn't a need for a library, but as Godin points out, the library is the house for the librarian. It's where you go to find them. (We might see this as a good reason to retain the concept of the enquiry desk). So the library isn't valuable because of the material it contains (which is ubiquitous and pervasive), but for who it contains. (Actually, Godin doesn't pick out the fact that the librarian is probably responsible for getting the contents up to a higher quality than would otherwise be the case, by fighting for subscriptions and quality materials).
That bit about 'creative ways to find and use data' is exciting to me, because in it I see the library's role of creating shadow knowledge structures that disrupt the personalised. In Rushkoff's book Program or be Programmed, we get a glimpse of a world where our every wish and whim is used to deepen and retrench the personalisation of products and services, often invisibly and seamlessly. Whilst it's good when search learns to offer us 'better' results, it does so at the cost of offering the obvious, rather than the difficult, the abstruse, the improbable. The human experience of working together can offer that (and we can offer that by working togeher online), but the library can offer a great place to do it in actuality, too. On top of which, it offers the chance to work with a whole host of materials -some of which are never going to be digitized, or are not easily digitizable - and exposure to systematic ways of understanding the world which are not personal. No, they are not always easy, but hey offer passageways and glimpses into things that personalised search would not. I am, admittedly, building a bit of a straw man here in the form of personalised search - but the techniques and materials that would inform a more nuanced, surprising and serendipitous search are those that inform librarianship.
To be continued...