Posted by: bluesyemre | December 3, 2019

The 21st Century Library by #JamesBikales


Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons/chensiyuan

The musty scent of old paperback. The groan of a creaky, carpeted floor. The sight of endless shelves filled with unread volumes.

But when one steps through the marble columns into the Reading Room of Harvard’s flagship Widener Library today, they find a very different scene. Rows of tables host students consumed by laptops, not encyclopedias. Librarians clack across the oak floor to answer questions on how to access databases, not to retrieve documents. The traditional library experience now seems to be a thing of the past.

While the American foray into the digital age would lead many to classify libraries as obsolete, the continued — if not heightened — importance of the library’s core mission to provide knowledge, as well as new skills of librarians and changes to the design of libraries, make them relevant in our changed world. Their continued evolution will be essential to the future of scholarship and citizenship.

The enduring mission of the library

“The fundamental role of the library is not to provide books, it is to provide information. So that has not changed,” said Eileen Abels, dean of the Simmons School of Library and Information Science, in an interview with the HPR. “But I think the time has come for librarians to reach into new media.”

The central mission of a library has been and will remain to be to provide “unlimited access to high quality sources of information,” Suzanne Wones, director of library digital strategies and innovations at Harvard Library, told the HPR. Rather than through print books, Wones said, this is now mostly achieved through digital resources and tools.

“More and more resources are digital only — there’s no print counterpart,” Peter Suber, director of Harvard Library’s Office for Scholarly Communication, told the HPR. “When there are print and digital editions, more and more libraries will choose the digital edition, since more and more patrons expressed a preference for that.”

In addition to growing its digital-only collection, Harvard Library is undertaking a massive digitization project in all of its 79 libraries. In 2016 alone, it made more than 1.8 million artifacts available online.

While computerization means students have quick access to more information than ever, making sense of that information — including finding sources and verifying legitimacy — can be challenging. That is where librarians come in.

“Fifty years ago, the library was the only place people could get info. Now, people have information at their fingertips,” said Mark Herring, dean of library services at Winthrop University and author of Are Libraries Obsolete: An Argument for Relevance in the Digital Age, in an interview with the HPR. “But the glut of information doesn’t necessarily equal knowledge and wisdom.”

Herring noted that the rise of fake news makes the job of a librarian more important than ever. But today’s librarians need to be more proactive in their outreach, as students are more inclined to look up a fact online than to ask a librarian.

“With the rise of automation and other avenues of information competition, librarians need to be much more aggressive,” Herring said. “[They] need to get out of the library and go where students are, like classes, dorms, and the student center, to help them with their research.”

Suber, who also leads Harvard’s Open Access Project, predicted that in the future, “more libraries [will] provide open access to research for patrons outside the institutions.” Libraries that take this “inside-out” approach, rather than the traditional “outside-in,” are making the right evolution for the future, Suber argued. It allows libraries to stay relevant, even if fewer people step through their doors.

This trend of greater outreach is not limited to academic libraries. David Leonard, president of Boston Public Library, told the HPR that the role of a librarian has changed in the public library as well.

“In the past, we would wait for people to come to us. Today, we are more outgoing [and] put a premium on marketing and outreach,” he said.

Still, he echoed the other library leaders in noting that the fundamental mission has not changed. “Just because it’s not a physical row of books doesn’t mean we don’t have an important curatorial experience,” he said.

Librarians pick up skills

Today’s librarians are expected to be proficient in many areas unheard of just decades ago.

“Traditional reference services have changed greatly,” Leonard said. “Instead of helping someone find what they’re looking for in the encyclopedia, now it’s ‘let me teach you how to construct the right search for a search engine or database.’”

Wones explained that Harvard’s librarians are expected to be skilled in data management, data visualization, coding, and other digital skills. But she noted that “many classic skills have a heightened urgency today, such as information literacy and checking for veracity and bias.”

Abels, a leader in library education, admitted that the degree hasn’t adequately adapted to the digital age. “The world around is changing, but some of the courses [in library schools] are very similar to when I got my degree many years ago,” she said.

Abels and her Simmons colleague Laura Saunders conducted a study last year in which they asked over 1,100 librarians about the skills most important to their work. The results will inform future changes to Simmons’ library curriculum.

While digital skills such as database searching did rank highly on the list, it was mostly topped by “soft skills, which are not specific to the domain of library science,” Saunders told the HPR. The top skill was “warm interpersonal communication,” and other customer service skills were close behind, including “working with diverse communities.”

Though the digital skills did not top the list, she said “that could be a result of the fact that they are only emerging now, and may take some time to become essential.”

Wikipedia: The new library?

Many of today’s students turn first to Wikipedia — not the library — to begin their research.

However, this does not mean Wikipedia will make libraries obsolete, argued Jake Orlowitz, head of the Wikipedia Library, in an interview with the HPR. An arm of the Wikimedia Foundation, the Wikipedia Library works with university libraries to improve Wikipedia’s content and those libraries’ resources.

Orlowitz thinks of Wikipedia as just one part of a “circle” of resources that students utilize in their research. “When you need richer details, we want to facilitate you going beyond Wikipedia.”

Emphasizing Wikipedia’s growing citation features and commitment to “verifiability,” he said that  the organization “see[s] libraries as allies in the quest to provide the sum of human knowledge.”

Physical changes

Beyond evolution of the librarian’s role, the institution can attract patrons through changes to its physical space. “We all have images of a dusty, old space that our grandparents visited, [but] this is no longer the right experience for today’s generation,” said Leonard.

Boston Public Library recently completed a $78 million renovation of its Central Library with an eye toward creating “warm, welcoming, vibrant spaces,” he said. While 70 to 90 percent of the traditional library would be taken up by shelves, modern buildings also feature classrooms, study spaces, varieties of seating, and outlets to plug in.

Since its renovation, BPL’s Central Library has seen a 20 percent increase in visitors.

Harvard Library is making similar changes to its facilities. Many shelves in Cabot Science Library have been replaced by varied study spaces as journals have gone digital. A digital scholarship lab is planned for Sackler Library.

“We have aspirations to do similar things in other libraries,” Wones said. She envisions a “shared laboratory of the mind inside the library,” where students can overhear each other and bring their ideas together.

Intentional design choices set libraries apart from other potential study spaces, such as coffee shops or dorm rooms, Wones said. “The library is built for acquiring knowledge, so there’s a cognitive signal that if you’re in this space, that’s the kind of work that you’re doing,” she said.

Harvard’s libraries offer more equipment for check-out today than ever, including physics equipment, 3D printing pens, iPads, laptops, hard drives with government data, and even recreational equipment like Frisbees in the Law School library.

Harvard Library is also becoming more welcoming to the university’s diverse communities. In Widener, gallery space for art students has replaced portraits that Wones called a “homogenous group of white male leaders.”

Why libraries?

The question of whether libraries deserve further investment hangs in the mind of city and university officials alike. But library leaders say that the institutions are not only relevant, but also essential to the future of learning and democracy in the United States.

“Our society has perhaps never been as divided as it is now, and the library can bring people together to start a discourse,” Leonard said, citing Boston Public Library programs that encourage those “who have very different opinions” to “come together.”

“There are few other spaces in society where people of all walks of life rub shoulders together. Our guiding principle of ‘free to all’ is evident in the diversity of users who walk through our doors.”

Still, he noted, “We have to adapt to come up with new ways to share our value with today’s generation.”

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