Transformations – Digital Libraries

rubin_fullsize_rgbIn Chapter 4 of Foundations of Library and Information Science, Richard Rubin explores the history of technology in libraries from microform to early bibliographic retrieval systems on through the development of the Internet, Web 2.0, and finally the emergence of digital libraries. This last Rubin neglects to really define. We are not given a concise definition of digital libraries. Instead, we are treated to explanations of the characteristics of a digital library, and mostly from the work of Karen Calhoun, author of Exploring Digital Libraries.

Calhoun defines digital libraries as basically the extension of physical library services into digital space. In other words, digital libraries are meant to be freely accessible like traditional libraries, as well as structured similarly in terms of bibliographic storage and retrieval. Furthermore, digital libraries – according to Calhoun and Rubin – should be interoperable, focused on community engagement, aware of intellectual property issues, and sustainable. Drilling down into these issues a bit more…

  • Interoperable. Interoperability refers to the ability to search the digital library’s collection on a variety of technological devices, as well as being able to integrate with other library systems.
  • Community engagement. This simply refers to the need to base the digital library around a specific user group, ensuring that the digital library’s collection is useful to its users, as well as intuitive and user-friendly. The digital library cannot be mystifying, especially since there may not be reference help via a chat function available during all operational hours. Chat reference may not be guaranteed for all digital libraries.
  • Intellectual property rights. Out of the four key elements identified by Calhoun, intellectual property issues are a bugbear for digital libraries. Indeed, the digital environment creates new challenges to the areas of licensing and use rights. Out of all the issues confronting digital libraries, this is liable to be the trickiest after the digital library is online and functional.
  • Sustainability. This refers to the ability to manage the digital library in much the same ways as an institutional library. For instance, things like management roles, budgeting, managing subscriptions, curating content, database maintenance (including hardware and software development, and webmastering), providing proper oversight in terms of rules and regulations for users, etc. These are all things that a digital library “staff” will have to address.

Rubin goes from the early online digital collection of images or images of artifacts to the born digital resources of today. This vague idea plays out across the field of emerging LIS. I am not quite sure why Rubin talks about early online collections of photos as a precursor to his discussion of digital libraries. I think we can easily distinguish between mere collections of something, like photos for example, and a “library of photos.” Rubin himself said that there were no standards in these early collections for searching and retrieving. There was a lot of entropy involved instead. A library collection, on the other hand, is a collection that is ordered, described, and made easily accessible when searched.

I think Rubin was closer to hitting the mark for a concise definition of digital libraries in his previous chapter; Chapter 3 on libraries as institutions. At the end of that chapter, Rubin talked about embedded librarians. Indeed, I am wondering if a digital library can even be considered a “library” unless it has an embedded library staff available during operational hours. I know we have been seeing a trend toward self-sufficiency when it comes to users and library services, but if there is not an embedded librarian present in a digital library to assist users, we are looking at more of a third-party service rather than an institutional model. At which point, even referring to a digital library as a library is questionable in my opinion.

It is difficult to determine what Rubin thinks of these transformations, and in particular, of digital libraries. He writes in such a straightforward style that the facts are presented to us with little opinion or bias. A good thing. However, this chapter ends with more questions than solutions, and the lining feels quite cautionary. Indeed, it seems that the concern with digital libraries revolves around the fear of data volatility and the ever-changing nature of digital technology. Are digital libraries a viable model for the long-term preservation of a collection? Will they last hundreds (maybe thousands) of years like their traditional counterparts? Or will digital libraries not even make it halfway to the 22nd century? Digital obsolescence remains a frightful possibility, even after all the advancements in storage and computer back-up technology.

Becoming Librarian 2.0


Emil Cioran

In Becoming “Librarian 2.0”, Helen Partridge et al mention that an increasing number of positions in libraries are becoming more and more technologized. As technology is always changing, there is a professional call for librarians to be “nimble” and on their feet in regards to acquiring technological competencies. In other words, to be a 21st century librarian, one must be willing and ready to adapt to change. This requirement forces the LIS professional into a very self-reflexive mode. In past ages, jobs would require a circumscribed set of skills, or a finite amount of knowledge for workforce readiness. But Librarianship is a field in flux, and LIS professionals are constantly reevaluating what they know, and if that knowledge is still relevant. Almost on a daily basis. With the fast pace of technology, it seems that what the LIS professional knows is never good enough, and that a constant reinvention of their professional identity is imperative for success. Indeed, we must be in a state of becoming, willing to trade our old competencies for new ones. In a way, this is very disruptive to the development of a secure sense of self. I am reminded of a quote from the pessimistic philosopher Emil Cioran: “Man starts over again everyday, in spite of all he knows, against all he knows” (A Short History of Decay). Still, this requirement to change is not all bad. For example, technology has reduced the barriers to service that existed between librarians and users. A “social web” has now emerged which facilitates a more participatory culture (Partridge et al, 316).

The Librarian’s 2.0 Manifesto:

One of the wonderful things about this field is that you do not have to be an IT expert to be a successful Web 2.0 librarian, or a “Librarian 2.0” as Partridge et al term it. Indeed, Laura Cohen’s 2006 Manifesto attested to this fact. In her manifesto, there is an emphasis on meeting users and bringing library services to them in new, networked spaces. But there is no need to be a technological guru, as adopters of the Manifesto have focused “more on interpersonal skills and less on technological competencies” (Partridge, 317). At most, the Librarian 2.0 must be able to manipulate and use new media platforms like blogs and social media sites. There are no professional requirements to know how to code or troubleshoot technical problems related to computers, unless these are simple connectivity issues with clientele. Indeed, the technology competencies for librarians only call for “the ability to engage with and use technology to meet client and community needs” (Partridge et al, 318). This is not a very tall order.

Partridge et al attempt to define Librarian 2.0 on their own terms, identifying the skills, knowledge, and personal attributes required. Their focus groups arrived at some thematic conclusions that echo the original Manifesto by Cohen, and the subsequent literature on Library 2.0. The main conclusion from Partridge et al was that, while a fundamental understanding of popular technology is required to be a Librarian 2.0, IT skills are not. Following this consensus, the LIS professional should be expected to stay abreast of Tech trends. Of course, this does not require a computer information degree. It simply requires a readiness to learn.

As for the rest of the requirements, they are pretty boilerplate, I think. The other Librarian 2.0 competencies mentioned by Partridge et al are independent of knowing how to operate technology. These are the liberally-applied skills of Research, Communication, Teamwork, User-Focus, and Business savvy, combined with the right Personal Traits for Librarianship. These last requirements are not reliant on any technological acumen, but are traditional Library school skills which can later be applied to the technological environment. Indeed, the authors even note that their respondents agreed that most of the competencies required to be a successful Librarian 2.0 were not in any way new competencies, or based on greater knowledge of Information Technology. But I disagree with the authors assumption that the Librarian 2.0 is a “guru of the information age,” only because I think the term “guru” connotes a deeper understanding of computer technology. Still, the takeaway is that becoming Librarian 2.0 has “less to do with technology and more about quality transferable skills and interpersonal abilities” (Partridge et al, 332).

Finally, another thing that struck me was that participants in the Partridge et al study noted that the LIS profession was organic, and not artificial or robotic in any automated or “do it yourself” sense. I think this fits well with my interpretation of Frank Webster’s technology argument, of which my opinion was that an information-driven society is more dependent on organic networks (constituents of people) and less on the technology itself.

Frank Webster, Information, and Meaning

In his densely critical piece, Information Society, the British sociologist Frank Webster raises objection after objection to the postulation that we are living in an information society or an Information Age. An “age” – or one might say an “epoch” – is a period in historical time that highlights the defining characteristics of a society. Society, in turn, is a social dynamic or an amalgam made up of the combined work efforts, as well as the cultural and artistic achievements of a given population, whether that population be global or domestic. For instance, we speak of the Industrial Age, when mechanization flourished, aided by technological innovations like the steam engine or the cotton gin. Another age that is often highly touted is the Space Age of the 50s, even though that Age arguably precipitated the Cold War. Indeed, ages are unarguably created by paradigm shifts that dramatically change the context and existential means of a society. So what about the Information Age? Has information changed our society? Without question it has. But I don’t think the explosion of information has necessarily changed our society for the better.

Webster writes that “when we delve a little, it becomes apparent that the concept is actually vague and imprecise, even of dubious value” (Webster 2605). A key criteria that Webster goes by is that an Age should be a period during which a society advances. Human history has, of course, had decidedly bad ages – the Dark Ages? – but in considering the question regarding information, Webster would have us keep societal advancement in mind. He goes on to suggest that those who say we are in an Information Age are subscribed to a forward-thinking, progress oriented viewpoint. Webster admits that this viewpoint seems intuitive and almost unmistakable when thinking about the advancements in Information Technology. But he cautions that information and computer technology may not be advancing society on a scale analogous to the Industrial Revolution. In fact, he argues that social commentators who champion the Information Age have made rather apocryphal statements and predictions about the future (past predictions concerning the present and our current future), claiming that we have reached a fever pitch in technological innovation and that we are also reaching a moment in time which other prognosticators refer to as Singularity.

But to call our age an Information Age is a bit of a misnomer, I think. In principle, I agree with Webster. New technologies are released almost every day, creating new abstractions and new ways of dividing our attention. Webster says, “…new technologies are announced and it is unproblematically presumed that this announcement in and of itself heralds the information society” (Webster, 2607). I also agree that technology is an asocial phenomenon; an outside influence (and a rather disruptive one at that). By definition, then, technology does not, ipso facto, define the social world. It is people that define our social world. My question is… could it be that a truly information-driven society is more dependent on its organic networks – its constituents of people – and less on the technology itself? I think so.

Although I am mainly responding to Webster’s technological argument, his other sections also informed my thoughts. I couldn’t decide whether to address Webster’s technology argument, or his cultural argument. In his cultural argument, Webster mentioned Jean Baudrillard and the “death of the sign.” I appreciate the discussion on signification and the collapse of meaning. I consider an information society to be a society that can distinguish between good (factual) and bad (falsified) information, using mature information literacy skills, critical thinking, and cognition. If these elements were at work presently in our society, I think we would be seeing far less fear, racism, and disrespect. What we have now, instead of an information-based or enlightened society, is more akin to collective hysteria… a highly reactive and accusatory society (or Age, but you can hardly say we’re advancing…), where everyone thinks they have a monopoly on the truth. I think the overabundance of information from media sources is a hindrance to deep information gathering and signification of meaning. Now, in the search for meaning, things become more meaning-less. That’s Baudrillard. That’s Derrida. And more familiarly to the library profession, that’s Information Overload. This is why I think Information Professionals are crucial to tempering the madness.

Crowdsourcing in the Cultural Heritage Domain

A paper of mine from 2012. Unfortunately, the final version with citations and references seems to have disappeared from my computer. A paper copy is also mysteriously absent… Still, one of my better papers on a nascent practice in the LIS field, and one that I would like preserved. Maybe I can crowdsource the citations back in!

Crowdsourcing in the Cultural Heritage Domain

In the humanities, the cultural heritage domain consists of a variety of cultural institutions and Web presences that protect and preserve the shared artefacts of human history. Almost everyone is familiar with these places to a lesser or greater extent. In the digital humanities lexicon, they have come to be referred to as GLAMS; an acronym standing for Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums. To be sure, these are some of our oldest and most valued institutions. They are also some of the hardest hit in our age of recession, where budgets are cut and programs deemed as marginal are eliminated. This forces GLAMS to use whatever tools are at their disposal to stay relevant and engaged with the public. Indeed, it is this very public that they depend on, and not just for their fiscal survival. GLAMS depend on generally large groups of people to confirm their mission – their raison d’être – that is, to impart culture, knowledge and memory to future generations.

The institutions that comprise GLAMS have been around for hundreds of years, but the older humanities disciplines are now being complemented by newer digital disciplines. Indeed, this interdisciplinary field is now shifting towards predominately computer-based realities. Of course, the humanities already has an intriguing history with the computer. Humanities computing as such began in 1949 with Father Roberto Busa, who with the help of Thomas J. Watson at IBM created an automated program to index 11 million words in Latin penned by Thomas Aquinas and others (citation). Busa set a precedent for humanities computing and there is now an award named after him given triennially by the Alliance of Digital Humanities Organisations (citation). Following Busa, the march of computer technology through the humanities led to a series of journals, symposia and academic computing centers. It culminated in the arrival of the Internet, but more specifically the World Wide Web. Over time, a broader base of academic interest was delivered via the computer, as scholarly material soon began to circulate over the Internet. This gave scholars in the humanities more options. For instance, they could better manage annotations with hypertext, conduct more efficient peer-review, and have a more expedient means to publication (citation).

There is really no solidity of definition when it comes to the term ‘digital humanities.’Broadly speaking, it is the intersection of computer technologies with traditional humanities disciplines. A variety of resources on the Web seek to explain the term, but each definition varies. One soon discovers that a definition of digital humanities is contingent on specific professions. For example, an archeologist will have a different approach to their field than a linguist and a linguist will have a different approach than a musician. Indeed, the humanities encompasses a wide range of professions that can be further subdivided into methodologies and typologies. It is the same in the digital humanities. Fred Gibbs, Associate Professor at George Mason University has analyzed what 170 participants working in some area of the digital humanities have said about DH. He found that participant’s answers could be lumped into nine different categories (citation). Of particular interest here are the categories he elucidated as “methods AND community” and “digitization / archives.” This can be seen in what the following respondent had to say about digital humanities:

“Creating, documenting, deploying and supporting software used in Humanities teaching and research; digitization, archiving and publication of Humanities texts through electronic means; using digital tools to generate and answer research questions related to Humanities texts; collaborating on Humanities projects through digital means; etc. etc… – Martin Holmes, University of Victoria” (citation).

Today, researchers in the humanities are increasingly producing online editions of texts and manuscripts. What’s more is that humanities-based research projects are going from a specialty area to a full-fledged community effort with the advent of crowdsourcing. Many crowdsourcing projects now abound in the digital humanities realm and GLAMS are beginning to explore the potential of this new phenomenon. Indeed, the more articulate and productive GLAMS are looking to distributed labor networks to keep the conversation going between the institution and the public. Crowdsourcing, however, is a term that developed peripherally, with no immediate relation to the digital humanities. Jeff Howe, a contributing editor for Wired magazine coined the term in 2006. Introducing the idea in his article, The Rise of Crowdsourcing, Howe says “Technological advances. . . are breaking down the cost barriers that once separated amateurs from professionals. . . The labor isn’t always free, but it costs a lot less than paying traditional employees. It’s not outsourcing; it’s crowdsourcing” (citation).

Howe was thinking mostly in terms of the business world, but he did open his article with an example from the humanities. Howe mentions Claudia Menashe, who was then-project director of the National Health Museum in Washington D.C. Looking to purchase some images related to the health care industry, she turned to iStockphoto, a “free image-sharing site. . . of amateur photographers – homemakers, students, engineers, dancers” (citation). Instead of paying a freelance photographer for her exhibition photos, Menashe looked to the crowd for a less expensive alternative and her discovery was not without affect. Now, a number of professionals in the cultural heritage domain are building on Howe’s idea. In crowdsourcing, they see the potential for a cost-effective strategy that will keep their institutions relevant in the digital age. Art and library directors, museum curators, archivists and historians of all stripes are beginning to see crowdsourcing as a way to work on projects which may have taken a backseat due to limited resources and skilled labor. Furthermore, these professionals see crowdsourcing as mutually beneficial. Theoretically, all individuals involved in crowdsourcing are in some way motivated to participate. According to interviews and surveys, some reasons to get involved in a crowdsourcing project as an amateur include, but are not limited to: the opportunity to develop one’s creative skills, build a portfolio for future employment, network with professionals, and contribute to a large project (citation). GLAMS recognize these incentives and are making their projects even more attractive by introducing them via social media.

Of course, there are different models of crowdsourcing and different organizations may rely on crowdsourced help for different reasons. As Howe predicted, the phenomenon is becoming a fairly standard component in the business world. For example, there are companies like InnoCentive, which allow the “worlds smartest people to compete to provide ideas and solutions to important business, social, policy, scientific, and technical challenges” (citation). There are countless examples like this that carry over into our media-saturated landscape. Businesses will rely on the crowd for information-gathering, scientific problems, market support, etc. Ideas are promulgated across Facebook, twitter and company-specific network platforms. However, crowdsourcing in the cultural heritage domain is a bit different from the business model. Instead, GLAMS will offer crowdsourcing platforms that resemble a model called ‘Distributed Human Intelligence Tasking.’ In this model, an organization tasks the crowd with analyzing large amounts of information. It is ideal for large-scale data analysis where human intelligence is more efficient or effective than computer analysis (citation). Therefore, the crowd that is sourced to participate is presented with a corpus of data that is already known. For example, GLAMS often have manuscripts and documents in their collections that they want transcribed.

One of the first to try crowdsourced transcription is University College London. Perhaps the most famous example of digital humanities crowdsourcing projects is their Transcribe Bentham Project. In the fall of 2010, University College London Centre for Digital Humanities invited anyone to help them transcribe some of the then-40,000 unpublished manuscripts of the British utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham. These manuscripts were scanned and put online at the University’s Transcribe Bentham website. In preparation for their contributions, “users are given a long list of guidelines instructing them on how to enter codes for deletions, additions, marginal notes, headings and other textual quirks (citation). The guidelines may be extensive, but they are far from draconian rules. Indeed, there are plenty of personal choices in the endeavor, as users are free to choose manuscripts of any subject Bentham addressed. This includes drunkenness, swearing, adultery and much more. Of course, many users will choose to work on documents that are easier to read, since Bentham’s handwriting apparently deteriorated in his later years. Four months after opening to the public, 350 registered users produced 435 transcripts (citation). The transcripts, in turn, were reviewed and corrected by editors before being set aside to be used for printed editions of the collected works of Bentham. Following the justifications mentioned earlier, the editors at UCL Centre for Digital Humanities see the potential in Transcribe Bentham to “cut years, even decades, from the transcription process” (citation).

Another major crowdsourced project is the Papers of the War Department, sponsored by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. Here, 55,000 documents were reconstructed and housed from the original federal War Office in Washington D.C. The early documentary records had been ravaged by fire on November 8, 1800, but scholars were able to track down copies of War Department material from individual recipients (citation). There were as of this past September, 760 volunteers working to transcribe War Office records (citation). The Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media have developed an open-source program called Scripto which allows administrators of universities, libraries, archives and museums to open up their collections to an institutional public. Scripto builds upon MediaWiki, the free software open-source package used for Transcribe Bentham (citation). The goal for the Papers of the War Department is to “use the best technology of the early twenty-first century to recover and make widely available the vital record of American history that was seemingly lost at the dawn of the nineteenth century” (citation). Transcribe Bentham and Papers of the War Department are perhaps the two biggest examples of crowdsourced transcription in the cultural heritage domain.

Of course, Transcribe Bentham and Papers of the War Department are just two examples in a larger scale of classification. Two authors from the Netherlands have done an empirical study of a substantial amount of projects initiated by relevant cultural heritage institutions. Johan Oomen and Lora Aroyo arrived at a list of six crowdsourcing initiatives that are offered by GLAMS to the public. These are Correction and Transcription Tasks, Contextualization, Complementing  Collection, Classification, Co-curation and Crowdfunding. We have already seen how Correction and Transcription Tasks work, but a brief summary of the following should further illustrate the nature of crowdsourcing in the cultural heritage domain. Contextualization is the activity of placing objects in a meaningful context. For example, the public may provide personal stories through a wiki-style web page to describe an object associated with public or family history. Complementing Collections is the joint task between an institution and the public to create collections that have been supplemented by crowd-contributions. Classification can be seen in the popular activity of social tagging – or creating taxonomies as finding-aids. Co-curation is when the institution draws on the inspiration or expertise of non-professional curators to create exhibits. Finally, Crowdfunding is the collective cooperation of people who pool their money and other resources together to support efforts initiated by an institution (citation).

Crowdsourcing advocates are excited over the potential to “improve access to material, build an engaged audience for collections and perhaps save money” (citation). This last reason makes crowdsourcing increasingly attractive because of the fiscal pressures facing GLAMS. However, there are those who deny the efficiency of crowdsourcing. Edward G. Lengel, editor in chief of the Papers of George Washington at the University of Virginia says of crowdsourcing, “[It is] an unproven concept” (citation). Commenting on Transcribe Bentham, Lengel goes on to state that “members of the public. . . are never going to be able to produce complete editions to the same level of accuracy that trained professions will. . .” (citation). This is because the public isn’t trained in documentary editing. Indeed, early analysis of data from the Transcribe Bentham project indicate that trained manuscript-readers would be able to operate at a pace two and a half times faster if they were devoted to transcription rather than moderating submissions (citation). Another detraction can be seen in a co-curated project: the Walters Art Museum “Public Property” exhibit. This past year, Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland sponsored an art exhibit in which “the show’s title, themes and artworks were chosen by more than 53,000 votes cast online and by museum visitors” (citation). Museum director Gary Vikan justifies the exhibit by using the engaged audience argument, but critics accuse Walters Art Museum for effectively dumbing down standards and forfeiting their traditional role of selecting and portraying culturally relevant and high-quality pieces of art. Never mind the fact that each piece selected for “Public Property” was already part of the Walters collection (citation). Some people are just resistant to change.

There are other crowdsourcing projects with similar goals. The National Archives has its Citizen Archivist Dashboard, where users can help tag images, transcribe manuscripts, edit articles as well as upload and share their own National Archives-related photos (citation). Another example is The George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film, which is undertaking a large online effort to “[tag] and [catalog] its archive of more than 400,000 images” (citation). There are of course many more, lesser-known projects that seek to engage the public in what we have seen to be a mutually-beneficial exercise. However, there may be risks to sponsoring institutions offering crowdsourced projects to the public. Indeed, members on crowdsourcing networks can potentially subvert and sabotage an institution’s goals. In crowdsourcing, GLAMS often have to specify the parameters of a project which may expose some of their proprietary computer data, making them vulnerable to hackers. Online community management and security are definitely important considerations for GLAMS heading into the future.

Overall, crowdsourcing in the cultural heritage domain is important because it encourages social memory and the production of an enlightened citizenry. Furthermore, crowdsourcing promotes the values of democracy through transparency and open participation. However, when we speak of democracy and democratizing the Web, we should be careful not to lavish crowdsourcing with too much praise. Since crowdsourcing occurs on the Internet, and since Internet access is lower among the economically disadvantaged and racial and ethnic minorities, we can’t really claim that crowdsourcing is altogether improving society – even in the area of the cultural heritage domain. After all, those who engage in crowdsourcing projects are likely people of comfortable socioeconomic standing who have access to higher education. Indeed, many probably get involved because of higher education. Therefore, although crowdsourcing is free, opportunities for everyone who wish to participate are still largely limited. Poverty and access to education are important issues, but another important issue may be closer to the heart of GLAMS. If GLAMS are to digitize their collections, it may lead to less patrons coming through their doors. Whether this is a legitimate concern or not, GLAMS are still in a unique position to try new things to stay relevant today.

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/>.