poking a library corpse with a ten-foot pole

Via @librarythingtim, who is not touching it with a ten-foot pole, comes this Chronicle article on how librarians killed the academic library. Well, I like poking contrarian ideas to see what can be learned from them, so, poles ahoy!

The article posits a world — phrased as present, but I choose to believe future — in which the academic library has died for the following reasons:

  • Nearly all books are readily available digitally.
  • Search and database interfaces are user-friendly enough to no longer require instruction.
  • Information literacy is integrated across the curriculum.
  • Faculty, IT departments, search engines, and social networks have developed the ability to answer students’ questions on reference, research, and technology.

And so forth.

My question: is this bad?

As a teacher, I was always trying to render myself obsolete. If my students could understand Latin without any help from me, that meant I had won. And I think this is broadly true of human service professionals. Managers win when their employees can take initiative aligned with corporate goals. Social workers win when no one needs help with poverty or addiction or abuse any more. (One can hope. Would that it were likely.)

So if academic librarians render themselves obsolete — because information is readily accessible and easy to navigate, because faculty broadly care about and implement information literacy instruction, because a wide range of people have developed competencies in answering reference questions — is that bad? Or is the Chronicle author wrong in supposing that that set of conditions would render the academic library obsolete?


8 thoughts on “poking a library corpse with a ten-foot pole

  1. I would love to be obsolete! Then I would finally have time to get back to studying music, Latin, medieval lit, and generally just enjoy being a lifelong learner, knowing that all my students are secure and confident in their info needs.

    So no, it’s not so bad if future tech and integrated instruction makes human library services obsolete. But even though I expect (and hope that) the current form of the academic library will change, I don’t think this necessarily means we’ll all be out of jobs. Someone still has to teach or direct the implementation of IL across the curriculum, someone still has to develop, upgrade, and (re)teach the technology, and as older tech becomes harder to access, someone will need to help users find their way to it. As long as the information architecture of libraries and universities continues to change, someone will need to be there to guide through the process. There will always be people who are one step ahead, on the bleeding edge, with just a bit more knowledge on a subject than everyone else. We can be those people (have always been them!).

    That is, until computers develop consciousness, but by that point I’ll be living in a cave in southern Montana. =)


    1. Mmm, caves…

      Thanks for your comment! I was hoping to see some perspectives on what the role, or niche, of academic libraries is (or could be) beyond those criteria.

      It would be an awfully different place if librarianship was a behind-the-scenes, information/tech/curriculum sort of thing more than a direct human service thing, though, wouldn’t it? Not necessarily saying different is bad, but I think it would attract a very different set of personalities to the field and…I wonder what that would look like. And whether the labor market competition with, e.g., education and software engineering would be a good thing or a bad thing on net.


  2. That article read very oddly to me. I thought many academic libraries were into Information Technology anyway. It would seem useful.

    The Chronicle tends to react to all potential change as if the sky were falling.


    1. The author notes in comments that his original title was more like “library autopsy, 2050” but the Chronicle editors changed it. The article does read differently if you take it to be a statement on the present day vs. more of a sci-fi, looking-back-from-2050 thing. Would that explain the oddness?


  3. If all four items are true, then libraries are obsolete. HOWEVER I do not believe that there are any cases where any of the four statements are true.

    There are huge numbers of books which are not available digitally.

    Many, many library users have no clue about searching and even those who do regularly overestimate their abilities to search (and use Word, Excel, etc.)

    There may be some courses in some colleges and universities where info literacy is integrated, but to say that it is completely integrated on any one campus would be an untruth!

    The final statement is just laughable. Look at the surveys of where students get their information and “friends” is number one.


    1. I agree that they’re not true now. (The author noted in comments to his Chronicle piece that his original title was something like “library autopsy, 2050” — it wasn’t meant to be read as a statement about how things are today, but about how they could be.)

      My question is — if they *were* true — what, if anything, would be the academic library’s role?


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