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A Crisis of Our Own Making

Despite their best intentions, the prophets of the library-apocalypse are getting on my nerves.

Libraries are obsolete! The reference desk is dead! No one comes to our workshops! Our patrons don’t need us anymore! No one reads print! No one looks at our website! Libraries are just glorified computer labs! Google! Google! Google! Argh!

Did I forget anything?

The notion of librarianship in crisis is being drilled into our professional psyche at every turn, most notably in the latest ACRLog post and a forthcoming opinion piece in the Journal of Academic Librarianship, and yet, like a 10-year-old girl in line for a Justin Bieber concert, I refuse to be moved. I don’t doubt that there are some libraries stuck in the rut of out-dated practices, with staff still wondering what this new web 2.0 thing is all about. But I think that the VAST MAJORITY of libraries and librarians are forward-thinking, community-oriented, and working hard to remain engaged with patrons despite suffering budgets. Those that are signalling the down-ward trajectory of libraries are often citing practices that many libraries have recognized as inefficient and have either left behind or are actively working to replace with more productive practices (see the comment by Laura Saunders on the above mentioned ACRLog post).

Then there is the matter of the one-size-fits-all mentality that so many library futurists seem to suffer from. A library staff’s greatest strength is its ability to work itself into the fabric of its community, recognizing patron needs and developing practices to meet them. Just because a library isn’t using QR codes, circulating ebook readers, or cultivating an institutional repository doesn’t mean that it isn’t meeting the needs of its community. I love technology, and I am excited by new trends in librarianship, but part of being a good librarian is knowing the population you serve and finding ways to meet their needs. As a librarian at the University of Houston I was heavily invested in finding ways to virtually connect with students. It’s a large commuter campus with lots of working students who are frequently doing research at home and are in need of a virtual version of the personal research assistance other students normally receive on campus. The situation at St. Mary’s College of Maryland is quite different. Students at this small, rural, residential campus are in need of more face-time, and although a good web presence is important, so is my ability to be physically present and integrated into classroom instruction. Other libraries have entirely different situations to address. Library Journal had a great piece this summer about services to homeless patrons and outreach to families in shelters. Libraries like the San Jose Public Library are focusing on the community aspect of librarianship, offering the services of a social worker to patrons in need.

Most of what I read about current practices in libraries only solidifies my belief that libraries are working hard to be nimble, forward-thinking institutions that place their communities at the center of all of their practices. I don’t believe in the impending demise of libraries. I think we will continue to grow and adapt. Writing about the “crisis” in libraries tries to elicit change out of fear, rather than a desire to better serve our communities. By continuing to write our own obituaries, we are dissuading enthusiastic, forward-minded young scholars, technologists, and community leaders from entering the profession by painting ourselves as stuck in the past and obsolete. Given that “perception matters more than reality” according to Anderson’s opinion piece, we are also doing ourselves a dramatic disservice by continuing to highlight our inadequacies without counterbalancing these critiques with helpful, useful alternative service models and practices.

So stop it already.


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