What Have I Gotten Myself Into?

Academic libraries–you’ve got to love them. When I was an undergraduate, I spent a good amount of time at the university library, for a variety of reasons, most of them connected with classes I was taking. I remember picking up books and articles that were on reserve, using the computer terminals and the photocopiers, struggling with the microfilm and microfiche machines, checking out books for term papers, and simply hanging out. Of course, that was twenty years ago, lest I forget, and this week’s readings for my Academic Libraries class succeeded in dragging me across the two decades into the (seemingly) radically different world of today’s university libraries, one filled with much more anxiety about the future and the role of the library/librarian. Hence the title of this week’s post.

I’m glad that the first article I read was Michael K. Buckland’s “Foundations of Academic Librarianship” (1989), for Buckland foresees the imminent changes in libraries (materials in electronic form, and the many ramifications of that) and cautions against confusing the means (technology) with the ends (providing library services). I found Buckland’s clarion call to be a bright spot in the midst of the anxiety of some of the other readings. He reminds us that “[w]hat constitutes the goals of service–the ends–is unlikely to change much. Nevertheless, the ends may need to be reinterpreted, reaffirmed, and clearly distinguished from means” (395). I believe he’s encouraging the profession to keep its eye on the user, advice which I have heard echoed in other places, and in this way he’s urging a sense of continuity with the past, despite the fact that the technological means available now make the present seem radically different and the future uncertain.

One other concept that impressed me in Buckland’s article is his distinction between knowledge and information. While the profession is dependent on information (both in the sense of material that informs and the stages of becoming informed), it should also “maintain [its] underlying concern with the generation and acquisition of knowledge” (394). I don’t believe he is putting the two terms in opposition, but rather pointing out the library’s role in the dependent relationship between the two.

Crowley, in “Tacit Knowledge, Tacit Ignorance, and the Future of Academic Librarianship,” comments that librarians have been characterized as confusing information with knowledge. For instance, librarians seem to believe that access to more and more information is the mark of an excellent education. However, Crowley makes the point that faculty help students “transform information into knowledge and, in the process, to occasionally approach real wisdom” (575-6). I appreciate this corrective view; given the ready availability of information, the librarian’s goal should be to enable the student/user to judiciously cull out the best, that which will most contribute to the student’s edification and knowledge.

However, the ACRL, in Changing Roles of Academic and Research Libraries, complicates the matter by arguing that the very conception of knowledge has changed. Knowledge is no more the domain of the expert but has been opened to many voices (witness Wikipedia). Whereas the traditional function of a library was to uphold the ideal of a higher education–knowledge–the situation now sees the library getting lost in the shuffle as just another source of information.

One concept from the ACRL report that I struggled with was this: “Knowledge that if fluid and even imperfect today carries higher value than knowledge perceived as static and intact.” Something we had discussed in my other class (Medical Librarianship) gave me a window of understanding into this idea, and it was the concept of Beta. Almost gone are the days when software packages were rolled out every few years, in (supposedly) top-notch form. The reigning paradigm is for new software to become available online in a provisional form (Beta), such as Google’s new browser, Chrome. “Beta” surely indicates something “fluid” and “imperfect”–it’s still being tested–while something that is prepackaged is indeed much more fixed and inert. Granted, software is not knowledge, but that may be an illustrative example of a larger change occurring. ACRL’s claim about the nature of knowledge is provocative, but I would like to see more discussion of it before I buy it hook, line, and sinker.

In general, these articles made me contemplate the unspeakable: could we do away with academic libraries altogether, or just get by with a couple of librarians and some computers in a broom closet? When I consider the large libraries of my alma maters, with their massive columns and soaring ceilings, they seem, in my memory, indestructible. Eternal, even. Some have proposed and also critiqued the idea of the academic library being at the “heart” of the university in placement and function. I would suggest it comes closer to being the “soul.”

Buckland, Michael K. “Foundations of Academic Librarianship.” College & Research Libraries 50 (1999): 389-96.

Crowley, B. “Tacit Knowledge, Tacit Ignorance, and the Future of Academic Librarianship.” College & Research Libraries. 62(6): 565-84.

Published in: on September 12, 2008 at 2:37 pm  Comments (1)  

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  1. I too spent many hours (probably years if you toted it all up) in libraries as a child, but ironically this tapered off in graduate school, which might explain a lot about those grades!

    But in many ways the subjects I was studying and the materials I had to prepare weren’t very well suited to traditional research methods. There was this wacky new thing called the Internet and hordes of linguists–OK, at least a few hundred–were available for instant help and reference. No more chunky periodical indexes, no more fighting for a carrel by the window, and no more having to miss the last half of the football game to squeeze out a few more references. (OK, again, maybe that was just me.)

    A few years ago I started working near my local public library, which while not exactly academic in nature still conjured up a lot of the same feelings. I can’t explain it, but when I walked inside for the first time I pattered around in a weird, happy buzz for the better part of an hour. There was just something very right about the physicality of the place and the way I felt inside when I was there.

    While I do most of my research online, I probably visit a library three times a week, as much for the sense of peace and focus it brings as anything.

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