And Now for Something Completely Different: Our Future from Outside the Box

A Summary of Discussions Held at the ALCTS Midwinter Symposium on January 15, 2010

Three Groups of Readings

Group 1: New Content, New Roles

Group 2: Facilitating Collaborative Research & Scholarship

Group 3: Library Structure and Infrastructure

Five Groups of Discussants

  • The Green Stars
  • The Blue Dots
  • The Red Dots
  • The Green Dots
  • The Red Stars

The Green Stars

The GREEN STARS agreed that the volume and kinds of information and data are proliferating as described by Gemmell and Bell in “The E-Memory Revolution.” The networking of knowledge described by Weinberger in “Knowledge as a Network” also presents challenges. This increasing amount of information does require more time for “attention” to pause and reflect as described by Levy in “Attention: A Twenty-First Century Literacy Skill,” along with the skill to process a lot of information more quickly. There needs to be a balance between the contemplative and the high- speed processing of information. Machines cannot determine quality and relevance for us as Rhind-Tutt points out in “Between Now and 2020...”

The human mind must engage with information in order to achieve knowledge and wisdom. Judgment must still be applied to the vast world of information. Both libraries and all of us as individuals have roles to play in curating and helping to evaluate content.

The Blue Dots

The BLUE DOTS felt that the subtext to some of the papers was the contrast between the work space realm and the personal realm: i.e., doing one’s work as opposed to living one’s life. We see three evolving roles re: the traditional flow of information:

  • selection;
  • organization;
  • distillation.

Our role is to provide access as needed through all three. There is nothing wrong with traditional functions/services, as long as we actively embrace new methods of doing those things. Perhaps the meta-theme is focus.

We will be forced to outsource some things because we will need to shift our resources to new economic models. Value does not lie in content per se, but in how we “unleash” the content. We confer legitimacy by distributing, not by acquiring.

The book-centric orientation has to go. Libraries would previously try to collect as broadly as possible, but could never hope to be completely comprehensive. The power of the curator—in what is pruned—is frequently more valuable now.

The Red Dots

The RED DOTS agreed that there is an emerging new model that will depend prominently on common and open formats, software, and services. In that environment, our roles will be focused on coordinating, facilitating, monitoring the market, and building all of this into an immersive technology environment.

The success of this emerging model will require:

  • new economic models;
  • copyright reforms (in order to overcome obstacles for reproduction and sharing);
  • an orderly transition (including how to dispose of all our books in useful ways).

We also believe that there will need to be more models than just the access-based digital model that seems to be the current favorite. In particular, we believe that there will be some continuing need for ownership models in order to ensure flexibility and economic and content security. We need to support our special collections appropriately, since those define our distinctiveness.

The Green Dots

The GREEN DOTS concurred that there is a massive increase in the amount of available information, and that there are many more avenues, besides libraries, available to users for finding information. As a consequence, user expectations have changed and are continuing to change. These changes make questionable what roles libraries will play in delivering, organizing, and guiding our users to the information they need.

Librarians used to vet knowledge and information; we provided “the best.” Now it is all out there and available. Librarians need, therefore, to model serving not as gate keepers, but as guides—building upon our skill at developing and providing structures for organizing metadata and information so that it can be efficiently accessed. And, we must continue creating both spaces and strategies for reflection and contemplation.

The Red Stars

The RED STARS felt that the first group of readings called for a shift in library mantras from “access” to “connection.” Though the librarian retains a role as a gatekeeper working to provide access, s/he must not give up her/his traditional role of vetting information. As access continues to move toward “total recall” of undifferentiated information, the librarian will serve an ever-more important role as guide through information structures, providing “access as needed.” More information does not always help; the librarian can help refocus and bring stillness by guiding users through processes to filter information.

These readings also brought to the group’s attention that more and more, life is lived in snippets.

The second group of readings made shifting paradigms obvious, including:

  • collaboration vis-à-vis flexibility;
  • interoperability vis-à-vis the dominance of a single system;
  • customized sharing;
  • face-to-face vis-à-vis online contact.

The paradigm of a collection being physical must also be re-evaluated. New models for collections are needed as electronic resources play a larger role. As they do, we will be forced to recognize the potentially widening gap between “haves” and “have-nots.” In physical terms, we need to acknowledge that a library is not just a book warehouse. Instead, the importance of the “library as place” and of the “personal touch” must be recognized. Smart websites and social networks cannot replace libraries completely. Finally, we realized that our spending trends legitimize the value of new resources. As we move away from the paradigm that everything should be online and free, we will need to consider the implications of our spending.

Our take-away from the third group of readings is that collaboration takes more time. As we deal with changing structure and infrastructure, the library needs “rabble rousers.” We need to make the time to move away from the ruinously expensive idiosyncratic development that we’ve experienced lately. We need to break away from institutional momentum and honestly answer the question “Why do we do what we do?” This will require open dialogues with everyone who interacts with the library (especially important are vendors and even our own IT departments). New models of copyright and ownership will require us to reconsider the relationship between finding aids and the materials themselves. If we commit to collaboration, though, we can “Do what we dream.”

In considering the implications of the readings in three dimensions, we recommend:

  • For the good of Our Institutions: Stop being reactionary! Find idiosyncrasies that we are willing to give up in order to increase consortial involvement.
  • For the good of the Association: Survival is too low a bar! Help us create the infrastructure for more collaboration.
  • For the good of the Profession: Focus on “soft skills.” Provide training on flexibility, empathy, and managing (especially managing change).