The Postmodern Library

Walk into any library today and observe for a few minutes the reference librarians working behind their desks. Chances are good that they have ample time to themselves. This is because librarians everywhere are being asked less and less for help. The métier of Reference Services has been in steady decline since the advent of the Information Age. Indeed, the number of reference transactions in libraries as a whole have declined by 48 percent since 1991 (Martin 1). It would seem that new modalities in which information is created and shared have augured a deadly sign for librarians; a sign akin to “the black spot” perhaps. This was Robert Louis Stevenson’s literary device in Treasure Island. Those given the black spot were to be deposed as leaders, by force if necessary – or else killed outright. Librarians too were once regarded as leaders. They were seen as guardian experts of knowledge and information. However, this is no longer the case. The death of reference has been predicted for a number of years now. But there seems to be a feeling of resignation in this view; a feeling that librarians will not be missed when this death occurs. I see this as a refusal to believe in the importance of reference and a sense of human reliability. I will argue that it is time to look toward a new philosophy for re-envisioning reference services.

The American philosopher Abraham Kaplan once said of the library profession, “Like your profession, mine also has thrust upon it, as its appropriate domain, the whole of knowledge, the whole of culture; nothing is supposed to be foreign to us, and we ought to be prepared under suitable circumstances to be helpful with regard to any and every area of human concern” (Gorman 16). Kaplan saw the librarian as a different kind of philosopher – someone who held the key to hermetic truth. But Librarianship has evolved over many centuries without too much regard to the philosophical. The forefathers of Librarianship – like Melvil Dewey and Charles Ammi Cutter – invested into the modern library their ideas of practicality, usefulness, and utilitarianism. However, these methods were devised over one-hundred years ago and have confused many subsequent generations of library users. Indeed, what is to be said about the large number of people who see the library as merely a house of irrelevant tomes? Library patrons today feel that such intense practicality leaves a void; a sense of longing for more meaning and richer philosophical underpinning (Gorman 17). Like Kaplan intimated, Librarianship has a lot in common with philosophy. If we read carefully into Kaplan’s claims on Librarianship, we’ll understand that a library’s philosophy should take into account “the whole of culture.” The modern library worked well in the modern era, but today’s library must find new meanings in a shifting, postmodern world.

Many students in academic libraries suffer from “library anxiety.” They are much more likely to seek out reference help if they are convinced that a consultation will save them time. Most people, however, will fall back on perfunctory techniques for finding and evaluating information online (Martin and Park 1). It’s important, I think, to understand from where this anxiety emerges. One thinks of the wise, old librarian looking down on patrons like a high judge. It is true that asking a reference question involves a major human vulnerability – the fear of being perceived as stupid. But it’s more likely that we, as a society, have disabused ourselves of the notion of relying on a human-transaction experience for information. The answers to our reference questions are now delivered at the hands of a technological device – a desktop computer, smart-phone, or PDA. These devices are ubiquitous and just about anyone can gain access to the Web through these modalities. This is why reference services have declined so rapidly in the last twenty years.

I hesitate to conclude this observation so quickly though, because I think the effect runs deeper than all that. As more and more people become confident in their online search skills and thus see no need for reference services, we begin to lose our collective sense of human reliability. There was once a time when trading goods and information depended solely on a transactional model of communication. This was always in the form of a two-way conversation. But our communications culture has changed the ways we seek things out. Indeed, LibQUAL (a suite of services that libraries use to solicit, track, understand, and act upon users’ opinions of service quality), listed personal attention last out of the 22 core library issues in LibQUAL surveys (Martin 1). This is problematic for reference services, because personal attention is at the heart of the reference interview.

Pamela M. Martin, Reference Librarian at the Merrill-Cazier Library, which is located at Utah State University, says that it is wrong to blame the decline of reference services on generational differences and technological change. She says, “Discussion about generational change too often encourages a dismissive, “those kids” mentality. She says of technological change that “technology alone does not hold the solution to increasing use of our services” (Martin 2). In order to keep reference services alive and well, safe from the predictive “death of reference,” the integrity of reference departments must be based on theories that describe patrons and their environment. These theories shall focus more on societal transformation than on technological change; the latter being where many librarians have hung their hats. Martin offers a theoretical basis that has revolutionary potential for reference services. She states, “Theories of societal transformation – specifically information society theory and postmodernism – clarify the changing nature of information and examine the society and culture of the people we serve in academic libraries”(Martin 2).

Information society theory describes the shift from industry to an information/service-oriented labor market. It postulates a world that uses and creates information through information communication technologies. Traditionally, reference work depended on patrons approaching librarians, but now patrons seek answers from the Internet. People turn to the Internet because it is many things a good library should be: confidential, nonjudgmental, providing easy access to a wealth of uncensored information, and offering a creative and inspirational space (Martin 5). However, the Internet is like a bad teacher; it makes people confident in their abilities, but ultimately incompetent. For example, many library patrons view Boolean operators, truncation, and multiple search boxes as obstructions. When a self-confident patron fails in their search for academic information, they are left feeling ashamed, confused, and above all, frustrated with the library. This frustration is easy to understand if we examine “the whole of culture” – the cultural backdrop of the information society. Many people today value ideas that fit into a postmodern framework. Postmodernists celebrate differences and relativism, and distrust authority and order. They also believe that universal truth cannot be attained, for one person’s truth will never be valid to everyone. In this way, the modern library is decidedly at odds with the society it is supposed to serve. James L Heskett, Professor of Business Logistics at Harvard University, says of the reference interview: “It is the moment of truth” (Gorman 77). How does this pronouncement play with the minds of a postmodern society?

If the Postmodern Library is to be a place free of confusing classification systems, authoritative judgments, and obstructive search methods, then what will that library look like? Moreover, how should reference services reposition themselves in the Postmodern Library? First of all, in a society where so much information is always available, the library can no longer claim a unique role as the portal to all knowledge. Secondly, through its rigid classification system, the library imposes its privileged understanding onto all knowledge and inadvertently creates an image that is decidedly UN-postmodern and therefore distasteful to members of the information society (Martin 4). Thirdly, reference librarians need to be approachable, conducting themselves as non-experts, claiming that they can’t possibly know the only correct answer to a patron’s questions. As to the last question – how to avoid frustrating users with obstructive search methods, inadvertently engendering a postmodern mistrust of a library “establishment” that wishes to repress information instead of disseminate it: librarian’s must encourage and acknowledge the benefits of experimentation with library tools and demonstrate our appreciation for learning from our patrons’ approaches to searching (Martin 7). After all, the goal of information literacy is to create confident information consumers.

Many libraries are installing more popular attractions to reinvent their image in the social sphere. Some libraries – like the Texas Christian University library – have implemented a coffee and donuts shop into their building. They also have reading rooms where students can sprawl on couches and plush chairs, while Mozart pipes in through speakers overhead (Carlson 7). Likewise, the library at Carleton University in Minnesota is drawing people in by setting up student collaboration spaces, author readings, and art exhibits (Carlson 7). Librarians and administrators are beginning to see the purpose of doing what users want. They are starting to model their spaces off of conventional bookstores. The more intrepid are moving away from Dewey altogether and organizing their shelves according to subject headings. To do away with an entire scientific classification scheme may seem like a rash proposition. However, the postmodernist argument against libraries maintains that readers visit the library with the purpose of searching for information, but have to accord their actions with stringent rules devised by librarians.

Certainly there are many things that libraries need to reconsider to stay relevant in the 21st century. But I think we are on the right path. As a young postmodernist myself, these ideas are attractive to me. However, I understand the reservations held by many antiquarian librarians. I don’t think we have to toss out an entire classification system that works so well for those looking for a particular book. Indeed, the tenets of classical Librarianship should still be held sacred. These are, of course, things like training librarians for examination in literary history, bibliography, classification, cataloging, library history and library routine. I think the Postmodern Library, made up of a staff of postmodern librarians, will be able to avoid the black spot. We will further integrate our services into the information society. My concern, however – which shall be left for another paper – is in the nature of human relations. We will meet our patrons halfway, of that there is no doubt. But will this exchange be personal or simply virtual?

(written 12/12/2011)

Works Cited

Carlson, Scott. “The Deserted Library.” ERIC – World’s largest digital library of education             literature. The Chronicle of Higher Education, Nov. 2011. ERIC. Web. 11 Dec. 2011.

Gorman, Michael. Our Enduring Values: Librarianship in the 21st Century. Chicago: American        Library Association, 2000. Print.

Martin, Pamela N. “Societal Transformation and Reference Services in the Academic Library:            Theoretical Foundations for Re-Envisioning Reference.” Library Philosophy and Practice.   Ed. Mary K. Bolin and Gail Z. Eckwright. N.p., 2009. Web. 17 Oct. 2011.             <;.

Martin, Pamela N., and Lezlie Park. “Reference Desk Consultation Assignment An Exploratory     Study of Students’ Perceptions of Reference Service.” Reference & User Services Quarterly.     Ed. Diane Zabel. American Library Association, 23 June 2010. Web. 11 Dec. 2011. <  study-of-students%E2%80%99-perceptions-of-reference-service/>.


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