Foto: Polyann at Flickr
By T. Scott Plutchak
When I was the editor of the Journal of the Medical Library Association (2000-2005) I would spend my Saturday mornings sprawled on the living room couch going through stacks of manuscripts. I loved editing. I loved focusing on the words and I loved helping authors find the words to say what they really meant. And it was through that focus on words that I began to notice something that troubled me. So often the articles talked about the wonderful things that “the library” was doing, as if the building or the collection was animated on its own and the people involved were invisibly behind the scenes. I started advising authors that they should rewrite those sections, being more explicit about the contributions that librarians were making.
When I did my keynote presentation at the UKSG conference in 2007, and again last year when I gave the Janet Doe lecture at the annual meeting of the Medical Library Association, I used this idea as a jumping off point. I wanted to emphasize that I believe that the future for librarians can be quite bright, but that we have to focus on our own abilities and accomplishments as librarians rather than letting the discussion be dominated by concern for libraries.
My library, here in the American deep south, is a large, four-story building right in the center of campus. My university, the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), is one of the top research institutions in the United States, with a strong focus on the biomedical sciences. When I came to UAB in 1995, the most important people who walked through the doors were the clinicians and the basic science researchers. We tailored all of our services and procedures to make things as easy as possible for those people to do their work.
Now, those folks almost never come into the building. This is a good thing. I don’t want the clinicians to be spending their precious time leaving their clinics and walking over to my building when I can deliver resources and services to them right where they are.
These days, the most important people to come into the building are the students. They come singly, looking for quiet places to study, or they come in groups to collaborate on projects. So we’ve reshaped and refashioned how we use the physical space, to make it as efficient and comfortable and inviting for the students as we can.
Similarly, when I first came to UAB, all of the most important work of the librarians took place inside the building. Now, much of that important work takes place outside. We connect to our community with our website, with instant messaging, with Facebook, and with Twitter. More important though, than the virtual connections, are the in-person connections. It used to be that you could get to know the heaviest users of the library’s resources by sitting at the reference desk and talking to people as they came through. No longer! So librarians hold office hours in the buildings of the various schools we support (medicine, nursing, optometry, health professions, public health, dentistry, as well as the hospital and the clinics). They attend faculty meetings and participate in classroom sessions. They are members of research teams and they represent us on university committees and in the faculty senate.
Our library building is still very important, but it doesn’t define us in the way that it did during the great age of print. In this incunabula period of the digital age, we need to be newly creative about how we meet our responsibilities to our communities. If we focus our attention on our collections and on getting people into our buildings, we’re going to miss the point.
Several years ago, I wrote a blog post in which I tried to get at the essence of what we do as librarians. I said,
We connect people to knowledge. We bring people together with the intellectual content of the past and present so that new knowledge can be created. We provide the ways and means for people to find entertainment and solace and enlightenment and joy and delight in the intellectual, scientific and creative work of other people. This is what we have always been about. For all those centuries, the way that we could best do that was by creating places and collections — but along the way we lost sight of the fact that those were only tools. We allowed our tools to define us. 
Librarians worry about how to make the library more relevant. I’m not interested in that. I think “the library” is, in fact, less relevant than it used to be, and we need to accept that. Given the plethora of online information resources, the niche that the library used to fill has changed dramatically. But that wealth of information has also created new challenges for people that librarians are uniquely equipped to help solve.
I had a meeting with a department chair the other day. He said that one of the things that he feels an increasing need for is better training for his faculty on what resources are available and how to use them effectively. I hear this from all over campus. My problem is that I don’t have enough librarians. But when I have department chairs clamoring for more services, I have a better chance of making a compelling case to the Provost for more funding. I need more funding for collections, to be sure; but even more importantly I need more funding for librarians.
If it is true, as I said in the blog post that I quote above, that our fundamental purpose is to connect people to knowledge, then we need to rethink almost everything that we do on a day to day basis. In the print world that I grew up in, during what I think of as the Great Age of Libraries, the processes and procedures that we developed were all rooted in the notion that we were trying to track the movement of physical objects (books and journals, mostly) in and out of our buildings. But in the digital age, when information is not confined by physical objects, those processes and procedures are too often anachronistic and inadequate. We need to be bold in devising new ways to deal with the advantages and complexities of digital objects.
From time to time, as we ponder this changing future, someone brings up the question of what to call ourselves. If we’re no longer focused on building collections and taking care of our buildings, should we still be calling ourselves librarians? Doesn’t the word conjure up stereotypical images of unattractive spinsters telling people to keep quiet? I can assure you that the faculty in my university have no such image of their librarians. Language is a funny thing, and more malleable than we sometimes recognize. To make the point, I like to ask people if they’re carrying a miniature multi-purpose wireless computer with them. They’ll look puzzled for a minute and then they grin, still somewhat puzzled, and pull it out of a pocket. “And what do you call that,” I ask them. “That’s my ‘phone,” they’ll say. Yes, indeed. The little handheld mobile device that we still call a ‘phone, though it bears much less resemblance in engineering and purpose to the rotary dial telephone that was in my house when I was seven, than the brightest of my young reference librarians bears to one of her circa-1950s colleagues. “Librarian” may carry some connotations we’re not happy with, but it carries more that are positive and worth hanging on to.
There’s no clear road map for what we need to be doing. We need to experiment like crazy. We need to be willing to be almost recklessly creative, willing to try things out, evaluate them, and then abandon them if they don’t give us the results that we want. But we need to keep our focus on that critical element – how do we do the best job possible of connecting people to knowledge in a world that is flooded with information in digital forms. Libraries are indeed less relevant in this digital world. But the need for smart, creative, risk-taking, knowledgeable Librarians is greater than ever.
T. Scott Plutchak, Lister Hill Library of the Health Sciences, University of Alabama at Birmingham, Birmingham, AL, USA, Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
1. Plutchak, T Scott. What Do You Call ‘Success’? T. Scott. N.p., 5 Jan. 2007. Web. 7 May 2012.