Barnacles on the Ship of Librarianship

By Tom Peters |

Every now and then, usually when I have a moment by myself, I think about the state of librarianship.  I ponder the opportunities, the problems, and the progress.  Generally, these periodic, informal "state of librarianship" addresses to myself are optimistic. 

Over the past couple of decades, rather than concentrate on outright threats to librarianship, I have tended to focus on things that are holding librarianship back, or retarding its growth and development.  Questions of momentum, acceleration, and deceleration are much more mundanely interesting than questions about the life and death of a profession.  Although Google is doing some interesting and large-scale things to make information findable and usable, and thus seems like it poses something of a threat to librarians, we really cannot do much about what Google does or plans to do.

By concentrating on the retarding factors, perhaps we can identify tangible problems that we can work to solve.

Over the past two decades I have been known to mutter occasional comments about various professional associations, for-profit vendors, and not-for-profit organizations that, in my overall estimation, were retarding the progress of librarianship at a particular time.  I couldn't prove it, but I had my suspicions.   

In the past two years or so, however, as I  thought about the state of librarianship, a wild and crazy idea keeps surfacing:  What if libraries themselves are unnecessarily retarding the progress of librarianship?  What if they have become barnacles on the ship of librarianship? 

It seems that more and more librarians, many of them among the best and brightest of our profession, are quietly or vociferously refusing to work in actual libraries.  Is this normal for a profession?  Is this a sign of a healthy profession? 

Of course, my impromptu analysis may be simply wrong.  Although a few malcontents in our profession may be eschewing working in actual libraries, perhaps the overwhelming majority are as happy as clams. Or perhaps this situation is not unusual.  Perhaps many of the best and brightest lawyers love practicing law, but they cannot abide working for law firms.  Perhaps many of the best and brightest healthcare professionals love helping people regain or maintain their health, but they cannot stand working in most hospitals and clinics.  Perhaps many educators love to teach, but cannot tolerate working for most schools and school districts.  Heck, in higher education, scoffing at one's place of work is a point of professional pride. 

Even if most libraries have become barnacles on the ship of librarianship, what can we do about it?  We cannot just pry off the offending libraries and chuck them into the finny deep.  Without libraries, librarianship would become primarily a thought experiment, not a field of practice. 

One thing libraries could do to convert themselves from barnacles to naval jelly (i.e., that which removes rust and reduces drag on the ship) would be to embrace the global aspect of today's and tomorrow's information environment.  Most libraries still define their primary clientele in very conventional, constrained ways -- as the people who live in the library's defined geographic area, or the current students, faculty, and staff of a school, college, or university, or the current employees of an organization. If global users are mentioned at all in the mission statement of a library,  they are often listed as secondary or tertiary users.

The time soon will come when the idea of defining the clientele a library serves in very narrow, often geographically constrained terms will seem very quaint and old-fashioned.  Usage of information and information services has been going global since global information networks became widely used.   

How can we realize this change?  Perhaps a few forward-thinking library staffers, with the full support of their boards and their currently defined clientele, should openly declare that they serve the entire world, at least in theory. That may apply enough pressure to other libraries to at least consider making the big move. Of course, some library services cannot really serve the world's population, at least in theory.  Interlibrary loan comes to mind. 

If we all woke up one morning to a world in which all libraries treated everyone in the world as their primary clientele, what may amaze us is how little other aspects of libraries would have changed.  Most people would still go to their local libraries for most of their information needs.  Some libraries may be noted and heavily used for certain types of information and information services.  But I don't think we would witness a radical decline in the number of libraries in the world.  If all libraries served the entire world's population, at least in theory, the number of libraries may actually increase. 

If libraries opened their doors to the entire world, I believe we would see a burst of innovation and modernization.