We are All Librarians Now

The Digital Library

The key challenge facing professional librarians today — the reason people argue that librarianship as a profession is doomed — is that we are all librarians now. As soon as someone curates a playlist or puts a PDF into a folder, they have become an information steward.

This has always been true, in some sense. Paper recipe clippings on the kitchen counter, or tax records collected in the home office filing cabinet, are analogue examples of information management.

That said, we used to outsource the curation of scholarly work — the fruits of formal research — to professionals. Hence those stacks and stacks (and stacks) of books and bound journal volumes. Hence amazingly detailed card catalog records, which were eventually supplanted by powerful online public access catalogues (or OPACs).

For these particular documents of the human experience, there was a very clear and stable chain of connection: 1. author(s) write; 2. publishers publish; 3. librarians purchase published work and make it findable; 4. readers read.

Today this has all changed. The librarian often still acquires online materials, but this is invisible to end users (unlike those fully visible library stacks). And even when someone has access to online resources through their library, they often go to Sci-Hub to find this content instead. Meanwhile avant garde scholars are experimenting with “publication” of data sets and web visualizations, not content to rely on traditional publishing gatekeepers.

All of this leaves the academic library and librarian, as traditionally conceived, adrift. That stable chain of connection described above no longer holds.

And yet, people complain about drowning in a sea of PDFs (going to Sci-Hub is just the start of the research process, not the end) and getting buried in an avalanche of web links.

Sounds like an information management problem to me. Sounds like we need librarians more than ever, even if we will someday need far fewer physical academic libraries.

Let’s not conflate form (a building) with function (information management).